Arsenal 2-0 Napoli Post Match Review

These are the moments when Arsenal’s supporters are probably entitled to dream a little. Nobody wants to get too carried away when the nights are still mild and the first leaves have only just started dropping from the trees but it is exhilarating to see them playing with the togetherness and slick, stylish passing that has been the signature of the great Arsène Wenger teams.

They finished this game with the crowd entertaining themselves with jubilant “olés”. Napoli had been outplayed and it is starting to feel faintly absurd that, barely a month ago, it was so tempting to think this might be the year Wenger lost his record of always reaching the knockout stages.

Instead, his team will go into their double-header against Borussia Dortmund enjoying the view from the top of Group F after winning their first two matches with something to spare. Arsenal have been re-invigorated and, while there always has to be caution, Mesut Özil’s arrival has plainly not just brought them a player of some distinction, but a collective lift for the team as a whole.

Özil scored the first, brilliantly, and then created the second for Olivier Giroud during a burst of dominance that left Napoli floundering inside the opening quarter of an hour. After that, it was probably just a surprise Wenger’s men did not add more goals. Two-nil is a fine result, but the difference was actually greater than the score suggests and Wenger needed to delve into his memory when he was asked if he could remember the last occasion they had produced such a brilliant 45 minutes. He mentioned the win against Barcelona in February 2011 and eventually settled on “the best for a long time”. The same could be said for the acoustics inside the Emirates. The place has not sounded so good for a fair while.

The crowd that has harangued Wenger, castigated various players and been caught up in so much of their own infighting is now watching in a place of contentment. Players who had previously lost their sureness of touch are bristling with confidence. Özil is at the hub of it but this was also another night to see the improvement in Aaron Ramsey and the transformation of Giroud.

With the ball, Arsenal’s football was slick, cultured and penetrative. Without it, they chased and harried to get it back and, in the process, they pressed their opponents into the kind of carelessness that must have startled their manager, Rafael Benítez.

The second goal was the perfect illustration, originating from a Napoli throw-in deep inside their own half. The left-back, Camilo Zúñiga, broke one of the first rules of football by choosing to take it horizontally from a defensive position rather than upfield. Miguel Britos, the most vulnerable member of Napoli’s defence, took a wild kick at the ball and Arsenal immediately won it back. Giroud’s touch sent Özil scurrying inside the penalty area and the Frenchman did not stop to admire his work. Sprinting to make up ground, bending his run and arriving with perfect timing, Giroud was on the edge of the six-yard box when Özil casually clipped the ball back into his path, and swept his shot past the exposed Pepe Reina.

Benítez must have been perplexed by his team’s defending because these were not isolated moments. On two more occasions before half-time Britos’s dishevelled passing inside his own half left Napoli susceptible again. Britos and Zúñiga – experienced defenders, 28 and 27 respectively – seemed to be trying to outdo one another in terms of their own wretchedness. Yet there is a reason why such an accomplished side were made to look so ordinary. “Outstanding,” was the word Wenger used to describe Arsenal’s performance. “The kind of football we want to see.”

They were ahead after eight minutes. Bacary Sagna floated a ball along the right wing, Giroud took it on his chest, controlled and then laid it into Ramsey’s path with the deftest of touches. That little flick off the outside of Giroud’s boot took out Britos and Zúñiga in one moment. Ramsey carried the ball forward then picked out Özil, running through the middle, and the German had the confidence to take the shot first time. It was a harder skill than he made it look, catching it perfectly and picking out the right-hand corner of Reina’s goal.

For Gonzalo Higuaín, missing through injury, these were moments when it might have crossed his mind that Arsenal, his other possible destination when he left Real Madrid in the summer, would not have been a bad place to end up. As well as Özil, Giroud and Ramsey, Arsenal had the supporting cast of Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini controlling less advanced positions. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny had little trouble handling Goran Pandev, whereas Marek Hamsik did little to show why he is so revered and Gokhan Inler struggled to exert any influence. Wenger described the second half as “a bit more handbrake-ish” but, even then, they still created the better opportunities and Reina had to make a point-blank save to keep out Koscielny.

All this with Jack Wilshere merely a substitute. Arsenal, once again, feels like a happy football club.

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