The graceful, fluid and beautifully structured Arsenal that is craved by English football are well-and-truly back – and they’re bigger, stronger and more forceful in front of goal.
A mesmerising performance from Cesc Fabregas was only half the story as Arsenal cruised past Portuguese side Braga in fine style, scoring six goals without reply in their first Champions League group stage match.
Fabregas scored two and was heavily involved in three more goals as Andrei Arshavin finished off a fine move, while Marouane Chamakh continued to impress in an Arsenal shirt as he scored his third goal for the club. Mexican Vela came off the bench to score two as Arsenal recorded a magnificent victory against a poor Braga side.
With Theo Walcott, Abou Diaby, Nicklas Bendtner and Aaron Ramsey all out through various injuries, the curse of last season, where Arsenal lost nine key players to injury at some stage in the season, seemed to be continuing. The game would have been perfect for Walcott as his pace would have torn Braga left-back Silvio to pieces.
Nevertheless, Arsenal were clearly set up to attack Braga, who were making their Champions League debut. Arsene Wenger chose to play Chamakh up front in what looked to be a lone-striker role. The Gunners, though, used the wings well, meaning that Nasri and Arshavin could push forward, while Jack Wilshere and Fabregas attacked through the middle at will.
Captain Fabregas nearly a won a penalty in the first minute, going down under the challenge of Pinheiro Moises, after a clever Chamakh run to the front post was wasted as Samir Nasri’s low cross went straight through the Moroccan strikers’ legs.
The formation was working beautifully for Wenger’s side, with Alex Song sitting back in midfield allowing Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna to run forward and help fuel free-flowing attacks.
The support to Chamakh was imperative during the match, and Braga’s defence was not able to cope with the runs and clever passes of the Arsenal team. After a simple ball through the Braga defence Chamakh stormed past Moises in the penalty area only to be met by Braga goalkeeper Felipe, one of six Brazilian players in the Braga starting line-up. Chamakh was brought down by the ‘keeper, giving Fabregas the relatively simple task of firing the penalty into the corner, just above the diving frame of Felipe. Arsenal were in command of the match within ten minutes, and they never looked like losing it from thereon in.
Braga were slow in closing down the Arsenal midfielders which meant that Fabregas and Wilshere often had plenty of room to manoeuvre, and it was the Englishman that had the next chance for Arsenal.
A clever chest-down from Nasri was controlled expertly by the eighteen-year-old and the midfielder, who went on loan to Bolton last season to gain some much-needed Premier League experience, volleyed a controlled shot straight at Felipe, who parried to safety. Braga, though, were under siege from the total football of North London.
A packed Emirates Stadium saw Arshavin double his side’s lead just before the half-hour mark, cleverly shooting near-post after Fabregas had jinked past the Braga defence and played a through ball to the Russian. Arshavin gave the ball away quite a few times in the first half, sometimes ruining what looked to be good moves for Arsenal. The former-Zenit St. Petersburg midfielder was substituted late on in the second half for Emmanuel Eboue, who made little impact.
The five-time Premier League champions, though, secured their advantage before half-time, this time through impressive striker Chamakh. The former-Bordeaux forward, who scored fifty-six goals in his time in France, slotted home after an ingenious flick from Wilshere on the edge of the box. Chamakh has now scored three goals in three home appearances for Arsenal; an impressive stat for a player who was not known for his goal-scoring potency in his 230 appearances for Bordeaux.
The French-born striker, though, has established himself as a strong, agile forward in Europe, and his performance against Braga did nothing to dent his fine reputation. His hold-up play and target-man-like stature allowed Arsenal’s attack-minded midfield to get at Braga at every moment.
Wilshere and Fabregas, particularly, took advantage of this. The half-time interval did little to help Braga, who found themselves four-nil down and out of the contest completely after the Spanish midfielder headed home his second of the match. The Arsenalistas, as Braga are commonly known, were again slow to close Arsenal down, giving Arshavin far too much time to pick out a cross from just inside the area. His deft cross found Fabregas in the middle and the maestro was never going to miss a free-header from that sort of range.
Arsenal were controlling the game in apparent ease and so could have been forgiven for taking their foot off the gas, especially with a tough Premier League game away at Sunderland this weekend.
They didn’t, however, and, four minutes after scoring his second, Fabregas very nearly secured his hat-trick. A shot from inside the area was deflected, but not saved, by Felipe, and was still heading towards goal. If it wasn’t for a Moises clearance, Fabregas would have had a well-deserved three goals.
Chamakh was brought off for Vela after the hour mark which meant that Arsenal had to change their shape somewhat and, with Denilson also coming on for Song, they took a few minutes to adjust. It wasn’t long, however, before Vela got in on the goal-scoring action.
The young forward, who hasn’t quite made himself a regular in the Arsenal first-team since joining a few seasons ago, latched on to a deft through ball from Arshavin. The assist was to be the Russian’s final action of the evening, but Arsenal were certainly not done.
With just over five minutes to go Wilshere played a delightful, and rather uncharacteristic, ball over the top of the Braga defence. Fabregas brought the ball down brilliantly on the edge of the area, giving the former-Barcelona youth player the chance to score his third of the night. The midfielder, who struggles to get into his national side’s first eleven with the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta in his way, played a selfless ball to Vela, who was in a better position, and the Mexican duly finished off, completing the rout.
A win against a poor Braga side should not be cause for huge amounts of optimism, but does show that Arsenal can play sizzling football. Braga were very poor at the back and offered little going forward, with the front-three of Alan, Matheus and Paulo Cesar struggling to get a real foot-hold in the game. Arsenal, on the other hand, were solid at the back, with Laurent Koscielny and Sébastien Squillaci both impressing on their European debuts for the Gunners, and strong going forward. Fabregas was immense but the game was certainly not controlled by one player; the creativity of Wilshere was exciting to see as he slotted into the well-oiled Arsenal midfield with great ease, while Nasri and Arshavin were constant threats when aiding the notable Chamakh.
Could Wenger’s faith in his youngsters finally be paying off as they look a much better side, both in the Premier League and now in Europe?