Advertisements

Arsenal do it the hard way to secure Champions League football

West Brom 2 Arsenal 3

Long 11, Dorrans 15; Benayoun 4, Santos 30, Koscielny 54

Throughout their history, Arsenal have had a habit of doing things the hard way. The 1979 FA Cup final, where they let a 2-0 lead slip in the final five minutes only to snatch victory back at the death. The 1989 league decider at Anfield, which culminated in Michael Thomas’ last-gasp title-winner. Even the final game of the 2003/04 Invincibles season, where they had to come from behind at home to Leicester on the final day. This afternoon’s game at the Hawthorns fell into the same category, as Arsenal contrived to take the lead and fall behind in the first 15 minutes, and needed two crucial interventions in the dying moments to preserve a 3-2 win which secured third place and guaranteed automatic entry into the Champions League group phase next season.
Read more of this post

Advertisements

Arsenal find their Ox in the box

Arsenal 2 Olympiacos 1

Oxlade-Chamberlain 8, Santos 20; Fuster 27

The record book will show that Arsenal beat Olympiacos 2-1 to become the only one of the Premier League’s four representatives to win on Champions League matchday two. It will not say that they were less than convincing in the first half and had the frame of the goal to thank in the second, but that really matters not one iota. A win is a win, and goals by new boys Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and André Santos consolidated their position ahead of the forthcoming double-header with group leaders Marseille, who ran out convincing 3-0 winners over Borussia Dortmund.

Injuries to Laurent Koscielny (ankle), Gervinho (knee) and Theo Walcott (hamstring) forced Arsène Wenger into making changes from the side that defeated Bolton 3-0 on Saturday, with Alex Song stepping back into central defence. With Sunday’s North London derby in mind perhaps, Arsène Wenger also opted to rest Robin van Persie, Aaron Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs as a much-changed Arsenal side lined up as follows:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Mertesacker – Song – Santos

 Frimpong – Arteta

Rosický

Oxlade-Chamberlain – Chamakh – Arshavin

A fast start, but with familiar defensive frailties

Two starts and two goals for Oxlade-Chamberlain (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

In an open first half, it took less than eight minutes for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to establish himself as a new crowd favourite. Alex Song lofted a ball forwards which the winger, drifting in off the touchline, collected and wriggled his way into the box. From 15 yards, his left-foot shot was too precise for goalkeeper Franco Costanzo, brushing the inside of the post and giving Arsenal the perfect start. At 18 years and 44 days, he became the youngest Englishman ever to score in the Champions League.

The Greek champions were not easily discouraged though, in particular finding space down the Arsenal left behind the positionally suspect André Santos. They came perilously close to equalising when Algerian forward Rafik Djebbour took advantage of lax marking from a corner. But his first shot was blocked on the line by a fully committed Mikel Arteta, and he then poked the rebound wide.

Santos is a typically Brazilian left back – a better attacker than defender – and he showed the more positive side of his game in doubling the home side’s advantage in the 20th minute. Captain for the night Tomáš Rosický sent him galloping into an inviting expanse of space down the left to square the ball for Marouane Chamakh. José Holebas got in an immediate block but the ball broke back to Santos, who coolly beat Costanzo at his near post.

Santos capped his Champions League debut with his first Arsenal goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Soon after Chamakh missed the chance to put the game to bed. His first touch, taking down Andrey Arshavin‘s defence-splitting ball on his chest, was sublime. His subsequent shot, dragged yards wide of the target, was ridiculous.

Olympiacos continued to look threatening every time they ventured forward, and they eventually caught Arsenal napping with the most basic of moves. A simple short corner routine presented David Fuster with a free header near the penalty spot, and the midfielder made no mistake burying the ball past the helpless Wojciech Szczęsny. It was poor, naive defending all around.

The Greeks continued to pile on the pressure in search of an equaliser before half-time. Their passing was a little more precise than Arsenal’s, their tempo slightly more purposeful. The home side held out without conceding clear-cut chances, but much of their defending was too last-ditch for comfort, and too much of their attacking play lacked precision. Most worryingly of all, every time an attack broke down Olympiacos seemed to be able to instantly spring into a dangerous counter-attack at will as they encountered minimal resistance in midfield. In truth, aside from the scoreline they were much the better side in the opening 45 minutes.

