Tactics Talk: Were Reading not aware that Santi Cazorla is rather good?

Jonny Boyle

Arsenal visited the Madejski Stadium to face Reading on the back of a surprise penalty shoot-out defeat to Bradford last week. Arsene Wenger’s team had just two wins in their last six while their opponents looked drastically worse as they sat bottom of the Premier League without a win in six. Brian McDermott’s team conceded seven to the Arsenal just under two months ago, but would they learn their lesson or were Arsenal ready to return to their rampant ways?

line up 3 208x300 Tactics Talk: Were Reading not aware that Santi Cazorla is rather good?

How the teams lined up (click to enlarge)


Surprisingly, McDermott opted for a 4-4-2 despite the obvious quality of Arsenal. Adam Federici, Shaun Cummings, Adrian Mariappa, Kaspars Gorkss and Nicky Shorey started in a back five which has never played together this season. Jay Tabb and Mikele Leigertwood continued in the centre of midfield with Jimmy Kebe, making his first appearance in over a month, and Jobi McAnuff on the wings. Noel Hunt joined Pavel Pogrebnyak up-front.

Arsenal retained their now traditional 4-1-2-3 formation with attack stamped all over their side. Wojciech Szczesny began in goal with Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Thomas Vermaelen and Kieran Gibbs making up the defence. Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere joined Santi Cazorla in a midfield which has 10 goals and six assists between them this term. Olivier Giroud dropped out the team to make way for the fit Theo Walcott who led the line with Lukasz Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in support.

First Half McDermott mistake plays right in to Arsenal hands

Early signs suggested Walcott would play through the middle at the head of the front three. Walcott has made known his preference to play as the main striker and Wenger’s decision to grant him that may have been aided by the pacey forward’s hat-trick display at the Madejski in October.

A key area of the park in Reading’s last home match, against Manchester United, was on the left hand-side where Cummings played at right-back with Hal Robson-Kanu in front of him. Ashley Young and Patrice Evra had a field day as they were repeatedly given space to combine and make dangerous crosses in to the box. Did Reading learn their lesson?

All three of Arsenal’s first-half goals came from crosses on the left-hand side. First, Gibbs was allowed to cross too easily and Podolski finished, then Podolski was given the space to run at Cummings and his delivery was nodded in by Cazorla. The third, just before half-time, was the worst as Walcott and Gibbs put balls in to the box before the latter set up Cazorla.

It was bold of McDermott to start with a 4-4-2. He had done the same against Man Utd and would have hoped that defensively Hunt could drop in to make a five-man midfield and occupy Arteta’s space between defence and attack. Arsenal’s defeat to Bradford showed the fragility of Mertesacker and Vermaelen in the air against a little and large pairing and McDermott may have looked to capitalise on that too. That was his plan, but it never materialised.

On countless occasions, Tabb and Leigertwood dropped deep to close off space in their defensive third, leaving Arteta to dictate play. The Spaniard made 90 per cent of his 51 passes in the first-half and Noel Hunt must feel partly to blame for that.

The Reading approach, although admirable, was the wrong one in the first-half and Arsenal capitalised. The home-side are in the doldrums of the Premier League and while Arsenal may not be in the best of form, they will hurt teams when they’re given so much space in midfield.

Santi Cazorla 3 300x225 Tactics Talk: Were Reading not aware that Santi Cazorla is rather good?Second Half Does the Reading midfield know Cazorla is quite good?

Noticing his error of judgement, McDermott dropped Hunt back in to left midfield and pushed McAnuff in one to restore parity in midfield. A problem which dogged Reading’s first-half was their inability to pick up Wilshere, Cazorla and the incoming wide men and that continued despite the extra man.

Wilshere found space behind Leigertwood and Tabb to thread a ball past the narrow Cummings and in to Podolski. His cut-back found the unsurprisingly free Cazorla to complete his hat-trick and it appeared to be game, set and match.

Credit to McDermott, he brought off the ineffectual pairing of Pogrebnyak and Hunt and it was his two subs which changed the game. Robson-Kanu looked incisive on the left and Adam Le Fondre showed his ability to finish when Tabb pounced on a Gibbs error to make it 4-1. Kebe’s final contribution to the match was to make it 4-2 as Podolski tracked his runner too deep and kept the winger onside when everyone else thought he was off.

The game undoubtedly swayed in Reading’s favour for a short spell after the change in shape, but McDermott must be disappointed that he never altered things earlier in the game.

Where the rest of his team teetered on the thought of capitulating, Cazorla made the game safe when he found space again between the midfield and defence to set up Walcott for the fifth and final goal.

The Reading midfield’s neglect of their defensive responsibilities must be focused on. Tabb, Leigertwood and McAnuff played the majority of last season as they won 20 of their last 28 on the way to promotion; do they realise they’re playing against better teams now?

Conclusion – Rampant Arsenal make most of wrong Reading system

Post-game, Wilshere suggested that there were signs of the old Arsenal and, although that may be a little premature, you can understand his statement.

They may not have the defensive solidity of Jens Lehmann, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure and Lauren in their prime, but they do have a brand of attacking football which even the great Thierry Henry would want to be a part of.

If Arsene Wenger can shore up his defence and consistently get the best from Wilshere, Arteta and the genius of Cazorla then the new Arsenal could make everyone forget about the old one.

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