You may log on to the blog this morning feeling a little strange. Do not be alarmed: that feeling is satisfaction, and it’s happening to you because Arsenal played well last night.
Don’t be alarmed. Don’t assume the site has been hacked. Don’t rub your eyes in an attempt to assert whether or not you are still dreaming. Arsenal played well, scored, and won. Of course, it’s not a night that was without negative elements. But for a couple of paragraphs or so, let’s indulge ourselves.
Our dominance was down to two things – an intelligent selection and formation on Arsene’s part, and Roma’s brittle confidence. The Italians have lost on every previous visit to this country, and have shown a tendency to collapse under pressure – witness their 7-1 defeat at Old Trafford last year. If our finishing had been a little better, we could have hit something approaching that scoreline last night…
The team were set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Denilson and Diaby holding, Eboue on the right and Nicklas Bendtner in an unfamiliar role on the left, with Samir Nasri floating centrally behind Robin van Persie. It was a creative and effective response to the obvious lack of creativity in the middle of the park we displayed on Saturday. Bendtner and Eboue worked hard, though lacked a little in guile, and Nasri and Van Persie were a constant nuisance to Roma’s backline. Diaby, meanwhile, looked like he was playing a different sport to the one Song usually seems to be playing – he was efficient, powerful, quick, and dangerous. Alongside him, Denilson was free to stick to the basics – get it and give. He got it and he gave it and then he went and got it again. Playing a more creative player like Nasri ahead of him frees Denilson to perform the ‘water-carrier’ role he is patently suited to.
Roma couldn’t cope with our passing and movement, and on top of that their big players really didn’t perform at all. Julio Baptista displayed the cumbersome form he showed for much of his time at Arsenal, whilst Francesco Totti played as he has done every single time I’ve seen him play – terribly. This is apparently one of the world’s great players, but I feel like I have some kind of jinx over him whereby I will only ever see him play poorly. The same could be said of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Inter Milan striker. Maybe it’s something to do with Italian football. Or being massively overrated. It’s one of the two.
I suppose the most disappointing thing about the game is that we failed to score from open play. However, we did at least create chances, with Nicklas Bendtner particularly guilty of spurning them. In the second half, he managed to lift a shot over the crossbar from a maximum of eight yards. Kaba Diawara would have admired the ineptitude.
Emmanuel Eboue was also sent clear on goal, and was offered redemption on a plate. Needless to say, he missed. When we did score, it was a penalty by Robin van Persie that was equally definite in its award and execution.
Other down-sides were needless bookings for Nasri and Toure (the latter for joining Gallas in being late for the start of the second-half), and a customary niggle for Diaby. But it’s really not worth dwelling on those. For me, last night’s result and what it does for our chances or progressing to the next round or otherwise are less important than the quality of performance we produced. The players were “up for it”. I can’t remember the last time I came away from a game with that impression.
What we need to do now is take that into the game against Fulham. Every Premier League game is vital now. Last night’s entertaining spectacle was a microcosm of the glamour and excitement that the Champions League brings. I would be sad to lose that, but far sadder about the other footballing consequences of failing to qualify.
For today, at least, I’m proud of the players. It’s nice to feel that again. Till tomorrow.