Arsenal picked up their first win of the Champions League group stage last night, meaning we were the only English side to win in Europe’s premier competition this week. We also now have more Champions League points than Manchester City and Manchester United combined.
Arsene gambled a little with his team selection, and got away with it. I support his decision, and would have done even if it had backfired. We have a huge squad now, as the fact that even with the amount of injuries we’re carrying we were able to rest players demonstrates. The XI he picked was plenty strong enough to win this game at home.
With that said, I think we all may have been guilty of underestimating Olympiacos a little. Granted, we don’t see much of them in England, but I thought they were great last night – all technically capable, and organised too. They were smart in their tactical play, looking to break against our attacking midfield, and closing down Mikel Arteta whenever he got the ball. Their goal was the result of some intelligent thinking: recognising that we’re adapting to a new zonal marking system, they threw a spanner in the works by taking short corners. Frankly, we looked as if he hadn’t covered that situation in training yet.
They looked the more dangerous side for long periods of the game, but fortunately we were already two goals ahead thanks to strikes from two recent signings. First, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued his impression adaptation to top-level football by dribbling inside from the right and firing left-footed across the goalkeeper to become the youngest ever English goalscorer in the Champions League. The second and third youngest, in case you’re wondering, are Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere.
Andre Santos’ goal also came off his wrong foot. He galloped forward to meet a Tomas Rosicky through-ball, but his cross for Chamakh was cut out. When the ball rebounded back to the cavalier left-back, he skipped in side his man and knocked a right-footed effort in at the keeper’s near post.
We did struggle to retain possession at times – Emmanuel Frimpong looking particularly raw in midfield – and Olympiacos gave us the fright of our lives by striking the crossbar from range in the second-half with an effort that probably deserved better – but we held out for the win.
There were plenty of positives for me, particularly with the makeshift centre-half pairing of Song and Mertesacker. Song was tenacious and calm on the ball, and the German had his best game in an Arsenal shirt. I’ve noticed an interesting trend in his play: unlike most Arsenal centre-halves, he doesn’t charge straight towards the ball. At times he backs away or runs in to an area which seems to make no sense – only to be perfectly positioned to clear when the cross comes in. He’s economical and efficient – at times last night he knew when his best option was just to boot the thing away.
I also felt Santos played well, and the battle between he and Kieran Gibbs looks set to run and run. Santos has a remarkable upright dribbling style – his touch is immaculate and last night he showed some steel to match the flair.
It’d be impossible not to mention Chamberlain. Although I felt he faded before being withdrawn on the hour mark, it’s clear we’ve got a huge talent here. The most obvious comparisons to make are with Theo Walcott – not just because of their Southampton heritage, but because they’re competing for the same spot in the team. Last night Pat Rice said:
“From Arsenal supporters’ point of view, they are going to be seeing a lot of this boy. Whenever he breaks in permanently he has a big, big challenge to now get in front of Theo. I know that Theo is a very strong-willed guy as well and he won’t give in easy. It all bodes well for England anyway.”
For England – and, more to the point, for Arsenal.
In summary: we won. United’s home draw with Basel shows how treacherous these games against ‘lesser’ opposition can be. The Greek league is significantly stronger than the Swiss, and we came out on top. I’m happy with that and you ought to be too.