It was impossible not to remember the thrilling 7-5 that took place between these two sides in the Capital One Cup last month when Reading briefly mounted what would have been an extraordinary comeback, but Arsenal's quality held out in an another high-scoring 5-2 victory.
The game ebbed and flowed around the battle in midfield. Reading didn't try to dominate possession like their opponents, and their use of 4-4-2, with Pavel Pogrebnyak and Noel Hunt working in tandem up front, indicated as much. Instead, the majority of their passing focused on breaking quickly towards the channels and Pogrebnyak fashioned a fine chance for Jimmy Kebe early on after a mazy dribble down the right channel, the flank of which Reading targeted 42% of their passing towards.
Furthermore, Reading's use of two strikers meant they could pressure the centre-back duo of Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen and funnel Arsenal's build-up play towards the full-backs; meaning Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs were responsible for moving the ball towards midfield.
It was when Arsenal played past this press that Reading's ambitious strategy fell apart, and the use of Jay Tabb and Mikele Leigertwood as a midfield duo proved the game's decisive factor. The Gunners use of a 4-2-3-1 provided them with a numerical advantage in midfield and this was Reading's downfall: Arsenal thrived on the fact that their three in the centre could play around the hosts' two.
The combination of Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere, for all the creativity it promises, is yet to really click for Arsenal, but this contest provided a glimpse of what might be. The latter duo interchanged freely to find positions between the lines, while Arteta also found time on the ball in a more reserved midfield role -- he finished with 93 passes, the highest of any player.
Brian McDermott reacted by instructing Noel Hunt to drop onto Arteta, but the striker's tracking was sporadic, and it was the defensive midfielder who opened the floodgates after finding room to play a terrific cross-field pass for Gibbs, whose cross was brought down and then stabbed home by Lukas Podolski in the 14th minute.
This goal was also instructive in establishing one of the game's key patterns -- Arsenal creating a numerical overload in the centre, then quickly switching play to the left. It was significant that Arsenal's three goals in the first half stemmed from that flank, with Reading's right side pairing of Kebe and Sean Cummings struggling to withhold the pressure. Reading's focus on attacking down that side left it much more exposed than their left, and the visitors took full advantage.
The problem was also accentuated by Podolski's tendency to move narrow and provide room for Gibbs on the overlap, as occurred for the opener. Against better organised sides, Arsenal might have struggled with this narrowness, but Cazorla and Wilshere showed good fluidity and ensured that their passes in the attacking third covered the width of the pitch.
Theo Walcott's cameo at striker saw him focus on making diagonal runs inside the penalty area as well as dropping off the line to link up with his teammates, and with this vertical movement, it was important that Cazorla, Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain broke forward beyond the Englishman so that Arsenal always had a focal point to their attack -- Oxlade-Chamberlain's header near the end of the first half was a good example of this, as was Cazorla's penalty box double. He was the game's outstanding player, and combined with Wilshere's direct movement from midfield, Arsenal pressed their advantage until the break.
Despite being 3-0 down at half-time, McDermott didn't make any changes to his side, and Arsenal continued to find room in between the lines. Shortly after the break, this cost Reading yet again when Wilshere was given time to pick out Podolski, who cut it back for Cazorla to complete his hat trick.
Only then did the Royals manager react by replacing his front two with Adam Le Fondre and Hal Robson-Kanu. The latter went left, the former went up front and Jobi McAnuff shifted to the centre from the left flank as Reading switched to 4-5-1. Now Reading had more numbers in midfield and could compete in that zone, with Tabb and McAnuff taking turns to move forward and press Arteta, and Mikele Leigertwood taking on more responsibility for the tracking of Cazorla.
It was a combination of Gibbs' sloppy pass and a slip from Wilshere that directly lead to Reading's first goal, but it was also significant that Tabb was even in a position to provide the final ball for Le Fondre - before the switch, he would have been deeper, but now with the security of three midfielders, Reading could utilise his intensity higher up the pitch.
Reading's second goal followed quickly afterwards, and sensing his side's vulnerability, Wenger turned to his bench. The introduction of Aaron Ramsey for Oxlade-Chamberlain was a clever move as the Welshman became an additional midfielder on the right flank to ensure Arsenal could maintain their midfield superiority.
Then Cazorla found space away from Leigertwood to release Walcott inside the box, and with a smart finish, the game was well and truly over as a contest.