Reading vs. Arsenal: Making Sense of the Madejski Madness
Twelve hours on, and I'm still unable to come to terms with what transpired last night.
Yes, Arsenal won. Thank heavens. Yes, 12 goals were scored. Yes, we first got hammered. Then we drew level. Then we went ahead. Then they drew level. And finally we killed it off at the death. I get all of that.
But I still don't understand how we went from totally pathetic to inconsistently irresistible, how we managed to score four goals in all of the injury time there was, and how Reading went from cruise control to also-rans without ever really dropping their level of performance.
Oh yes, and how Marouane Chamakh scored twice from outside the area in extra-time.
I watched the post-match interviews, and I don't think either manager could explain what happened any better than I can—or can't. Arsene Wenger resorted to humor, while poor Brian McDermott was too shell-shocked to even begin to comprehend what had just happened.
In fact, my immediate regret after the game was that the manager on the receiving end of the result was a former Gunner. Imagine if it had been Sam Allardyce or Tony Pulis or Mark Hughes or Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho or Harry Redknapp. Oh, joy! (Did I leave anyone out?)
Anyway, now that the delirium brought about by that dramatic game is slowly beginning to subside, I shall try and take an objective look at what transpired.
While there are obvious positives to be derived from the manner and outcome of Arsenal's fight-back, there were a number of worrying incidents and trends that emerged. Let's get the bad news out of the way first.
What is the overriding message from the 7-5 victory at Reading?
What Didn't Work
The obvious answer is "the defense," but that would be too easy, too general a statement and probably somewhat misleading.
I will start by exonerating Damian Martinez. Yes, he had a bit of the Flappy-handski syndrome about him yesterday, and he was quite obviously responsible for Reading's third goal, but he is only 20 years old and this was his second first-team game and his first against top-flight opposition. He will probably—make that hopefully—never play as badly as this, and it is fortunate that the team did not lose as a result of his errant play.
I will also exonerate Johan Djourou. I know he has never been flavor-of-the-month with Gooners, but he's our fourth-choice centre-back, he is not a right-back—so forget what he did there last season—and it is never easy to gain any kind of sharpness and consistency if you play once a month.
However, I do have significant concerns regarding Laurent Koscielny. Of all the Arsenal players to take the field yesterday, he easily had the best recent pedigree. An almost ever-present last season, he was also our best defender. And with a fair few games this season for Arsenal and France, he cannot possibly complain of rustiness.
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His regularity at scoring own goals is quite alarming, and probably points to a technical, positional or judgmental deficiency. His propensity to be out-muscled is even more disconcerting, particularly in a league that abounds with brutish center-forwards and referees who allow brutish center-forwards to be brutish.
Jason Roberts bullied him from the word go last night, and one doesn't need to look back too far to recall what Fernando Torres did to him while scoring Chelsea's first goal at the Emirates a month ago.
Koscielny, unlike Djourou, is a genuine and regular first-team option, and if he doesn't turn his form around, he may run the risk of becoming the new Philippe Senderos.
I mentioned this in my previous article, and I'll say it again—Arsene Wenger must give Koscielny more game time and let him play himself into some form and rhythm. Thomas Vermaelen cannot be considered un-droppable just because he's captain.
Well Begun is Half Done
Arsenal have conceded the first goal of the game in seven of their previous 10 fixtures in all competitions. Yes, seven. Five of these openers have come in the first 21 minutes of their respective games. Yesterday, of course, we had leaked three goals by such time.
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And last night, more worryingly, a majority of the goals transpired due to Arsenal players simply handing easy possession over to our opponents. That's just not acceptable at this level. And will, as we have seen, be punished.
There is definitely something amiss in our players' physical and/or mental preparation that makes us so vulnerable during the opening exchanges. The popular—and simple—conclusion is that we turn up and just expect to win because we're the Arsenal. I cannot agree. It is not something that a manager of Arsene Wenger's pedigree would allow time after time.
