Arsenal beat Montpellier 2-1 at the Stade de la Mosson in their Champions League Matchday 1 encounter. Arsenal's two goals came in the space of two minutes, the 16th and the 18th, after conceding a penalty in the ninth minute.
With their manager, Arsene Wenger, in the stands serving the first of three bans, Arsenal needed to respond to the early setback. Urged on by assistant manager Steve Bould, deputizing for the banished Wenger, Arsenal did just that.
The penalty was an adversity of sorts, a question mark on the character of this team. How the team would respond would say a lot about it
Controlled First Half
The team rose to the occasion after succumbing to the early goal. On as big a stage as the Champions League, every team worth its mettle must do so.
Most agree that the call for the penalty awarded to Montpellier very early in this match (the 8th minute) was the right call, although one could argue that the challenge could have been overlooked, especially this early in the match.
Everyone appeared to be surprised by the call. Montpellier looked to be on their way to an upset after Younes Belhanda dispatched the penalty rather coolly (I must confess, though, that I'm getting tired of the recent rash of Penenkas).
Abou Diaby's early booking and Thomas Vermaelen's challenge that led to the penalty must be put down to early nerves.
After the Arsenal players settled down and began to play their game, one felt that they had a chance to turn the match around, and that they did in an emphatic manner, scoring the equalizing goal just seven minutes after going down to Belhanda's goal and the eventual winning goal just two minutes afterward.
Arsenal, by and large, controlled the first half and went into the break with a deserved lead.
The character of this team is still being determined. Getty Images.
To be true champions, a team must overcome adversity, be it having to play with 10 men for much a match due to a red card, or having to deal with injuries to the squad, or having to dig itself out of goal deficits in a match as happened to Arsenal in this match.
In their own match against Manchester City, Real Madrid did just that. If a team harbors the ambition of winning whatever competition it is involved in, it must turn negative situations to positives, otherwise it has no business entertaining the ambition of champions.
The worst could have happened to Arsenal here: lose to Montpellier, but what would be necessary in such an event is turning the situation around by grabbing the remainder of the available opportunity by the scruff of the neck.
In this match, Arsenal took care of business. It was the most convincing performance. Then again, not every one of a team's performances needs to be convincing.
Chelsea won the Champions League trophy last season by being, by and large, unconvincing, which is not to say they didn't deserve their triumph. On the contrary, their success only buttresses the point in hand.
Arsenal aren't in the so-called group of death, like Manchester City are, nor are they in the easiest of groups, like Manchester United are.
What matter in all of these situations is that each team finds a way to scale its hurdles—if in a difficult group, find a way; if in a group of equals, distinguish itself; if in an easy group, maximize its opportunity.
Anything other than this means a team has no business thinking it can win the Champions League.
Therefore, for both fans, players and coaches, we ought to put a check mark on adversity overcome; a difficult match negotiated.
We now must look ahead, not only toward the next match on Sunday against a very formidable opponent in Manchester City but toward the next match in the Champions League series as well.
New boys combined. Getty Images.
Combination of the Four
It is interesting and a thing of encouragement that Arsenal's first goal involved all four of the team's new players: Abou Diaby, Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski.
I call Diaby a new player because, by all intents and purposes, he is, having been out the team in the last two seasons with one injury or the other. As Wenger would say, Diaby's return to fitness is like a new signing.
The screenshot below shows the goal in the making.
It begins with Diaby, who having exchanged a triangle of passes between himself, Arteta and Podolski (who then runs forward), passes to Santi Cazorla, who in turn passes to Giroud, whose touch-off frees Podolski and puts him behind the Montpellier back line.
All Podolski needed to do was remain calm and score. He did both.
Afterward, Steve Bould refused to talk about Robin van Persie, choosing, instead, to focus on Podolski's ability as a striker.
He sounded very satisfied with what he has seen so far.
BBC Sport's report of the encounter is dismissive: "Arsenal opened their 15th successive Champions League campaign with an unconvincing victory as they came from behind to beat Montpellier."
This terse opening sets the tone for the rest of the article. The author of the article, Ben Smith, seems to take scant notice of Arsenal's controlled display in the first half that yielded two quick goals.
The team's efficiency at creating these goals and its character in shrugging off its early setback barely receives credit.
It is true that the team's second half display wasn't something to write home about, as they say, but to conclude that that equals an undeserved victory is to tell only half of the story.
It is a great deal of hard work to defend without the ball, which is what Arsenal did here, much like Chelsea did in the last three matches on their way to winning last season's trophy.
Chelsea were lucky in these three matches, just like Arsenal were in the second half here, especially on the occasion when Montpellier could have leveled up the affair. But to then conclude that neither of the teams deserved their success is to misunderstand the whole idea of a football match, which isn't just about attack and scoring, but about defending as well.
Sure, you want to attack and be aesthetically pleasing at it (and this is Arsenal's usual way), but there are times you must win by being raggedy, by pulling a Muhammed Ali over your opponent's George Foreman.
Therefore, rather than apologizing and feeling embarrassed about our deserved victory, Gooners should laud and celebrate it.
Doing it coolly. Getty Images.
Big Space in the Middle
When it comes to what went wrong for Arsenal in the second half, such that they remained under sustained pressure from the Montpellier, three factors must be noted.
First, Montpellier showed that they are a well-drilled side. As such, they knew where exactly to pass or launch the ball when they had it, or when they recovered it.
Second, Montpellier were prodigious in their work rate, beside their sustained ability to pass the ball quickly and accurately.
Hard work meant they pressed high, early and quickly. This prevented Arsenal from settling down and from getting their own passing rhythm going.
Their quick passing meant that they made it difficult for Arsenal to recover the ball, since their good use of space meant they had Arsenal's players chasing shadows for sustained periods.
Their early and quick pressing meant they forced Arsenal into errors, resulting in surrendered possession.
Third, that Santi Cazorla is being played closer to the main striker, in a quasi-supporting striking role means that a gap opens up in the middle for Arsenal, which must be bridged by the box-to-box, but normally dealt with by squeezing the area of skirmish.
That Diaby tended to play deep in the second half (in a bid to add another body in the defense) and that the Arsenal back line sat mostly deep, meant that the transitional space in the middle was huge.
This is the space Montpellier exploited with near devastating effect. Arsenal's caution—the fear of surrendering their lead—was the major cause of this problem.
As the team looks ahead to Sunday's Premier League match against Manchester City, this is a problem it must deal with.
For now, congratulation to the team for a mission accomplished in France.
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