Podolski can be a matchwinner (just not this time)
Lukas Podolski was sacrificed against Chelsea after Kieran Gibbs was sent off in the 24th minute on Saturday. The Gunners went on to lose 6-0. Arsene Wenger showed the German little mercy on Tuesday night by dropping him to the bench in favour of Mathieu Flamini, but in his hour of need, the Arsenal manager turned to Podolski - and it almost paid off.
With his team a goal behind and looking toothless in attack, the Frenchman replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with the former Bayern Munich forward in the 57th minute. Within 17 minutes of his arrival he’d swung the game in Arsenal’s favour, converting a cross from Gibbs, before producing a wonderfully measured ball for Olivier Giroud to turn into the net.
All three points looked to be in the bag, before a disastrous 90th-minute own goal from Flamini levelled the scores. Giroud may have scored, but that papered over the cracks of a poor performance. He looked like a player chasing his form with mistimed overhead kicks, poor control and petulant arm waving at the referee. The striker only completed 11 of his 17 attempted passes in the attacking third, lost the ball on 5 of the 6 occasions he tried to dribble past an opponent, and won just 1 aerial duel in the opposition penalty area.
Podolski might not have the physical presence of his French team-mate, but he has the quality to make the difference at decisive moments in the game.
Arsenal must use Gibbs as an outlet
Too often Arsenal focus their attacks down the right wing, when they should be looking to make the most of the pace and guile of Gibbs down the left. Bacary Sagna is a fantastic outlet, but he’s a little more cautious than his younger team-mate.
The Englishman shows more of a desire to get to the byline and pull the ball back for onrushing attackers – as he did for Podolski’s equalising goal.
Although the statistical differences are marginal, Gibbs did attempt more forward passes (22) than Sagna (20) and put more crosses into the box (7 to Sagna’s 5), even though the Frenchman had more of the ball in the attacking third. The Gunners’ left-back was also superb defensively, winning all 5 of his tackles and making 4 interceptions.
Gunners struggle without Koscielny
Given the opposition, there were few concerns Arsenal would miss Koscielny against Swansea, especially with Belgium international Thomas Vermaelen ready to deputise. But the French defender’s absence at the heart of their defence was sorely felt. His mobility, sharpness and reading of the game would have come in handy for both Swansea goals.
The two inches and natural spring he has over Vermaelen might have been enough to stop Wilfried Bony nodding in the opening goal. Although it would be harsh to solely blame Belgian defender for the goal – Arsenal failed to press the crosser Neil Taylor, enabling him to pick out the Ivorian with a pinpoint cross.
Rather than be proactive, the Gunners were reactive in the dying moments of the game, as 5ft 6in Leon Britton bundled his way through the flat-flooted Arsenal defence, shrugging aside would-be tacklers. Per Mertesacker slid in, turning the ball onto Wojciech Szczesny, who in turn diverted it onto the foot of Flaimini. The Frenchman’s natural stride sent the ball rolling into the back of his own net.
Between them Mertesacker and Vermaelen competed in 11 aerial duels – they only won 4, with the 6ft 7in German winning just 1 of his 4 contests. Bony had to fight for scraps most of the night, but of the 13 headers he went up for, he beat a red shirt 7 times.
Rock-solid Williams makes the difference
While Mertesacker and Vermaelen looked shaky at one end, Ashley Williams was a tower of defiance at the other. The Wales international was the game’s most successful tackler – winning all 6 of his challenges. He made 3 interceptions and 20 clearances – 8 more than his nearest rival and defensive partner, Chico.
He was out-jumped in 6 of his 10 aerial duels, but his contribution over the 90 minutes was brilliant.
Williams even managed to finish the game as the Swans’ third-best passer, completing 38 of his 48 attempted exchanges. As a defender he won’t receive the adulation of a goalscorer, but make no mistake, he was Swansea’s star man.
Wayne Routledge: Defensive winger
Wayne Routledge isn’t known for his defensive qualities, but it was his discipline and tenacity in winning the second ball that helped nullify Arsenal’s speedy right wing. Whenever the home side had possession, Routledge dropped in, policing the area in front of left-back Taylor.
By sticking to his job he helped extinguish the threat of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who Wenger eventually withdrew in the 57th minute. The England international misplaced 8 of his 19 passes in the attacking third. The attack-minded Routledge made 11 ball recoveries, 3 interceptions and 2 tackles across the 90 minutes – making him one of Swansea’s most effective defensive players.