Arsenal survived a late lapse to lift some of the malaise surrounding the club as they beat a poor Reading 5-2 at the Madejski Stadium.
For much of the encounter, Arsene Wenger surely could not have believed his luck at the ease at which Arsenal were allowed to rediscover their attacking rhythm. It was certainly much changed from their ignominious League Cup exit to Bradford just under a week ago.
Lukas Podolski set his side on the way to the three points early on followed by two goals from Santi Cazorla to emphasize the gulf between the sides in the opening period. The Spaniard completed his hat-trick after the break, but some nerves will have been set a fluttering as Adam Le Fondre and Jimmy Kebe made it 4-2. Any hopes of Reading emulating Arsenal’s comeback against them from four goals down back in October were ended as Walcott struck a fifth.
Early on there were signs that Reading could test Arsenal’s defense as Kebe somehow missed his kick with the goal at his mercy following Pavel Pogrebnyak’s cut back.
But it was the defending at the other end that was the bigger taking point. The simplicity of Arsenal’s opening goal after 14 minutes will have been a huge frustration to Reading manager Brian McDermott. Kieran Gibbs was given too much room down the left to cross the ball in and Podolski was allowed to latch onto it unchallenged at the near post and take a touch with his right foot before dispatching it low past Adam Federici with his left.
With the home side playing with a two man frontline, Arsenal’s midfield was allowed far too much space throughout the contest and Cazorla, in particular, reveled in the lack of closing down. His ball sent Walcott through with a great chance to make the most of a rare outing in his favored central striking role, but the sprightly England international could only shoot at the legs of Federici without a defender in sight.
When Reading did show some impetus going forward they found Arsenal’s defense looking far from secure either. Pogrebnyak’s low ball across the six yard box had to be turned away by Thomas Vermalenen with Noel Hunt ready to finish behind him.
But it was Arsenal that had the quality to take advantage of the continued shambolic nature of their opponent’s rearguard. The right side of Reading’s defense was again found wanting in the 32nd minute as Podolski progressed into a crossing position and produced a fine ball that was met by the stooping Cazorla to score a rare headed goal.
It was becoming a virtual training exercise for Arsenal to boost their morale as Reading inexplicably continued to stand off their opponents. It was no surprise when the score line ticked over to 3-0 just two minutes later. Challenges were again conspicuous by their absence as Walcott’s cross was headed back across goal by Gibbs and Cazorla was able to turn and fire home left footed. The Gunners surely couldn’t believe the ease of their evening.
The second-half began in a similar manner and Cazorla got his first hat-trick in England on the hour mark. A swift passing move from Arsenal again proved too much for a shell-shocked Reading side as Wilshere found Podolski and the German played creator once more with a low ball across goal that left Cazorla with the simplest of tasks to knock the ball home with his left foot.
It was looking like a case of how many Arsenal would get, but in the blink of an eye some slack play by the visitors presented Reading with hope of a most unlikely comeback.
Gibbs played a sloppy ball inside his own half to gift possession to Jay Tabb and as Wilshere slipped in front of him the midfielder threaded the ball through to Le Fondre, who took the ball calmly around Wojciech Szczesny and slotted home.
Five minutes later it was 4-2 as another McDermott substitute made an impact.
This time it was Hal Robson-Kanu, who did well to maintain possession on the edge of the box before playing it through to Jimmy Kebe. The midfielder, being played onside by Podolski, did well to finish past Szczesny.
There was to be no rousing finale, though. The Gunners were able to out end Reading’s dreams of a fight back as Walcott collected a typically superb pass from Cazorla and finished low with his left foot.