The Gunners went into this game down on confidence after a string of disappointing results and performances. Expectations were low and from that perspective the effort and the result were an improvement. It wasn’t a great game by any stretch of the imagination but the attack showed more bite than it has in the recent past and the defence, while under severe pressure for most of the game, did show greater concentration and dedication.
Wenger went with Vermaelen at left back and Walcott on the right flank. Koscielny came in at the heart of the defence. The rest of the line-up was same as the one that struggled at Old Trafford.
It looked like Arsenal wanted to play a relatively high line in defence, somewhere around the middle of their own half, with the first line of defence near the middle of the pitch. Schalke were also circumspect and started cautiously. But it was the Germans who created the initial threats as they broke forward with purpose whenever the Gunners lost the ball. Their defensive shape enabled quick transitions while denying space to the visitors.
Stevens’ men paid the price for not finding the right quality in the final third as the Gunners took the lead in the 18th minute, somewhat against the run of play. It was a hopeful forward punt from Mertesacker but Neustädter inexplicably headed it towards his own goal from a long way out. Giroud was able to run on to the loose ball behind the Schalke defence but kicked the ground in an attempt to shoot, allowing Höwedes the opportunity to make a last gasp tackle.
Walcott was on hand to collect the ball and did well to chip it to keep it away from the onrushing keeper who got something on the ball but not enough. It broke kindly for Theo, at least partly due to his excellent body position, and he tapped it into an open net.
Some might argue that Giroud was off-side and we’ve certainly seen other such calls go in favour of the defending team, but I thought it was a legitimate call from the assistant as the header from Neustädter seemed deliberate, although I can see why some might consider that debatable.
The Royal Blues remained a constant threat and were dominating possession but again it was the Gunners who scored. This time it was a clever and quick pass from Cazorla to Wilshere on the edge of the Schalke box that set the chance up. Jack tried to lay it off for Giroud but there seemed to be a deflection that took it behind the striker. Nevertheless, the Frenchman showed some tenacity to win the loose ball and spread it out wide. Podolski held the defender off before turning and crossing, virtually instinctively as he never looked up. Giroud was anticipating the ball and nodded it home unchallenged.
The two goals quietened the crowd and seemed to affect the confidence of the hosts. They were still creating some half-chances, particularly on quick transitions, but Mannone’s goal wasn’t under genuine threat.
It looked like Arsenal would take a healthy lead and the momentum into the half-time break when the game took another turn. Cazorla slipped while trying to hold on to the ball as the Gunners were pushing out after defending deep. This caught the visitors in a terrible defensive shape, which Schalke exploited expertly through quick passing. Holtby’s first-time assist and Huntelaar’s clinical finish were commendable. But one has to question the fact that Arsenal’s back line was once again all over the place. Koscielny dropped back the moment he sensed danger whereas Mertesacker was just pushing up and couldn’t turn quickly. There is good reason to believe Wenger’s side would have defended the situation better if both the defenders had been on the same wavelength.
The visitors had one good chance early in the second half when a Podolski cross found Giroud at the back post but the striker’s attempt with his weaker foot was ambitious and wayward. Apart from that it was all Schalke, who’d come out with renewed belief.
Huntelaar missed a golden one-v-one, although some credit should definitely go to Mannone for making the save. The Gunners also blocked a number of shots while others went off target or straight at Vito in goal.
The patterns of play showed strong Schalke domination as the Gunners were hemmed in deep and narrow. They found it hard to hold on to the ball and were forced into desperate clearances or blocks as wave after wave of attacks hit the defensive third.
There was no surprise when the equalizer came in the 67th minute. It was again a cross, this time from wide on the Arsenal right. Vermaelen was sucked into a central position as Holtby was unmarked. This left Farfan in acres of space at the back post.
When the ball is so deep it’s imperative that one of the midfielders drops into the back line. Arsenal paid the price of not doing that. Mertesacker was at the near post, Koscielny and Vermaelen were occupied by Huntelaar and Holtby, and there was no one left to pick Farfan. Ideally, the second midfielder should have tracked Holtby leaving Vermaelen free at the back but Wilshere’s style of play puts that little bit of extra burden on the defence that can prove decisive against good teams.
