The two teams are coming into this game on the back of two diametrically opposite results. Arsenal’s loss to Norwich was a shock to most while few expected Schalke to win the Revierderby at Signal Iduna park where Borussia Dortmund had been unbeaten in the Bundesliga for 13 months.
The Gunners will go into this game with added pressure while the visitors are likely to come with their confidence high. Schalke have started the season well and are currently third in the Bundesliga. But for a lapse in concentration late in the game against 10 men Montpellier, they’d also have been on 6 points in the Champions League.
As is typical, Arsene Wenger summarized the qualities of the opponents and highlighted the dangermen,
Schalke try to play good football and build from the back, like all German teams… they’re a solid side with good organization and up front they have Huntelaar and Farfán, plus Afellay or Draxler. They are dangerous on the counterattack.
That’s it in a nutshell but we can delve into a bit more detail. The Germans are likely to come out with a positive and aggressive mindset but still with defence as the priority. That means they’ll form the first line of defence on or just in front of the centre-line. The idea will be to have a relatively high line and deny Arsenal the chance to get close to their goal. They’ll also try to cut down the passing channels in the central areas and mark the attacking players tightly with the hope of keeping the ball in the middle of the park or in the wider areas.
With such a shape they’ll also be in a very good position to break forward in numbers as their players will not be too deep. Huntelaar is very good at dropping into a hole in front of the defence with his back to goal in order to play a vital one-two in the build-up of a counter-attack. Holtby is a tactically intelligent player who makes clever runs into the channels and the Royal Blues also have quick, tricky wide players who are capable of taking players on and playing combinations.
Those who saw City struggle against Dortmund will know what to expect. The Germans had roughly one-third possession in that game but absolutely hammered Joe Hart’s goal producing nearly twice the shots Mancini’s side managed. This game could be a very similar battle unless Arsenal dominate the midfield and push Schalke back.
In order to control the game the Gunners will have to a) circulate possession while showing composure and patience under pressure – can’t have defenders slipping on the ball or players giving it away cheaply in the central third; b) Have intelligent off-the-ball movement to provide constant passing options thus fostering a quick tempo game; c) Exploit the space in behind the relatively high line through a high level of understanding between players; and d) take their chances when they come while avoiding basic mistakes at the back.
When written down, these things can seem simple, almost obvious, but a lot depends on the quality of the opposition and by extension, the results of individual duels all over the pitch, particularly in the midfield. I’ll be really surprised if Arteta and Cazorla struggle in their battles but the performance of the third, and possibly the fourth, midfielder will have a direct impact on the result.
Against a technically strong side Arsene might go with a midfielder on the right flank. Although he has shown a tendency to pick more attacking line-ups in home games, the lack of options and the fact that Gervinho and Giroud are not working quite as well in tandem could force the manager’s hand. In that case the only real option seems to be the inclusion of Coquelin in midfield with Ramsey going out wide. Gnabry or Arshavin are other options but I’ll be amazed if either starts as it will seriously affect the balance of the starting eleven.
Even with Coquelin starting, it’s difficult to say the side would be ideally balanced as the youngster hasn’t really stepped up from being a quality prospect to someone who genuinely deserves a starting role. If he starts, Schalke will look to pressurize him and force turnovers or mistakes in the central areas.
Ramsey can be very useful on the right if he makes the right decisions. The Welshman has a lot to offer but in football the system can suffer if a player tries too hard and ends up making the wrong choices which begin to affect the performance of his teammates. A unit performs better than the sum of its parts when the players are on the same tactical page whereas the combined output dips if the individuals have different ideas.
In defence, Arsenal have to be vigilant and deny space to Huntelaar and Co. The Schalke attackers aren’t as consistent as some of the world class talents at the big clubs but they have sufficient individual ability to hurt any team on their day. The Gunners would be better off not attempting to discover if this is their day or not.
The pace of the Schalke attack again poses a question for Arsene – does he go with Mertesacker or Koscielny? The German probably understands the Schalke style well as many teams in Bundesliga use such tactics and this should help him in reading the game better. On the flip side, with Mertesacker in the line-up, Arsenal have a tendency to drop deep quickly. This can, at times, create bigger gaps between the lines than one would like. Or it could suck the midfield too deep into the Arsenal half.
At the beginning of the season, Arsenal showed the positional discipline to hold their shape and defend with a solid structure when dropping deep, but in the last few weeks gaps have been appearing that have cost the team points. Hopefully, the Gunners will find the required structural integrity if they have to play in their own half.
The full-backs will have a vital role at both ends of the pitch and indeed in the central third as safe passing options. They’ll also have to cover behind the central defenders in case of a counter-attack and so it would be wise to have one full-back staying deeper. I have a feeling Mertesacker and Jenkinson will have to help each other out more often than usual although Farfan getting in behind Santos is also a possible cause for concern.
Preferred starting line-up,
Mannone – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos – Coquelin, Cazorla, Arteta – Ramsey, Gervinho, Podolski.
With Schalke likely to play with a slightly high line, the pace of Gervinho should be more useful than the physical presence of Giroud. The Ivorian will naturally drift towards the wings and this should open some space for Podolski to move into. Ramsey will add an extra body in midfield and his lateral movement could create interesting passing angles which can lead to openings if exploited quickly.
The weekend exertions of both sides could have an impact on the game, especially towards the end. Arsenal could have an advantage as the Royal Blues had a gruelling derby. Huub Stevens knows his side gave a lot to secure that win and said he might look to freshen the line-up,
The derby took a lot out of us. I’m not sure how fresh and fit the players will be. We’ve therefore added three more lads to the squad. I won’t make a decision until after the final training session or maybe not until the day itself.
Huntelaar gave the players’ point of view,
It was obviously a tough game against Dortmund. You could see some of the players were out on their feet at the end. I found it very difficult myself from the 80th minute. But when you’re 2-1 up in a game like that, you don’t notice it as much. We’ll recuperate now and then go again in London.
This seems to have all the makings of a hard-fought, tense encounter that is settled by the odd goal in three.Follow @goonerdesi