Arsenal visit Dortmund, the self-professed football capital of the world, to open a Champions League group phase that promises to be the toughest one in recent years. BVB are by far the best team from the fourth pot and could quite possible provide a sterner challenge than the other two teams in the group.
Many fans would be sceptical if someone said a game between the 11th placed sides from England and Germany was going to be a pulsating encounter with excellent technical quality. As things stand, Arsenal and Borsussia Dortmund are just outside the top half of their respective leagues with very similar records (except goal difference). If Arsenal win away against Blackburn on the weekend they will match the seven points from 5 games that Dortmund have already accumulated.
In a way, both teams have a lot to prove. The German side are keen to re-establish themselves amongst Europe’s elite and will want to better the performances of Stuttgart (2007) and Wolfsburg (2009) after their Bundesliga triumphs. Arsenal have to demonstrate they are in a position to move forward after the events of the summer and a difficult start to the domestic campaign.
I was able to watch a couple of Dortmund games recently, their draw away to Leverkusen and home loss against promoted Hertha Berlin. BVB reminded me a lot of Arsenal in both the games. They have good, young technical players who contribute to an attractive, free-flowing playing style based on delightful movement and teamwork.
Their last game against Hertha Berlin was a disappointing home loss. Dortmund dominated the ball and got enough bodies forward but found it really hard to break down a very well organized defence. When they did create some chances, the defending champions found the opposition Keeper in sublime form. Even though Klopp’s side had quality defenders, they struggled to contain counter-attacks. They eventually lost after conceding from a run down the middle and another from a set-piece with both their highly rated central defenders failing in efforts to attack the ball. Sounds familiar?
I expect this to be a very open game with both sides looking to dominate possession. The Dortmund games that I watched seemed a tad slower than the Premiership pace that I am used to. It’s hard to form definitive opinions based on limited evidence but I am convinced Arsenal can dominate this game if they can move the ball fast. The concern for the Gunners is that there are a number of new players who haven’t had a chance to learn each other’s game whereas Dortmund are much more settled.
Both teams have gaps in their collective defending and chances will be created when the ball-players find the off-the-ball runs. If the Gunners let Dortmund dominate the ball for parts of the game in the same manner that Swansea or Udinese did, the Germans will punish the visitors in a manner that those teams weren’t able to. At the other end, Gervinho and/or Walcott can really rip the hosts’ defence to shreds if they can establish a good understanding with the midfield.
Arsenal started the Udinese games on the front foot and established an early impetus. A repeat of that could work against the relatively inexperienced German side who also look like a rhythm based team that is not very comfortable when pinned back.
Wenger will probably start the same back five that kept a clean sheet against Swansea. Mertesacker’s experience in the Bundesliga should come in handy but the hosts will also feel confident of troubling him with their movement, especially if Arsenal push high up the pitch without adequate cover for the defence and pressure on the ball.
From the cover point of view and with Ramsey and Rosicky injured, I won’t be surprised if Song and Frimpong both get a start with Arteta in front. There is an option to include Benayoun in an attacking role with Frimpong moving to the bench.
The third and most unlikely choice, based on Wenger’s decisions thus far, is to move Arshavin in a central attacking role with Gervinho and Walcott on the flanks. I believe that can work but will demand a change in tactics with the full-backs showing a lot more restraint.
I do strongly believe Arshavin must start this game because he is the only truly creative player in the side right now who can produce match winning through balls. Arteta and Benayoun might do that after a few more training sessions. Gervinho and Walcott are more direct players and would thrive on service that can get them in behind, particularly against a defence that likes to push up.
Since Walcott has played a number of games, it might be sensible to have him on the bench.
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Song, Arteta, Frimpong – Gervinho, RvP, Arshavin.
I do expect Arsene to pick Walcott ahead of Arshavin.
This game should be a good benchmark to assess Arsenal’s position after the transfer business. Playing away against the champions of a big league like Bundesliga will provide further insights into Arsenal’s strengths and weaknesses.
My main interest will be in the performances of Gervinho and Arteta. If they link up well with the others, this match will have goals galore. The end result will depend on who makes the crucial mistakes and who converts the chances.
A win is possible but unlikely and should not be taken for granted. Let’s not forget in 2002 an Arsenal side that included Henry, Vieira, Pires, Cole, Seaman, and Sol Campbell lost 2-1 at the same venue despite taking the lead.
That said, a win will most definitely provide the much needed momentum after a forgettable opening month. Should be fun. Enjoy.