A little luck and a lot of determination

It was a much improved Arsenal who started the second half, with many of their brightest moments continuing to come from Oxlade-Chamberlain. The youngster had a great chance to restore Arsenal’s two-goal advantage after a lovely through ball from Chamakh, but he couldn’t beat Costanzo from a tight angle. And left back Holebas, who had already been booked, was fortunate to stay on the field after appearing to shove the winger in the back as he sped clear.

However the game remained open and although Olympiacos struggled to create opportunities it was they who came closest to scoring. Right back Vasilios Torosidis was allowed to cut inside far too easily by the combination of Santos and Arshavin, and his curled effort from the corner of the area cannoned off the face of the crossbar, to Szczęsny’s relief.

Mertesacker was a calming influence at the heart of Arsenal's defence (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With the game entering a period of stalemate, Arsenal made a pair of positive substitutions, with Aaron Ramsey and Robin van Persie replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain and Chamakh. The Welshman almost had an immediate impact, releasing Arshavin, who cut inside Olof Mellberg but directed his toe-poked effort too close to Costanzo.

With fatigue setting in on both sides and Arsenal content to tighten up more in the middle of the park, openings at either end were few and far between. Olympiacos tried everything in the last ten minutes to set up a nervy finish, but Song and Per Mertesacker remained calm and composed, mopping up everything the visitors could throw at them and leaving Szczęsny virtually untroubled for the final 20 minutes.

As both Manchester clubs proved last night, there are no easy games in European football. Victory here – their thrid win in a row – moved Arsenal one big step forwards towards qualification for the knockout stages, and continued the gradual rehabilitation of a side for whom at least a top four finish remains a very achievable goal.

Post-match reaction and analysis

With Wenger serving the second game of his touchline ban, his assistant Pat Rice addressed the press after the match:

I think in the first 20-25 minutes we were really in it well. After that for about 15-20 minutes we maybe lost our way and they came back into it. Second half we had to knuckle in, fight and get our shape right which I thought we did better in the second half.

He was full of praise for Oxlade-Chamberlain:

He can go inside, he can go outside, he’s got that injection of pace and I think what he needs now is to be consistent in his play. I am sure that is something he will be working on because he’s certainly not a stupid boy. He has good people around him and they are telling him all the right things. He is very friendly with Theo and no doubt he will give him the benefit of his experience as well.

Overall, he was pleased with his side’s defensive performance, particularly in the second half:

I thought that in general they battled very hard. I think that as we went into the second half we were tighter in the second half than we were in the last 20 minutes of the first half. People can have the ball right and left but it wasn’t really causing us too many problems. They have actually got a lot of the ball but in actual terms of what Szczęsny has had to save I don’t think there was all that many chances.

Arsenal’s recent matches have generally been a game of two halves – one good, one bad – but this was more a game of three thirds. For the first quarter of the match, Arsenal offered plenty of attacking threat while looking worryingly vulnerable at the back. For the subsequent period leading up to half-time, Olympiacos were on top as the home side struggled to string a meaningful sequence of passes together and looked all at sea defensively. The second half – while not without its worries – saw a much tighter team performance, sacrificing a little up front for a more solid defensive display.

The defensive frailties owed as much to a lack of protection from midfield as the makeshift nature of the back four. In fact, at the heart of Arsenal’s defence Mertesacker and Song formed an effective partnership, dealing comfortably with anything that came near them and offering a degree of calmness in the eye of the storm. At times it was easy to forget that the Cameroon international was only an emergency stand-in. Santos was unconvincing defensively in the first half, but better in the second. And Bacary Sagna also had his hands full in the opening period, but tightened up after the break.

The problem lay more with the midfield trio of Emmanuel Frimpong, Arteta and Rosický, who did not strike the right balance in the first half. Too often Olympiacos counter-attacked with genuine menace in the wide open spaces between midfield and defence. Only in the second half, when the central trio appeared to sit a little deeper and force the Greeks to play in front of them, did Arsenal start to look more secure – or, at least, less insecure – at the back. Each of the central men had little moments, but without ever really imposing themselves on the gane. Frimpong hustled and bustled, but still lunges in too quickly and he looked exhausted towards the end. Arteta was neat in possession and put in some good setpieces, but his influence was largely peripheral – indeed, his single biggest contribution was his magnificent goalline clearance. Rosický, too, sparked occasionally into life but was too often lost on the margins of the game.

