Arsenal vs. Cardiff: A crucial win in the title race

   The Gunners ground out a 2-0 victory over Cardiff to stay top of the Premier League on Wednesday. It was an ugly win but a tremendous result since Arsenal was missing Ramsey, Giroud, Ozil and Gibbs through injury.

   Wenger made three changes from the team that edged Newcastle 1-0 on Sunday, with Podolski, Arteta and Monreal replacing Giroud, Rosicky and Gibbs in the starting lineup. Playing Podolski up front clearly showed the manager’s lack of faith in Bendtner. Last season, Podolski’s performances as a centerforward proved poor because he is weak in the air and can’t hold the ball up. The Germany international feels more comfortable on the wing or as a second striker.

   Wenger’s choice to play with two defensive midfielders was also an odd one. While the manager used Flamini, Wilshere and Rosicky against the Magpies at St. James’ Park, he switched to a more defensive midfield with Arteta, Flamini and Wilshere against a weak Cardiff side at the Emirates Stadium. I thought a lineup with Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla in midfield, Podolski and Walcott on the wings and Bendtner up front made more sense since the Bluebirds were clearly looking for a draw.

A quiet crowd

   Manchester City has a better home record than Arsenal. One explanation could be that the Citizens are more audacious by playing with two strikers whereas Wenger has scarcely departed from a 4-5-1 formation this season. Another explanation could be the insipid atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium. The Gunners needed some vocal support from the fans in the first half but the crowd remained incredibly quiet.

   Arsenal lacked a bit of patience in the opening minutes, sending long balls to Walcott instead of stretching the Cardiff defense with some clever passes. Obviously, the legs were tired as this was the team’s fourth match in 10 days. Despite the lack of movement up front, the Gunners found some space whenever they moved the ball to the wings. Flamini released Monreal down the left flank in the 17th minute, but Wilshere and Podolski failed to connect with the Spaniard’s low cross. Then Cazorla dribbled past McNaughton in the 31st to cut the ball back for Walcott, who fired wide from 15 yards.

   The Bluebirds were toothless when they had the ball. Their only chance came from a counterattack in the 28th. Mertesacker poorly timed an interception and slowed the play down by fouling Campbell. The Cardiff striker still managed to feed Mutch, who shot through Koscielny’s legs. Szczesny had no time to crouch, so he parried the low strike with his leg.

Wilshere’s reading of the game

   Arsenal dominated the first half but did not force Campbell into making a single save. Wilshere was arguably our best player on the pitch. His legs were fresh since he was suspended for the Chelsea and West Ham games. Capitalizing on a Cardiff turnover in the 13th, Wilshere sent a ball over the top for Walcott, whose sliding volley sailed wide. Then Wilshere set up Cazorla in the 18th for an off-target low drive. The England midfielder was tripped by Medel in the 25th but the referee did not award any penalty.

   At 22, Wilshere is really good at reading the game. The older he gets, and the more likely he’ll become like Barcelona’s Xavi, a midfielder setting the tempo and making quick tactical adjustments on the pitch. Wilshere played a one-two with Walcott in the 34th but had his goal attempt blocked by Caulker. He then squared the ball back for Podolski, who was a split second late to slide the ball home in the 59th. Wilshere showed his flawless technique by rolling away from McNaughton in the 64th to hit the post from a tight angle.

Cardiff’s weakness in the air

   In the second half, the Gunners punished Cardiff for its vulnerability in the air. It’s a weakness that can be easily spotted by scouts. That’s why I was surprised to see Podolski get the nod at centerforward. But Wenger also noticed the obvious and sent on Bendtner for Podolski in the 65th. Mertesacker had a free header from a Walcott cross in the 67th but somehow missed the target from eight yards. A minute later, the German defender was left unmarked at the far post and should have scored from a corner, but his header bounced off the post.

   The Bluebirds were under siege in the closing minutes. Bendtner had his first chance in the 83rd but his poor timing prevented him from meeting a Walcott cross. The Denmark striker was more clinical in the 88th, slamming a rebound into the roof of the net after Marshall had parried Sagna’s header from a Monreal cross. The bad news is that Bendtner also sprained his ankle while scoring.

Sagna’s offensive impact

   The Gunners were rewarded for taking risks. How often do you see both fullbacks in the final third? Very rarely because then the two centerbacks get exposed. Sagna also volleyed wide from a Monreal cross in the 50th and connected with a cross from Bendtner in the 82nd for a header that Caulker cleared off the line.

   In stoppage time, Wilshere played Walcott in and the England winger chipped Marshall to put the result beyond doubt. Walcott has improved his finishing but his decision-making can still be an issue. When Arteta released him down the right wing in the 25th, Walcott cut inside and awkwardly fired over the bar while he had Wilshere and Podolski both free to his left. Szczesny kept a second straight clean sheet by denying Caulker, who took advantage of some poor set-piece defending in the last minute of injury time.

Capitalizing on a soft schedule

   There was no room for error in the first of five matches against weak or average teams in the Premier League. It might be a blessing in disguise that Giroud, Ramsey, Ozil, Bendtner and Gibbs are injured while we’re having a soft schedule. With Manchester City hitting its stride, Arsenal will need to rack up the maximum number of points against Aston Villa, Fulham, Southampton and Crystal Palace before taking on Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich in February. If the Gunners are still in contention after facing Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City in March, then they would have a good chance to win the title with an easy run-in.


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