Saturday’s game against the Champions was a good opportunity to gage how much progress we had made since last season.
The verdict in a nutshell: our defence – including our sole DM – not solid and composed enough, our midfield now bursting with quality, and our attack/ability to create chances and score goals in the biggest games has also improved significantly.
Unlike last season’s visit by MC, when they were happy to play for a draw, this time round our opponents wanted the three points badly. The Chavs have started the season well as expected and the totally unpredicted loss against Stoke, have put a lot of pressure on the Champions to keep up. The same goes for Arsenal of course, who managed once again to qualify for the CL in August, but had dropped two valuable points in and against Leicester and found themselves four points adrift from the league leaders before this big game.
MC were missing Yaya Toure who was replaced by lost-looking Lampard, and Milner was put on the left to protect the vulnerable ex-Gunner Clichy, mainly by kicking the proverbial out of Debuchy. Fernandinho was also clearly instructed to put his boot in every time Jack or any of the other midfielders threatened to get past him – because that’s when Arsenal are at their most dangerous – and the awesome Silva, very effective Navas, and efficient Aguero were there to produce the attacking football.
Arsenal had opted to start Welbeck (with Sanogo not even on the bench: was he injured?), play four mainly attacking midfielders behind him, and protect the back-four with our best option as DM, the willing but wilting Flamini. It looked at times more like 3-1-5-1, as our ‘LB’ Nacho was almost constantly situated higher up the pitch, functioning as a fifth midfielder.
After a couple of minutes of MC pressure, Arsenal took over with our four midfielders (in our 4-1-4-1) formation dominating play. Jack led the charge with energetic and aggressive play both at the back and the front. Early on he produced a brilliant diagonal ball over the top of the MC defence and the alert Sanchez almost got there to head the ball past the quickly anticipating Hart. Welbeck is lively and constantly moving, never allowing the experienced MC back-four to settle. It is clear that he wants the ball in behind the defensive lines, but our midfielders expect him to play in front of the opposition’s defence ala OG, and a few balls go astray.
Then, unexpectedly, the stuff of dreams – or nightmares – happens. A nonchalant ball back from midfield to his defence by Silva, is quickly anticipated by Danny and he gets a free run at goal with just the keeper to beat. He produces a Bergkampesque lofted ball over the beaten Hart and everybody thinks it is going in, but it hits the woodwork and the keeper can collect. So close, and what a goal it would have been for the newly arrived attacker.
The near miss is a pivotal moment in the first half. MC wake up and appreciate their lucky escape and the crowd and Gunners experience the heavy realisation that this missed opportunity might cost us dearly in this game (similar to Ozil’s missed penalty against Bayern). Our inexperience of beating fellow top teams is still weighing heavily on us, and every time we miss a very good opportunity it sets us back, it seems.
Welbeck does not seem to be too much influenced by the miss though: he continues to be a nuisance to the MC defence and starts to play better when receiving the ball with his back towards goal. The first quarter of the game is for us: good dominance, one big chance, we are enjoying our football; but, it is fair to say, we do not come close enough to the MC goal to produce clear-cut chances.
Monreal offers great drive going forward and partners well with the industrious, and also defensively sound, Alexis. Every time we regain the ball in our own half we break well, with all midfielders playing their part, but especially Alexis and Jack the most driven and composed. MC’s pre-planned answer to this is to foul our midfielders as soon as they can: cynical but effective. Luckily the referee is handing out yellow cards for this and it only seems a matter of time before one of our breaks will lead to a good goal scoring opportunity.
Our style of play needs goals of course, as we are constantly taking risks with playing Nacho so high, leaving space behind him for the attacking three of MC to pounce on us. And that is, unsurprisingly, exactly how they scored their first goal. The ball breaks to midfield and Flamini’s tackle seems to be well-timed and effective, which it needed to be. But Navas, in a Marc Overmars reminiscent way, manages to collect the ball before it goes out, and runs like a hare towards goal. Nacho and Koz hesitate to make a tackle, allowing speedy G to put the ball into the box. Flamini and BFG seem still in control, but the Frenchman allows Aguero to run past him and score a simple goal. A very disappointing moment by all players involved, but especially Flamini who, with his experience and the role he is playing in, should have done a lot better. 4-1-4-1 without a proper, athletic beast of a DM, seems to ask for this sort of punishment…
Getting behind, combined with the strong sense of a missed opportunity earlier on, now make us weary, both on the pitch and in the ground. MC sense this and start playing the better football, disrupting our play with more and more ease. Ozil and Wilshere try to get it all going but we are not using the width with even Nacho not sticking to the by-line, and Debuchy being held back by Milner. It is all too intricate and easy for MC now, and Welbeck is not getting much involved at this stage. The consistent fouling aimed to disrupt constantly our flow of football continues, and we do not create anything worthy of mentioning anymore during the first half.