The intensity of the game dropped a notch or two after the equalizer. Arsenal were now able to see more of the ball and push up. Koscielny moved up the pitch with the ball on a couple of occasions and it could have resulted in a good chance had Walcott, who was in an off-side position, left it for Podolski.
Theo also had a golden chance to seize the win for the Gunners deep in injury time when he pounced on a loose back pass. On one hand, you have to commend him for his energy and alertness so late in the game, on the other, his finish was highly disappointing, especially considering had a clear option in the form of Giroud on his left.
In the end a draw seemed like a decent result, although both sides will feel they could have won the game.
Mannone: Another solid game from Don Vito. Confident handling, good positioning and decision making, wasn’t at fault for either goal.
Sagna: Saw a lot of the ball, had the most touches for the Gunners, couldn’t really make an impact in the attacking areas but worked hard at the back to keep the danger away.
Mertesacker: Made a number of vital clearances and blocks. Might have conceded a penalty on another day but usually those close ones aren’t given. Partially at fault for the first goal.
Koscielny: Very similar to Mertesacker except perhaps for the forward runs he made late in the game.
Vermaelen: Didn’t look very comfortable at left back but was bailed out by the fact that Arsenal defended deep and in numbers. Didn’t offer anything in attack. Still a respectable tenacious effort.
According to stats on Whoscored, the Arsenal back four made 39 clearances between them which was nearly twice the total made by the entire Schalke team. That shows the territorial domination of the hosts and the fact that the Gunners got their heads or legs on to a fair number of balls in the box. It was pretty but the defenders were focussed and worked hard for most of the game. They should have done better for the first goal and could have used some help for the second.
Arteta: Put in a very strong and useful defensive performance as he got into the right spaces at the right time on a number of occasions. Was also one of the few players who rarely lost the ball.
Cazorla: Played a vital pass in the build up to the second goal. Was initially doing a good job of holding on to the ball to absorb pressure but slipped at the wrong moment and cost the team a confidence destroying goal. It was also interesting to note that he often played deeper than Wilshere. Could have done better with defensive reading of the game and closing down opponents.
Wilshere: Kept pushing up the pitch, particularly in the opening half hour. Played his part in the build-up of the second goal, although I’d have preferred it if he’d shown the ability to take the ball in his stride and finish it himself. Wasn’t as composed on the ball and gave it away more often than a midfielder should.
It was a tough game for the midfield as there were phases when Schalke did an excellent job of pressing up the pitch. At times, it seemed the midfield lacked a bit of defensive nous and were simply helping the cause by adding up the numbers in the threatening areas.
Walcott: Took his goal well. Showed energy and desire right till the end. Was one player who always looked like a threat. But there were many disappointing moments as well. For instance, there was an early Podolski cross that he could have controlled in the box, but he went with his head and missed it completely. Also got in the way of Podolski from an off-side position when Koscielny’s foray created an opening. He didn’t finish the chance at the end and there were numerous occasions when he gave the ball away due to a wrong choice. All-in-all a mixed bag but he definitely improves Arsenal’s attacking potency.
Giroud: Good anticipation and finish for the goal. Looked a threat in the air and his work rate was commendable but he too had many disappointing moments. Didn’t quite offer an outlet when the side was under pressure, couldn’t shrug off his marker to play lay-offs like Huntelaar did time and again, was caught off-side on a couple of occasions when the ball was played long which lead to immediate loss of possession and no respite for the defence.
Podolski: Stayed wider at times and played some useful balls in from that side. Had more influence on this game than he’s had in the recent past, but he also lost the ball cheaply at least twice. Both those occasions led to threatening counter attacks. Put in a decent defensive shift but didn’t get into scoring positions at the other end as often as we’d like to see.
The front three didn’t get as much time in the attacking third as their counterparts did but created a fair number of chances and scored a couple of vital goals. Podolski and Walcott tracked back diligently but they did lack some defensive awareness.
Wenger: The structural problems in defence that I associate with the manager’s defensive thought process are returning. The team will not be able to go through the whole season defending the way they did in this game. The more I watch the more I’m convinced Bould and Banfield were not the right choices but that’s a completely different discussion. For now, Arsene still has to work on improving the attack.Follow @goonerdesi