You’ve seen the fixture list, haven’t you? With the exception of Crystal Palace this weekend, the Gunners face tough tests against Dortmund, Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund, and United in the next 20 days. It’s simultaneously a mouth-watering set of fixtures and a nerve-wracking one that will undoubtedly give us great insights into just how good this Arsenal squad is.
It begins with Jurgen Klopp’s Champions League finalists visiting the Emirates for the second time in the last three years.
Dortmund have gained a lot of new fans in the last couple of years, for many of whom they are the second team they like to support when watching as neutrals. I’m sure plenty of Gooners fall into this category.
Klopp has created a thrilling style of play, which is always exciting to watch because of the numerous attacks they create. Tactically, their approach isn’t a novelty but the Germans have refined some of the standard principles to the verge of perfection. I see their philosophy based on two core strengths.
Controlled, cohesive pressing…
Dortmund are exceptional at pressing high up the pitch but not in the manner of the Barcelona wolf packs with their oft-mentioned six-second rule. Lewandowski and Co. stand off the defenders initially before they start the process of closing play down. The opponents can play a few passes between the central defenders, full-backs, and maybe even the deepest midfielder but the Germans systematically close the ball down until they box the player on the ball into a corner with very few options. Usually, this is inside the opposition half or the centre of the pitch. They force a mistake from the man in possession resulting in a turnover.
When you watch the game, try and see how diligently and efficiently they close passing channels down. They don’t always mark man-for-man but the positions they take up just render most passes unsafe. This isn’t exactly an earth-shattering tactic in itself – most teams who set out their first line of defence around the centre line make exactly the same attempts, even the Gunners have used this tactic on quite a few occasions – but the precision of their positioning and cohesion with which they move makes it a delight to watch, unless your team is the one struggling to get forward.
One of the cornerstones of their success is the sheer number of times they can force opponents into giving the ball away while being out of shape. And that brings us to their second pillar of strength,
Lighting fast transitions…
Since teams are spread out when trying to build play from the back, any transition from central areas or in the defensive half is likely to put the side in a state of bother. Throw in the understanding between the Dortmund players which enables instinctive passing and movement alongside their excellent technical qualities and pace, and there usually is a shot on goal before the defenders can get to their positions. In that sense, Klopps side are prolific attackers and have seriously troubled even the best defences around Europe.
Their success is normally linked to their efficiency on these transitions. When they take their chances they can run up big scores even against teams like Real Madrid and Man City. They lose to the likes of Borussia Monchengladbach when the touch in front of goal fails them.
These tactics make them an extremely dangerous Cup side, particularly for teams that like to build from the back.
The supporting cast of skills…
The approach discussed above takes care of their defending as well as their attacking. Since they are so interlinked many people don’t realize Dortmund are primarily a counter-attacking team with a strong focus on defending.
Klopp’s side are also very good at picking out long passes and transferring defence to attack through those when pressed high up in their own half. Lewandowski has grown as a striker over the last couple of years. He has an all-round presence now and constantly helps his teammates build attacks through his movement, passing, and work rate. He is also a lot more potent in and around the box. I won’t be surprised if in the future it’s revealed that Klopp worked with him on this including studying the performances of the likes of Van Persie who impressed the manager the last time the sides met.
Their defenders are very good at chasing attacking runs and they also take up good positions in terms of distances from the attackers, which allows them to make different choices, i.e. whether to step up, or to go for the interception, or go engage in a duel, etc., depending on the qualities of the opponents.
What does it all mean for the Gunners…
Arsenal have the stronger midfield of the two sides. Dortmund have greater pace and better diversity in attacking players. The defences are comparable with the visitors having a slight edge in central defence but the Gunners have stronger full-backs.
For Wenger’s side, the crux will be in establishing their midfield dominance. They have to get past Dortmund’s pressure through their technical qualities and mobility. If they do that they will have a chance to run at the Dortmund defence and a fairly high line. I believe the Germans are vulnerable once the ball goes behind the first line of defence but it just doesn’t happen as often.
The Gunners must also ensure they do not succumb to transitions with players out of position in an attempt to create passing channels. This is a tricky balance to achieve. Alternatively, they could cede possession and sit deep as they’ve done in many games this season. If they can retain concentration and defend the vital areas, opportunities to counter-attack will arise. But it has to be assured defending not desperate chasing. Arsenal might not recover in this game if they have the kind of slump we saw against Norwich.
I’m eager to see Klopp’s risk appetite in this game. Arsenal don’t have as much pace in the side right now and he could be tempted to maximize on his team’s strengths but setting them up to really compress the pitch in the central areas and the Arsenal half since the Gunners won’t have runners who can’t be caught unless the defenders doze off. Such a choice would make this game very exciting because it will give the hosts an opportunity to work their combinations and look for space in behind.
The Germans could also withdraw their first line a little deeper to cut down the space between the lines in order to negate Arsenal’s strengths. I guess the team that imposes it’s style in the opening minutes will dictate the patterns of play. The first goal could be massive, particularly if the visitors score it. I don’t think Arsenal scoring first will make that big a difference because Dortmund will keep coming and I expect them to score in this game. Whether it’s just the one or more will depend on Arsenal’s concentration, discipline, and work ethic.
Wenger’s starting line-up…
With Flamini missing, Arsene doesn’t have too many options in central midfield. He has to go with Arteta and Ramsey. The back five will probably be the same, although a case could be made for fresh legs from Monreal. I doubt he’ll enjoy the contest against Aubameyang’s pace and Gibbs seems better suited for that challenge. But Monreal against Blaszczykowski would not be a mismatch. Özil and Giroud are also guaranteed starters.
That leaves just the two openings in the wide areas and the choices are between Wilshere, Cazorla, Rosicky (and maybe Gnabry? It’d probably be too big an ask for the kid). Rosicky on the left for his greater work rate and ability to go vertically and Wilshere on the right would be my choices. Santi is a class act but he looked like he was off the pace in the previous game and his style might just crowd the centre. That said, we have to acknowledge the guy is capable of changing the game with individual quality and would probably represent a bolder statement of intent from the manager.
I’d like to see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Arteta, Özil, Ramsey – Wilshere, Giroud, Rosicky.
Dortmund will undoubtedly create a lot and I’ve no doubt many people will hastily link that to Flamini’s absence. But Wenger will want his side to focus on their performance in Munich last year which triggered this excellent run of form. That remains the ideal blueprint for playing against such sides with or without the Frenchman.
Of course, it could be that one German side brings to an end a period of positive results that began against their national rivals just at a time when the fixtures are perfect for a string of poor results. Dortmund have won only one of their last eleven Champions League away games so a defeat for the Gunners will definitely raise genuine questions about their quality and could also affect the confidence of the side going into this crucial period. This is going to be a hard fought game but Arsenal have to repeatedly prove they can perform in the big games before any title pretensions are taken seriously.