We start good: energetic and with purpose and bite. We get the ball into the box now but the well-drilled MC defence holds strong. Ozil gets more involved in the direction of our play but his passes (and shooting), especially over a longer distance, are not sharp enough to trouble the Oilers. The same goes for Sanchez’s final ball who does all the hard work to get near the box, but then just does not deliver the perfect through-ball.
After ten minutes the game seems to balance out, which is not good for us as we are behind. It needed a moment of inspiration, and it pleases me tremendously that it was Super Jackie Wilshere who delivered it: and in some style!
The ball was won in midfield and quick combination play between Jack, Alexis and Rambo, allowed the Welshman to perfectly guide the ball into Jack’s feet in the box. There was still a hell of a lot to do, but a quick shimmy got him past the opposing defender, and with his head held high, looking for the best option at a moment when the adrenaline is pumping like crazy, he is still able to adjust his feet to fool the MC players as if he is passing it with his left foot, to only use his right foot, daftly kicking it high and measured past the beaten Hart.
What a goal: it needed something special to crack the Oilers’ defence and Jack delivered it. Wilshere the new Fabregas? The new Pirlo? Or the new Bergkamp?! He has got it all! hahaha ;)
After three quarters of the game, soon after our equaliser, Dzeko – the ‘Giroud’ of MC – comes on for Aguero: a change which almost undid us towards the end of the game. But Arsenal now take proper control and Welbeck is everywhere again, after a quiet start in the second half. Fernandinho is lucky not to get a second yellow for bowling Welbeck over off the ball, when the Englishman is about to run into the box, or after petulantly kicking the ball away after another foul is committed on the fabulous Alexis.
Then the moment of total ecstasy arrives.
Arsenal apply pressure and a ball into the box is headed away by the fine warrior Kompany, despite being challenged by Welbeck who gives the colossus a friendly nudge in the process (; The ball ends up with Jack, just outside the ‘D’: he has the full play in front of him and instantly sees that Alexis is free. His cushioned header reaches the Chilean Master who volleys the ball high in the air and with deadly precision under the bar, past a fully beaten Hart. What a clinical, top quality finish! Alexis had been working so hard all over the pitch and he really deserved that goal. What a signing!
We had the Oilers rattled and had two choices: sit back and see out the game as best as we can, or attack for the third goal. Both are risky approaches and we all know what happened next.
We had one great opportunity to score the all important third goal – ‘two goal cushion goal’ – when good link up play by Welbeck, and fine combination play between Ozil and Jack let to the latter clipping a masterly ball over the now tired MC defence. Ramsey did well to anticipate it and beat the MC defence, but his finish lacked the control his fellow midfielders had been demonstrating earlier. Three moments of total quality were perhaps too much to ask.
MC were adamant that Jack handled the ball in the box before our attack, but if you look closely, you will see that Jack’s arm was tucked back by a MC player which then sprung it forward towards the ball. Never a handball. :)
Then came the near sucker punch. A simple corner, badly defended: a free header for Demichelis, followed by a ‘nearly safe’ by Szczesny, or even Flamini: 2-2. Our ecstasy levels dropped immediately and the emotional roller coaster was almost completed. Giving away the hard fought for lead so soon, just as we did against Leicester before the interlul, was a painful experience for all.
After that, we somehow held on for the draw as the Oilers smelled blood. The woodwork and an excellent low safe by Szczesny, both from goal efforts by Dzeko, saved us. At this stage our defence were pulled all over the place, as Citeh combined with menace and intent – attacking a lot better now that Dzeko had taken over the central attacking position from Aguero and Silva could move closer to our box.
A draw was a fair result in the end. Our midfielders and attackers worked hard to get us in front but our soft underbelly of a defence/DM unfortunately cost us once again. Debuchy’s horrible injury did not help, but I expected more organisation and leadership from our experienced CBs and DM in the latter stages.
There is little time to learn lessons from this truly fantastic, yet educational game, as Dortmund await tomorrow, which will be another top-level encounter for everyone involved.
But the two big positives are that Jack is starting the hit the form many of us knew he is capable of, and Alexis is the sort of all-round attacking player we have all been hoping for. On top of that, Welbeck had an encouraging start to his Arsenal career, and once Ozil and Rambo start to hit proper form we will do some serious damage to our opposition. Let’s hope this starts on Tuesday night.
Written by: TotalArsenal.