What the answer is, I do not know. But I do know that if we keep handing the early initiative to our opponents, there will be winnable games—such as the recent Norwich fixture—and valuable points that we will keep frittering away. Not good enough if we intend to mount a title challenge.
Frimpong must be a fantastic guy to have around the club. Die-hard Arsenal loyalist, always up to tricks, honest and in-your-face.
However, with every passing season, every major injury and every new loan spell, his chances of having a long Arsenal career appear to be reducing steadily. He always appears busy, without being very effective, and the gulf in class between him and Francis Coquelin—till recently his "peer"—is clear to behold.
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Last night, Arsenal improved noticeably after Frimpong was substituted, and while many attribute this to the directness of Olivier Giroud, I believe that the young German, Thomas Eisfeld, Frimpong's direct replacement, made all the difference.
I hope I'm wrong, but with Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby and Francis Coquelin ahead of him, and a number of emerging youngsters snapping at his heels, I don't think Emmanuel Frimpong has what it takes to be an Arsenal regular in the years ahead.
It obviously isn't all doom and gloom, particularly 12 hours after turning a 0-4 deficit into a 7-5 victory, so let's take a look at the positives. And yes, there were plenty.
Credible Squad Depth
As everyone knows, Arsene Wenger rested all 11 starters from the QPR game last Saturday. Add to that, first-team players like Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs, Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who are all injured.
Carl Jenkinson, Theo Walcott and Laurent Koscielny are definitely in the frame, too, though the latter could do with some improvement in form. And based on yesterday's strong performances, Andrey Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh and Francis Coquelin have thrown their names into the hat as well.
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That's 22 players in all, with tremendous depth in every position. Most comforting indeed.
As the game rolled into extra-time yesterday, I began to worry about the Arsenal players' fitness. Most had barely played 90 minutes of first-team football all season, and a few looked like they might have run themselves into the ground.
However, I have to say that I was most impressed by how our intensity actually lifted in extra-time, with players like Coquelin, Walcott, Chamakh and—surprise, surprise—Arshavin upping the ante when it really mattered.
Kudos to the players themselves, as also to the fitness and coaching staff. Arsenal's 7-5 victory over Reading was as much an outcome of superior fitness as it was one of superior ability.
The Arsenal Spirit
It's one thing for us critics to sit back in our armchairs and say that since our players had dug the hole they found themselves in, they needed to find the means to get out of it.
It's quite another to actually do it.
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It couldn't have been easy being an Arsenal player at the Madejski Stadium last night. Down 0-4 in no time at all. No inspiration or leadership on the pitch. No major reinforcements off it. Restless away crowd, singing—quite rightly—"we want our Arsenal back."
At 89 minutes, it must have been even more difficult—a storming second half, but only one goal to show for it.
But they stuck at it. They tried and tried, gave everything they had and finally succeeded. Yes, they conceded five soft goals to a fairly average side, but right now, that matters not. How often do we say that ultimately "results matter"? Well, if we live by the sword, let's die by the sword, and give these players our kudos.
And what of the away fans? Words aren't enough to describe their commitment. So if there's anyone who was actually at the stadium and is reading this, I salute you and your loyal comrades. You made us proud.
Serge Gnabry has been grabbing all the headlines of late, but the young performer of the night was undoubtedly his countryman Thomas Eisfeld. Calm, composed, assured on the ball and direct, Eisfeld made a number of critics sit up and take notice.
Those who follow the reserve and youth teams will know that he gets his fair share of goals from midfield too. He didn't look at all fazed on the big stage in the face of massive adversity, and he's definitely someone I'm keeping an eye on this season.
And finally, a word on Martinez. He didn't cover himself in glory, but he didn't let that bother him too much. I can clearly remember Reading throwing in one last, desperate cross in the 120th minute, and Martinez, having made a meal of one or two earlier, came out confidently, rose highest and collected it cleanly.
It took courage to do that, and as I said, he will be a much better keeper for the experience of last night.
So onward and upward, to our 10th consecutive League Cup quarterfinal.
A real pity that Arsene Wenger doesn't give this tournament any importance...
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