AS Monaco – Arsenal Match Preview
2nd Leg–Champions League Round of 16
To Dream the Impossible Dream or Tilting at Windmills? Sancho Panza says, “Let’s Just Play Our Game, OK, Don Quixote…”
Belief (confidence) is a lovely thing, but sometimes it needs to be pushed aside and a game of football must simply be played. As much as Arsenal are attempting to pump themselves up for an unprecedented come from behind 2nd leg against AS Monaco–where we will need no less than 3 goals in their stadium–it may be better to just play football and see what happens.
If only we had done that in the first leg...
So many Gooners, I believe, went into our round of 16 match-up with Monaco believing that the draw would give us a respite from those early eliminations we’ve experienced in recent years. More than anything, I think, fans (and players perhaps) just wanted a reprieve from what I call Arsenal’s Champions League Conundrum–the fact that qualifying for a tournament we are (probably) not good enough to win is our primary objective each and every season. Perhaps, having drawn one of the easier group winners, we might beat them and then ease ourselves into the eliminations. A couple of more good draws, a bit of confidence and, who knows, anything can happen in tournament football. It was a hopeful thought, at least.
Hope is not a plan, they say, and what did happen in the first leg happened at our expense. Perhaps overly determined to give the home fans the experience they were seeking, Arsenal pushed too many men forward, found their own attacking spaces clogged, yet still made chances. Those, however, were rushed and missed, mostly by our very in-form, center forward, Olivier Giroud.
Monaco slowly worked themselves into the game and found possession and space in our midfield. A speculative effort from 35 yards by Geoffrey Kondogbia found our Captain, Per Mertesacker, unable to completely block nor completely remove himself from deflecting and the net bulged past our wrong footed keeper David Ospina. The stadium was rocked–but not in a good way. We played out the half but still could find no real pattern to our attack. Monaco happily allowed us possession but still there was no space in the final third. We can sort it at the break, thought the manager and players, perhaps.
Committed ideas about how to do so, however, may have been drowned out by the disappointment of the home crowd and their deep-seated desire for a better result.
In the 2nd half the pattern continued and, again, with too many men pushed forward, we were punished, this time by the vampire of White Hart Lane, Dimitar Berbatov. In retrospect, we were perhaps architects of our own downfall. After all, a scoreline of nil-1 would have made tomorrow’s match far more manageable.
Even 2-nil would have been a better scoreline than what we face. Still, it is not the job of the home support to realize that their role would end only at half-time of the 180 minute tie. They wanted Arsenal to get some goals back and our tactics and substitutions suggested manager Arsene Wenger wanted the same. It took even more spurned chances and all the way into injury time before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, in for holding midfielder, Francis Coquelin, got Arsenal on the board. Nice. 1-2, and a hint of momentum to end the first leg. Close up shop and get some goals at their place. Instead, with hardly any time left, we wanted to reward the faithful who had stayed. It was, maybe, a psychological trap and we fell right in. In a blurred moment, our lads only saw positive outcomes and negatives were ignored. Credit, however, must be given to the veteran Joao Moutinho and the young Monaco substitutes, Bernardo and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, who executed the counter-attack to perfection. A stronger hand from Ospina might’ve spared blushes. Instead we face a 3 goal mountain to climb.
But face it (and climb it) we must. Play our game, keep moving in attack and use the technical abilties of our best players to try and get some goals. In my opinion, there can be only one game plan and that is it. We can give a goal and extend the match by half an hour, so, strangely enough, this one is not, necessarily, a defend-first sort of affair. It’s a daunting task, no doubt, but clearly not beyond the realm of the possible.
It should be recalled, however, that Monaco are the stingiest of teams. Since the beginning of December, in Ligue 1, they have conceded no more than 1 goal in any match, having done so only twice, keeping clean sheets in all the rest. Before that, they qualified as winners of their CL group conceding only once. Perhaps our best bet is that they’re so unfamiliar with allowing goals, that their confidence might be dented if they had to pick a ball out of their net. Do it twice and it’s a double dent.
Now, I fear, the dream is on… Back to hard, cold reality.
For a change, reality at Arsenal isn’t all that bad. It’s even possible we’ve turned a corner by coming back from that disappointing night with victories in the Premier League over Everton, QPR and West Ham, and with our FA Cup victory over Manchester United in their stadium. In that stretch, using a group of 21 different players, the most important element has been a collective focus to get the job done. It hasn’t always been perfect nor pretty, but it has worked. Bring a similar focus, play our best group and don’t give up. What more can we try?
For this one I would go with the following players:
Subs: Szczesny, Chambers, Gibbs, Flamini, Welbeck, Walcott, Akpom
To me, those are our best players, although I can imagine that many would-be-managers will have strong contrary ideas. Theo Walcott’s pace might be the answer for some. (Personally, he seems the ideal sub, late on, if we can narrow the deficit.) Others might call for the tireless pressing of Danny Welbeck which worked a treat at Old Trafford and yielded the winning goal against his former club. The drive and experience of Tomas Rosicky would be another, but I wonder if he’s fully fit, given that he failed to make the bench vs West Ham just a couple of days ago. Others might stump for Kieran Gibbs at left back given his superior pace. (The lovely opening goal at ManU from Nacho Monreal, however, tips the balance towards the Spaniard, I think.) A wilder call would be to restore Wojchiek Szczesny to keeper given that our need for goals will surely find us exposed once or twice and he’s modelled his “sweeper-keeper” game on Mertesacker’s international team mate, Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer.
No matter who plays, Arsenal will need to keep the pitch spaced and somehow find a way to open up the well disciplined opponent. Some longer attempts early on might be needed to suggest that Monaco cannot simply funnel our play towards a clogged middle. Our preferred style of 1-2s near the top of the box , or less charitably, our penchant for wanting to “walk-it-in,” has to be alternated with pot shots from distance or selective use of a bit of wide play aimed at the towering hair of Olivier Giroud. Monaco were very successful in the first leg playing a flat back four which worked to eliminate our wider options and encourage our over-eager attackers (including our fullbacks) towards the penalty box where central midfielders and defenders were waiting, leaving us overly exposed on the counter. Given no real call to score they could even throw more bodies into the defensive mix. There will be an urgency to get an early goal but we cannot get frustrated if the chances are difficult to come by. If there’s any call for belief, it would be in believing that they will come. When they do, taking those chances and getting on the scoreboard seems the more important bit.
I’m curious what others feel on this account. As much as I’d like to believe that belief itself is what might allow us this opportunity to make a bit of history and go deeper in the tournament, I’m also content to put all that aside and just try and play our football–the thing we will actually need to do as we continue in whatever competitions we’re in. Arsenal have strong players, and, if they play at their best, they can’t help but create a level of belief that even very fine teams can be broken down. Fans want success so much that failure, oftentimes at least, is associated with not wanting it sufficiently. The massive task we face, I think, is at least partially a result of too much desire in the first leg. Now, needing 3 goals against a team which rarely gives one, simply “wanting it” will not do the trick. Nope, in this case (and all others, in fact) we actually have to do it…
Go on then…