22 November 2006

Arsenal 3-1 Hamburg

Isn't it great when a loved one gives you a pleasant surprise?

Now, it's no surprise for Arsenal to win over Hamburg. They started the night at 0-0-4 in Group G and had nothing to play for. Which of course gave them every freedom to attack the game. And they did so, taking the early lead through a killer shot from Rafael van der Vaart at 4':

This was a plot that every Gunner will recognize from this season: lower-ranked team gets an early goal at the Grove. Arsenal fight hard, and work a goal to equalize, but are never able to take the lead. (See also: Boro, Everton, Newcastle.) It is always incredibly frustrating, not least because Arsenal has had dozens of chances in these games, with tons of pressure but not enough end product. This game was no exception, with Alexander Hleb hitting woodwork and Robin van Persie going just over the bar in the first half alone.

The Gunners got the requisite equalizer soon after the half, on a fine goal from van Persie. But the goal was created by the excellent pass from Cesc Fabregas. Watch how Cesc never looks at van Persie before putting the ball right at his feet. Simply magic.

So, 1-1 with 38 minutes to play. But Arsenal fans have seen this before, and we're not fooled by extended possession or near misses. We know that 1-1 is in the cards. Even for an optimistic guy like me, the sour taste of disappointment began to take hold around 80'.

But fortunately, Emmanuel Eboue didn't read the script. At 83' he cut into the box and fired a low, hard shot that skipped past keeper Stefan Wachter. It was a tight angle and might easily have been saved. But note this: for once, the box is filled with Gunners attacking the goal. Cesc, Adebayor, Baptista, and Henry are all in quality attacking positions, and that's going to give the defense fits. And instead Eboue takes the shot. Hard. It was a high-quality goal despite Wachter's miss, and no less than Arsenal deserved (though perhaps more than we expected).

To their credit, Hamburg continued to fight for a goal, but that's bread and butter for the Gunners and led to their third. Theo Walcott continued his super-sub performance by hanging a pinpoint cross for Baptista to thunderously head home. It's a classic Premiership-style goal and hopefully a sign of things to come for both Walcott and the Beast.

And there you have it, 3-1 to the Arsenal. It's good to see them finally overcome the frustration they've faced with other disappointing results. Time and again they've threatened to score, only to see wasted chances and bad luck. What was different this time?

Tactics. Arsenal started once again in the 4-5-1 (really a 4-1-4-1) they've used so often this year, but at halftime they switched to 4-4-2. I'm not against using the 4-5-1 in many situations; it was the key to our run to the CL Finals last year and it's worked well at other times too. But it's been less effective against the more workmanlike formations of less polished teams. In those situations -- and particularly if it's clear that the opposition is looking to close shop and get behind the ball, such as when they score a goal -- we need that second striker in the attack.

Scrappiness. Look again at the Eboue goal and notice two things. First, Eboue is willing to take an imperfect shot. Wachter had a good chance to save it, and Eboue didn't try for either the far post or high at the near post. But he did put the ball on frame, with a hard shot. He got lucky... but he made that luck. Second, it's great to see the other attacking players in the box. Even if Wachter makes the save, there's a very good chance the ball would spill to another Gunner well positioned to hammer it home.

In normal Arsenal play, I would expect to see several of those players dropping back or making horizontal runs to open themselves for passes. That kind of unselfish play can result in the kinds of beautiful Arsenal attacks that we love to see. But sometimes you just need pressure.

Egalitarianism. Thierry Henry is perhaps the best pure player in soccer right now, and one of the all-time greats. He can do amazing, wonderful things, and at times can carry the Gunners on his back. But. If Arsenal rely on him to score their goals, they won't win many games. He can do a lot, but if he's the only significant scoring threat, the defense can adjust to (usually) stop him. So we need other players to pick up the slack.

And we saw this last night. Look at the Baptista goal. Henry is making a great run down the throat of the defense. And they're forced to react -- after all, it's Thierry effin' Henry coming at them! He's been in that situation before, and it's his genius that he can sometimes work himself open even with two defenders shadowing him. So he was still looking hopefully for the pass from Walcott. But Theo had a better idea, spotting Baptista's unmarked run.

Think about it -- who's going to criticize a kid like Theo if he passes to Henry? It takes a lot of confidence in yourself and your teammates to overlook him for another option. It's a combination of things: other players having the aggressiveness to seek out chances, the confidence to take them, and the willingness to look at all the options. When guys like van Persie and Eboue and Baptista are scoring goals, that will just open things up for Henry. And that's when Arsenal will be at their best.

So the Gunners surprised us all and pulled out the victory. They're now well-positioned in Group G, needing just one point to advance when they visit Porto next week. (They can even advance with a loss, if Hamburg win or draw over CSKA Moscow... but nobody wants to rely on that scenario.) Yesterday's win was crucial for that, but more importantly, it was an important victory for the mental health of the Gunners -- and their fans.

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