Arsenal lost a flying Dutchman this summer, but they also acquired a scintillating Spaniard. Santi Cazorla is such a good player that he shapes the entire team in his image. Yesterday, Arsenal produced a display of Iberian excellence, and Cazorla, as he has been since the moment he first pulled on an Arsenal shirt, was at the heart of everything.
For some years now, Arsenal have been compared with those Kings of tiki-taka, Barcelona. Looking at Arsene Wenger’s team selection yesterday, the comparison felt particularly apt. Wenger is a known admirer of the Catalan style of play aped by the Spanish national team, and is gradually implementing elements in his own side.
A few years back he adopted the iconic 4-3-3. Now he’s removed the burly, tough-tackling defensive midfielder, and replaced him with Mikel Arteta as a ‘pivote’ – a role based more on interceptions and ball-retention. Yesterday, he went a step further and introduced the nigh-mythical ‘false 9’.
Surprisingly, Gervinho was chosen for the role. After a trial in the position in a pre-season friendly against Man City, the Ivorian was selected of Olivier Giroud, with Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continuing on the flanks. In midfield, Cazorla and Arteta were supported by Francis Coquelin, whilst the back four remained unchanged. Wojciech Szczesny made his expected return in goal, with Vito Mannone dropping to the bench.
From the get-go it was clear Arsenal meant business. There was a speed and urgency about our passing that looked ominous, and the scoring was opened after just eleven minutes. Podolski turned away from three Southampton players in the centre of the field before playing in Kieran Gibbs. The defender’s shot appeared goalbound, but ended up going off Hooiveld for an own goal.
Having been instrumental in the creation of the first, Podolski took centre-stage for the second goal, bending a beautiful twenty-five yard free-kick in to the top corner. The German was quick to point out after the game that scoring from set-pieces is not something he does regularly, although on that piece of evidence you have to wonder why. The goal was the highlight of another impressive performance from a player who looks entirely at home in the Premier League.
Gervinho got in on the act next, collecting a clipped pass from Mikel Arteta and thundering his shot in at Kelvin Davies’ near post. It was an impressive finish – and one which made you think he should put his foot through the ball more often.
A fourth goal felt inevitable by this point, and it came from a familiar source. Gervinho played in Gibbs again, and this time his cross was deflected home by Clyne. 4-0 before half-time, and Arsenal were on easy street.
Perhaps too easy. In the dying moments of the first half, Wojciech Szczesny dropped a clanger (and a cross), allowing Fox to thump home a consolation and end our run of clean sheets. The Pole had one of his shakier games, and Vito Mannone was sent out to warm up twice during the ninety minutes. Whether or not there were doubts over Szczesny’s fitness, or whether the manager simply wished to remind him of the competition, we can’t be sure.
In the second half Southampton improved considerably. The introduction of Gaston Ramirez and the persistence of Jason Puncheon gave them considerably more attacking threat, whilst Ricky Lambert made a more conscious effort to get one-on-one with Kieran Gibbs rather than the imperious Per Mertesacker for his aerial duels.
In the end, however, Arsenal’s class told. Cazorla played in Ramsey did brilliantly to get beyond the defender and was unfortunate to hit the post. Fortunately, Gervinho was there to follow in and tap home. In that instance he was less a false nine and more a predatory poacher. In one game he’s reached half the number of goals he managed in 37 games last season.
I was delighted for Gervinho. I am often quick to criticise him – and his decision-making does often test one’s patience. Yesterday, however, he played his role to perfection. This map of the player’s average positions confirms he did play centrally, but he showed a willingness to swap with Podolski and Chamberlain when necessary. His movement was tireless, and one-on-one with his defender there are few better dribblers. He had an excellent pre-season and is showing signs of improving on last season’s showing. If he can add consistent end product there’s no doubting his potential.
In stoppage time came the final flourish. Cazorla again was at the centre of the move, slipping a pass in to the path of the cavalier charge of Thomas Vermaelen. When the Belgian’s effort was saved, sub Theo Walcott finished smartly with his left foot. Theo will have been eyeing Gervinho’s start in a central berth with considerable envy, but made the most of his substitute appearance with a few impressive runs as well as his goal.
It wasn’t quite a perfect day – a goal for Giroud in his 15-minute cameo and a clean sheet were the missing ingredients – but it wasn’t far off. It’s been some time since we thumped a side quite so comprehensively. In the past we’ve been accused of taking our foot off the gas against smaller teams – not so yesterday. We looked as if we had a point to prove, and I’d suggest we made it emphatically. Perhaps a contributing factor in the hunger we’re showing is that this is side is so new: from yesterday’s starting XI, only Thomas Vermaelen was an Arsenal regular prior to 2011/12. That’s an extraordinary turnaround, and the result is a group of players eager to prove themselves to the those in and outside the club. Another consequence of that lack of an established side is genuine competition for places.
One man guaranteed a start is Cazorla. It was telling that with Arsene giving rests to the likes of Podolski and Gervinho, the little man remained on the field. He makes us tick. And yesterday, he made us tiki-taka.