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Jack: Giroud, Arsenal excelling at the game within the game

Kristian Jack
11/24/2013 10:04:42 AM
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When referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot in the 85th minute to award a penalty, after Southampton defender Jose Fonte pulled Per Mertesacker's shirt in the box, Arsenal fans and players celebrated as if they'd already scored a goal.

It was not hard to understand why.

Arsenal have received a lot of praise this season, mainly around their attacking play, but it is how they have played when they have struggled in certain parts of a game that has helped them stay on top of the table.

It is rare that any team is at their best throughout the 90 minutes of a game. Arsenal are certainly not at that level. Yet, when opponents have had their turn to attack and threaten, through 12 games, a mature Arsenal have stood resilient, as a unit, in belief that they can get through a difficult patch and still win the game.

In most of Arsenal's games this season, the key time to analyze the Gunners has been in the first 30 minutes of the second half. Rarely are games decided in the first 45 minutes of a match and against Arsenal, inferior teams, after a rest and a talk with their manager, usually test them the most at the beginning of the second half. From some teams, the severe test lasts shorter than others, depending on Arsenal's response, but to learn a lot about Arsenal it is worth watching, very closely, their first 30 minutes of the second half.

On Saturday against Southampton the game inside the game (between the minutes of 45 and 75) ended 0-0 but it was not easy for Arsenal. Southampton changed their tactics, putting Danny Osvaldo on next to Rickie Lambert, Mikel Arteta, who had been excellent against a fast-paced, quick counter-attacking team, was forced to leave through injury while Santi Cazorla, a wonderfully skillful player going through a difficult patch, struggled again to put his mark on the game.

Arsene Wenger replaced him with Theo Walcott, who returned after a two month absence through injury, and having a player in an attacking area willing to wait to receive the ball (rather than coming to get it like many of Arsenal's playmakers) helped. Up a goal, from a goalkeeping error in the first half, Arsenal were on top but needed to be solid against a fearless Southampton team who looked very much capable of snatching an equalizer.

Last season teams such as Fulham, Newcastle and Aston Villa all proved to be exactly that at the Emirates, attacking with pace, scoring goals after half-time and causing their defenders many issues.

After a bizarre 7-3 match against Alan Pardew's men at the end of December, where Arsenal won the game inside the game (45-75 mins) 3-2, the Gunners ended 2012 in good spirits on a four game winning streak. However, by the middle of January, after losses to Manchester City and Chelsea, any hopes of winning the league were over.

A midweek game against West Ham followed and at half-time, with the score at 1-1, the atmosphere inside the Emirates was miserable. Four goals inside the opening 12 minutes of the second half changed that and saw the home team crush the Hammers 5-1.

Against Liverpool at home in the next match they trailed 1-0 at half-time, watched Liverpool go ahead 2-0 on the hour, before responding with two goals, between the 64th and 67th minute mark, to draw 2-2. Back-to-back home matches and back-to-back outstanding performances after half-time. Arsenal looked like a different team and it's a look they have maintained through this season.

In the 28 Premier League games since the loss to Chelsea in January, the Gunners have achieved 67pts, at an average of 2.39 points per game, good enough for a total of 90pts over 38 games, which will win you a Premier League title. They haven't played Chelsea or Manchester City during that stretch but against all the teams they have come across they have performed very well 'in the game within the game', scoring 25 goals in 28 games between minutes 45 and 75, while conceding just eight goals.

This season they have conceded just three goals during that key period and two of those have been penalties. They have not lost the 45-75 minute game since a 1-0 deficit to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season. Even outside of the Premier League, Arsenal's success in the Champions League has come down to goals scored in that crucial time, Theo Walcott's in Marseille and Aaron Ramsey's in Dortmund.

Arsenal's performance up to the 75th minute is not only crucial to their overall success but also sets them up mentally for whatever the final 15 minutes brings. By not losing the 45-75 minute match since the game against Villa, they have ensured that they are entering the final 15 minutes in a good position. Even at Manchester United, where they lost 1-0 to a Robin van Persie first half header, their play after half-time was excellent and meant they had a real chance at the end of the game to get something.

Each of Arsenal's last 12 Premier League wins, dating back to mid-April, has seen them in the lead for good by the 75th minute. The Gunners' play after half-time, even when teams look like a threat, is making it harder for opponents to get back into games when behind, something that is crucial if Arsenal want to maintain success this season.

That, however, didn't stop tension from entering the stadium on Saturday, after all a 1-0 scoreline is never one anyone can relax with. Then Fonte pulled the shirt, Mertesacker punched the air in delight, and the crowd erupted. While most people celebrated, one man calmly walked towards the ball and put it on the spot. For Olivier Giroud it was finally his time.

In a match against Fulham last season he had been terrific, scoring two goals, including a crucial 69th minute equalizer (note the time), and when Arsenal won a penalty in the final minute he had wanted a chance at a hat-trick.

"Some of the guys asked me why I didn't take the ball," he said afterwards, explaining: "Arsene Wenger has a list of penalty takers," he confirmed. Arteta was at the top of the list and missed that day, denying Arsenal two points.

With Arteta, and Mesut Ozil, off the field against the Saints, it was Giroud's chance and he smashed the ball past Artur Boruc to win the game and cap off a terrific individual display.

(photo: fourfourtwo.com - Click For Larger Image)

It was quite a week for the Frenchman. Having started France's first leg in Ukraine, he was dropped at home for the vital second leg but was on the field when his team celebrated a 3-0 win to qualify for the World Cup. He lost his grandfather two days before Saturday's match and went on to score a brace that he dedicated in his honour.

The goals got Giroud the headlines but once again his link up play with the creators behind him was sensational, as was his defensive work, where his desire to enjoy the physical game and win aerial battles was crucial. He will never be a player who will score goals like a Luis Suarez or van Persie, but at Arsenal, Giroud plays a key role at getting the best out of those around him, while still showing an ability to score goals regularly enough to stop any talk of Arsenal needing another striker.

During Arsenal's successful run, in the last 28 games, Giroud has a more than respectable 12 league goals, with seven of them putting Arsenal ahead in a game.

Much like his team, the timing of the goals have been crucial. Games last 90 minutes but Arsenal are finding ways to excel at the crucial times.




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