Oh God! What does one say after a game like that. Great fighting spirit and a gritty display for a well-earned away point at a difficult venue? Terrible performance that shows the Gunners just aren’t good enough anymore? I guess it depends on one’s mentality and the spin that suits it. As mentioned in the preview, I wasn’t expecting a win but a more assured performance would have been encouraging for the future.
I was worried when I saw Benayoun in the midfield with Gervinho and Walcott on the flanks. That meant Arsenal had two wide players who are too direct and can’t really contribute to the possession game and two midfielders who haven’t had much time to understand what is required of them.
Thankfully, Dortmund showed a lot of respect and didn’t pin the Gunners as far back as they could have, and indeed did in the second half once they figured out the game was there for the taking.
The first half was fairly open and both sides created a number of half-chances. Arsenal’s defence was constantly under pressure but Dortmund were pedestrian in the attacking third in one-v-one situations, when they got to the by-line, and when they had acres of space around the box.
The thrills and chills started in the 5th minute when Gervinho got half a chance only to be denied by some good last gasp defending.
Minute or so later, at the other end, Großkreutz hit one over the bar when well placed. Just as the clock reached double figures, Kagawa got in behind clean with Koscielny attempting an ill-advised off-side trap. Hummels was able to find him with absolutely no pressure on the ball. Clear lack of tactical cohesion from Arsenal and a sign of things to come, for both sides, as Kagawa’s attempt was terrible.
A couple of minutes later Goetze was able to lift one over for Lewandowski who rounded Szczesny but his lame attempt was cleared off the line by Sagna. Credit must go to Sagna and Mertesacker (was it Koscielny?) who got back on the line but the ease with which the defence was opened up was disappointing.
Arsenal were really struggling to bring the ball out from defence as Arteta and Benayoun just weren’t able to deal with the pressure effectively enough. Their off the ball movement wasn’t very good either and with Walcott and Gervinho on the flanks the out-ball was proving hard to find.
For a few minutes the game descended into a midfield tussle and neither side was able to create anything. Arsenal won a corner in the 18th minute. The Keeper was able to punch it out and Goetze sparked a counter after a neat drop of the shoulder was enough to leave Gervinho stranded. Again the shot was disappointingly wayward from the hosts’ point of view.
Arsenal were getting some glimpses and openings but the home side got enough bodies behind to keep things tight once the ball reached their defensive third. Their Keeper wasn’t being tested and looked comfortable.
Benayoun’s first meaningful contribution came after the half-hour mark when he found Van Persie with a lovely ball. The Dutchman’s strike was saved resulting in a corner.
The goal came after a sloppy pass by a Dortmund midfielder (Bender?) that sold Hummels short. Van Persie was able to slide and nick the ball away. Walcott pounced on it as RvP got up and made an intelligent run. The hosts were caught unawares and the gap in their defence was finally exploited. Walcott had all the time in the world while Van Persie had all the space. The assist was simple but effective. The captain’s finish with his chocolate leg was emphatic (Anyone else thinks RvP’s right can no longer be considered his weaker foot?).
It was a completely different game after half-time. Dortmund came out and pressed even higher up the pitch. They kept pushing the Gunners back and most of the half was one-way traffic. Arsenal couldn’t keep the ball. There was some excellent last gasp defending with Song putting in a monstrous shift. Arteta too was handy but Benayoun was chasing shadows.
I got a feeling the ball was coming into the Arsenal box every minute but Szczesny wasn’t being tested as much. Cramping the central area with a number of bodies was working for the Gunners even if it looked ungainly (from a neutral’s point of view) or scary (from a Gooner’s point of view).
The only threat to the hosts’ goal was coming from long distance shots and free-kicks that couldn’t beat the wall.
Arsenal did get a golden chance to double the lead just after the hour mark. I don’t recall who it was that played a wonderful ball over the top (probably Sagna or Mertesacker from deep on the right), but it fell kindly for Gervinho after Subotic’s outstretched boot couldn’t take it away.
The Ivorian stumbled, regained his balance, beat a defender, and then hit a powerless strike straight at the Keeper while struggling to find his composure. Walcott was free on his left and a simple sideways tap would have given the Englishman an open goal to shoot at. It was typical Gervinho – exciting and frustrating at the same time.
After that it was a familiar routine of a hoof from the defence coming back into the defensive third within moments. The team just didn’t have the right shape to transition from defence to attack. Even when the defenders tried to hold the ball and look up there just weren’t enough options. Arteta and Benayoun were quite poor in this regard whereas Walcott and Gervinho were getting sucked too deep to defend. Song was trying hard but he too lacked options to pass even after he won his individual battle.
