A lot has happened in the last day or two. Nasri’s move has been officially announced, Wilshere suffered a relapse (anyone else worried – perhaps unjustifiably – that he will be this season’s Vermaelen?), and the summer’s most believable, intriguing, albeit a tad dramatic story claimed there was a rift between the board and the manager.
I don’t want to dwell on any of these issues for the moment as it’s hard to do justice to them when the focus is on a game that is financially worth in excess of £25M, and potentially a lot more due to its undoubted immeasurable impact on the mentality of the current players and those who might be close to joining the Gunners.
In the first three games of this month, which has been anything but august for Arsenal, the Gunners have shown they are weak but willing to fight through the tough times. The same spirit will have be to combined with a greater degree of tactical maturity and clinical attacking qualities in order to sustain the record of playing in the Champions League every year under Arsene.
Udinese showed their strengths at the Emirates with a positive, and at times dominating, performance. I expect them to do even better at home. This is similar to the difference in quality Arsenal experienced against the likes of Shakhtar and Braga last season, who were not that impressive in London but provided a much sterner test in familiar surroundings with the support of their fans. The Italians weren’t as easily dismantled as the other two sides so there is all the more reason to believe the second leg will be a tough ask.
It will be interesting to see whether Guidolin sticks to his 3-5-2 formation or modifies it to suit the occasion. He said at his press conference,
We have tried some alternative tactical solutions, but a team cannot change identity just like that. What we do require is a great performance, because we are facing a strong side.
I think the 3-5-2 can work in Arsenal’s favour due to the pace on the wings. But it can also work for the hosts if they are able to push the Gunners back for prolonged periods as they did at the beginning of the second-half in the first leg.
I’d really like to see Arsenal sit deeper in this game just as I have been hoping for tactical changes since the start of the season. Wenger does not have a squad that can effectively push a team back and break a well-organized defence. Nor does he have the squad that can be relied on to defend a one goal lead for ninety minutes in such a tie away from home. There is no doubt that Arsenal will have to score at the Stadio Friuli if they have to have any hopes of progress. And it can be best achieved by exploiting the space behind the Friulani defence. For that the space must exist in the first place and the best way to create that is by inviting the opposition forward and hitting them on the break with a quick exchange of passes.
For large periods, this game will be about individual battles. The players who will be able to resist the pressure put on them by the opponents will control the momentum of the game. This will of course be aligned with the off-the-ball movement of both teams. Arsenal’s wingers, Walcott and Gervinho in all likelihood, will have to time their runs better and the midfield will have to show an improved understanding of the forwards’ movement.
Such games are often decided by moments of outstanding quality. As we saw in the first leg, both teams had plenty of space and created some chances but the final ball or the finish were lacking. That routine might be repeated in this game but it would be naive to assume the Italians will be just as profligate at home as they were in London. Van Persie can make the difference but so can Di Natale, it’s hard to pick.
In the first leg, Arsenal’s central defenders allowed Di Natale to drop between the lines and play one-twos with his teammates. It’s a risky strategy but they are probably vary of getting caught out of position if they do track his runs and get turned. The best way to counter this is by having a defensive midfielder really close to the back four. Again this necessitates passing from deeper positions and the team will have to use the length and breadth of the pitch in an intelligent manner.
In order to provide better cover to the defenders, I would certainly prefer Song and Frimpong starting in tandem rather than the technique and experience, marred by the occasional defensive laxity, that Rosicky brings to the pitch.
Traore has been included in the squad and might be picked ahead of Jenkinson to restore Sagna to his usual Right-Back position. This will leave the Gunners weaker on the left as the youngster has a tendency to switch off in advanced areas of the pitch. While he does have the pace to recover, it might not be enough and could, at the very least, lead to dangerous set-pieces if not clear chances from open play. We have already seen Di Natale’s quality on free-kicks and it will be extremely risky to give him such chances.
I’m hoping both full-backs show more restraint in bombing forward. Instead of making predictable pre-determined bursts they will be better off biding their time and picking the right moments to provide width. This will give the wingers more space and will leave the full-backs in a position to provide better cover to the central defenders. It should also help them conserve some energy that can prove invaluable in the final minutes or if the game stretches into extra-time.
Di Natale said that qualifying for the Champions League will be akin to winning the World Cup for the Friulani. There is no doubt the Italians will give everything and more in this tie. Hopefully, both sides will be within professional limits and the Gunners will not suffer from any further injuries or suspensions.
Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Traore – Song, Ramsey, Frimpong – Walcott, RvP, Gervinho.
Rosicky and Arshavin are tempting choices but both bring certain weaknesses that the side cannot really afford at the moment.
I believe Arsenal have the quality to see this one through. But given the current circumstances and the series of mistakes and unfortunate events, it is hard to be confident. Vermaelen and Van Persie are the two players who can make a difference in the areas that count on either end of the pitch. Others will have to support them with utmost focus and determination.
In the recent past, when Arsenal have struggled they have allowed the opposition to score more than one goal quite often. The players have to avoid panic and stick to their strengths even if Udinese start strong and score an early goal.
I am sufficiently concerned to have given some thought to the pros and cons of elimination at this stage, something I haven’t done in the past, but will leave that out for the time being. I feel the hosts will win on the night but the Gunners will advance on away goals.