Most of the attacking focus centred on Oxlade-Chamberlain – remarkable given his age and lack of experience – who proved that he can replicate his Carling Cup performance against Shrewsbury at a higher level. On this evidence, he will soon be pushing Walcott for more regular game time. Arshavin was invisible in the first half but much livelier in the second, presumably after receiving a rocket from Rice at half-time. As for Chamakh, his link-up play outside the box was good, but whatever confidence he has seems to evaporate the moment he crosses the 18-yard line. He had a couple of reasonable chances, but failed to put the ball in even the vague vicinity of the goal on each occasion. He desperately needs goals.

It was a winning but less than convincing performance, but the team is gradually heading in the right direction and will only continue to gel as a unit. Any kind of positive result at White Hart Lane on Sunday afternoon will send Arsenal and their fans into the international break with a sense of developing forward momentum, with the added incentive that a win will move them above their neighbours and rivals in the table. Game on.

Arsenal man of the match: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Took his goal superbly and bristled with threat all night with a lethal combination of pace, power and crossing ability. Already looks like he belongs at this level.

Arsenal show substance as Perišić wonder goal leaves honours even

Borussia Dortmund 1 Arsenal 1

Perišić 88; van Persie 42

A late volley by substitute Ivan Perišić earned Borussia Dortmund a share of the points in a game they had dominated for long stretches. Although they fully deserved a point, it was nonetheless tough luck on an Arsenal side who had defended with grit and determination after taking the lead through Robin van Persie‘s strike just before half-time. In the cold light of day, both teams will probably be satisfied to have finished with honours even.

The two sides had already previously met in the Champions League group stage. In the 2002/03 competition, Arsenal won 2-0 at Highbury before losing 2-1 in the away leg to a Dortmund side which featured Jens Lehmann in goal, with both their goals being scored by one Tomáš Rosický.

Rosický missed out on the chance to face his old side, having failed to recover sufficiently from a knee problem. Aaron Ramsey also did not travel after picking up an ankle knock against Swansea, restricting Arsène Wenger‘s already limited options in midfield. As a result loanee Yossi Benayoun was handed his first start alongside Mikel Arteta and the returning Alex Song. Wenger himself was serving the first of a two-game European touchline ban as Arsenal lined up as follows:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Gibbs

Song – Benayoun

Arteta

Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho

Dortmund dominate, but sloppiness gifts Arsenal the lead

With both teams showing attacking formations and philosophies, the match got off to a flowing and pacy start. In the first ten minutes alone, Gervinho worked two openings but could not get a clean shot away on either occasion, while Kevin Grosskreutz and the lively Shinji Kagawa should have done better in blazing excellent opportunities off target.

Again and again during the opening period Dortmund proved adept at evading Arsenal’s high defensive line and causing major problems with their pace and directness. Wojciech Szczęsny was grateful for Bacary Sagna‘s goalline intervention after Mario Götze‘s clever ball had put Robert Lewandowski clean through. And the big Polish keeper was equally pleased that a couple of good headed chances were directed straight at him, while other attempts flew wide of the target. But on the whole the home side looked by far the more dangerous, with the combination of Götze’s passing and Kagawa’s intelligent running stretching Arsenal’s defence to breaking point.

For half an hour Arsenal’s midfield were repeatedly overrun, and as a team possession was often too easily conceded in dangerous positions. The front three were largely reduced to the role of spectators. In terms of possession in dangerous positions and attacking intent, it was very much one-way traffic.

Van Persie's clinical strike gave Arsenal an unexpected lead (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

However, there were just enough promising moments to offer the visitors a glimmer of hope. Mikel Arteta was unspectacular but efficient in possession, and Yossi Benayoun diligent in chasing back to help out his defence. And Dortmund’s high back line offered plenty of open space for both Gervinho and Walcott to run into. From one such moment just after the half hour, the visitors registered their first shot on target. Benayoun lifted an inviting ball over the top for Robin van Persie to race on to, but his angled shot on the run was touched behind by Roman Weidenfeller.

For all their threat, Dortmund had been warned. And they proved to be their own worst enemy as an error gifted Arsenal the opening goal. Van Persie seized on a sloppy, underhit pass by captain Sebastian Kehl and immediately raced forward. Theo Walcott, who had been nigh on invisible to that point, laid on a sensational defence-splitting pass for the Dutchman to strike a fierce drive from the edge of the box past Weidenfeller with his weaker right leg.

It wasn’t quite daylight robbery, but Arsenal’s half-time lead was certainly unexpected and very much against the run of play.