Dortmund were excellent with their pressing but Arsenal were making them look like Barcelona, till they got to the final third that is.
With under than ten minutes left, Dortmund got an excellent chance from corner as a ball dropped at the feet of Subotic. His tap lacked venom and Szczesny was able to save as the ball got stuck under his feet.
By now some must have felt that it just wasn’t going to go in while others would have been thinking it was just a matter of time before the equalizer came. I thought the former every time a chance was wasted and the latter as soon as the ball came back into the danger areas. Not good for the heart I tell you.
With two minutes of normal time remaining, Dortmund finally scored from a wonder strike. Once again the Gunners cleared a free-kick only to be beaten by a delightful volley from outside the box. When a team pulls so many players back that there is no pressure on the man shooting, it is always a risk.
Szczesny then made a big save and the hosts looked like the only team that could find a winner. In the end, Arsenal’s grinding display was enough for a point.
Szczesny: Excellent with his collection, rushed his distribution on occasion when the team needed a moment to regroup, made a couple of decent saves, can’t blame him for the performance or the goal.
Sagna: Worked hard, got in some valuable last gasp touches, wasn’t able to contribute going forward but that was not his fault.
Mertesacker: Won a few headers but not as dominant as one might expect, read the game well, showed a good understanding with other defenders, made the blocks/interceptions/tackles when the need arose.
Koscielny: Another brilliant display from the Frenchman. Apart from the initial mistake where he let Kagawa through, he was almost flawless. Read the game well, cut out a number of dangerous balls, blocked a couple of ferocious strikes, could also have created a goal but Van Persie was just off-side. Struggled to get the ball forward in the first half as Arteta wasn’t moving well enough.
Gibbs: Gave the ball away on a few occasions with misplaced passes or poor touches but did well to recover. His pace was immensely valuable. Needs to read the game better.
I thought the back five were under pressure for large parts of the game and must be commended for holding out. None of them was culpable for the goal and they’d be right in demanding more from the players in front. More importantly the manager has to find tactics that suit the players he has.
Song: MotM in my opinion. Was the only midfield player who dominated nearly all his individual battles. Made some vital tackles in and around the box, chased the ball all over the pitch, wasn’t as effective with his passing but lacked options far too often.
Arteta: Defensively his contribution was quite good. Tracked back, put his foot in when needed, and won some headers in the box. But he offered very little in terms of transition from attack to defence. Off-the-ball movement wasn’t that great, won some individual battles but should be offering a lot more. Looked more like a hard working Everton player rather than a dominant Arsenal midfielder but I don’t want to blame him this early in his Arsenal career as he deserves some time to adapt.
Benayoun: Sorry but awful is the only word that comes to mind. Ran a lot but rather aimlessly, gave the ball away in dangerous areas, lost a number of individual tussles, wasn’t able to shake off his man to become available for receiving passes. He too needs time to adapt but I am disappointed with the decision to pick him in such a role and then leaving him on till the end.
I thought Arsenal got steamrolled in the middle of the park. Dortmund were better at pressing, at retaining the ball, with their movement, and only lacked the final pass. Only redeeming aspects for Arsenal were the work-rate, defensive concentration, and tackling.
Not only did this put the defence under constant pressure, it left the attack isolated and toothless.
Walcott: Wasn’t able to get on the ball often enough and ended up spending too much time deep in the Arsenal half. Good alertness and composure for the assist.
RvP: Tremendous effort, superb finish, must be disappointed with the service.
Gervinho: Very energetic and lively on the ball. Also did a fair bit of tracking. Wasn’t able to use the ball very well and ran into traffic far too often. Should have been aware of Walcott’s position around the hour mark.
There are some weaknesses in the attack when players like Gervinho and Walcott are picked. They aren’t the best of defenders and can’t be expected to contribute towards the tiki-taka part of the game that is essential to control the tempo and soak up pressure. Gervinho is arguably a bit better than Walcott in that regard but they aren’t at the technical level that current tactics demand.
When combined with the midfield issues, this gave Dortmund complete control of the game in the second half.
Pat Rice/Wenger: I thought Benayoun in the starting line-up was a big mistake. Frimpong should have been introduced earlier for the Israeli and Santos for Theo. But the real issue is with the overall tactical set-up of the team which has caused problems against all the teams thus far. I am hoping Arsene will be able to adapt the tactics to suit the lack of technical quality in the team and to exploit the direct threat that has been added. So far it hasn’t happened.