A spirited rearguard action falls at the last

Dortmund continued to press after half-time, but despite all their pressure Szczęsny had little to do as the visitors rolled up their sleeves and poured their energies into defending their lead – a quality which has too often been lacking from recent Arsenal sides. Alex Song in particular put in an immense performance in the second half, tracking runners, winning balls all over the field and generally disrupting the hosts’ rhythm in a way which Arsenal fans are used to seeing opposing teams do to them.

And the massed defending did not come at the total expense of a goal threat. Either side of the hour mark, Walcott hurriedly scooped a shot well over when he had time to compose himself, and then Gervinho broke free up the middle but as he stumbled and broke free of a tackle he couldn’t get the ball under control quickly enough, allowing Weidenfeller to charge off his line and block.

Szczęsny preserved a point with a crucial late save (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Though rarely desperate, Arsenal’s rearguard action became increasingly fraught as the game entered its final ten minutes. Neven Subotić wasted a great opportunity at a scramble after a corner, poking an effort straight at Szczęsny. But just as it looked like time would run out on the Germans, with just two minutes remaining a free kick was headed clear straight to Ivan Perišić, whose first-time volley from outside the area arrowed its way into the top corner. The goal extended Arsenal’s run of away games in the Champions League without a clean sheet to 17.

Dortmund nearly stole all three points at the death, as first Szczęsny raced off his line to deny Lewandowski and then Laurent Koscielny put in a vital block against substitute Mohamed Zidan. On the balance of play, Dortmund could argue that they were worth more than a point. However, Arsenal equally deserved to get something out of the game for van Persie’s clinical finish and their stalwart efforts in defence. With Marseille winning at 1-0 at Olympiakos a draw was not the ideal result for either team, but both will take encouragement from an unbeaten start to their European campaigns. 1-1 was a perfectly good result.

Post-match reaction and analysis

With Wenger’s touchline ban extending to post-match conferences, assistant manager Pat Rice faced the press after the game. He said:

We battled really hard and we knew it would be a hard, hard game. To be able to defend well is a high-quality skill and that is something all of our players did this evening. I shouldn’t think many teams will come to Dortmund and beat them and we were very, very close to doing that.

Despite being forced on to the back foot for much of the 90 minutes, there are a lot of positives to take out of this performance. Arsenal teams over the years have shown plenty of flair in matches they have failed to win, but here exhibited real grit and substance in a game in which they were dominated but managed to avoid defeat (and indeed so nearly win). Szczęsny exudes confidence which in turn boosts the defenders in front of him. He commanded his box well and continues to excel in one-on-one situations. In front of him, the back four manned the barricades redoubtably, although Koscielny did have some problems with his distribution, an issue often exacerbated by Kieran Gibbs‘ poor positioning. The left back had an awful game – he contributed little in attack, was often caught too far forward creating inviting spaces for Kagawa in particular to operate in and generally exhibited both poor passing and positional sense.

The midfield particularly struggled in the first half-hour, but seemed to gel as the game progressed. Arteta was efficient rather than expansive, but was excellent at retaining possession and moving the ball on to others. Benayoun worked his socks off defensively, while constantly trying to form a bridge between defence and attack. And Song was a dominant figure, particularly in the second half where he kept his cool and always seemed to be exactly where he was needed.

Van Persie took his chance superbly, and although he did not see much of the ball linked up play well. Gervinho was a constant threat with his unpredictability, although he did tend to cut inside into traffic too often rather than attempting to beat his defender on the outside. Walcott did contribute a lovely assist for the goal, but this was otherwise one of those frustrating nights where he could not get into the game, and too often immediately gave the ball away on those occasions when he did. For all his undoubted strengths – pace, a good goal-scoring rate from the wing and the ability to put in decent deliveries (albeit inconsistently) – the flaws in his game remain all too apparent: a lack of trickery to beat defenders, a tendency to drift out of games and he is still all too easy to brush off the ball.

But this game was more than the sum of individual performances. A still under-strength, still unfamiliar side pulled together as a unit and worked for each other for 90 minutes, and although they were denied the win at the very end, this was not down to the collective failure of character we witnessed at home to Liverpool or at Newcastle last season, or even at Old Trafford 2½ weeks ago. It was just one of those things – just one of those goals you can only admire and praise through gritted teeth. For once Arsenal prioritised substance over style, and that is certainly a step in the right direction.

Man of the match: Alex Song

%d bloggers like this: