If you can’t win, don’t lose. And then sometimes if you don’t lose, you can win! Dortmund did that to the Gunners at the Emirates when they scored the winner with their only meaningful attack of the second half, so it was nice to see Arsenal returning the favour in Germany.
I’ve been on the road all week and barely found time to catch up with the game. Apologies to those who were waiting for the report. Before starting the discussion on the United game I’ll just cover some observations from the win in Dortmund as it seems too late to go in depth.
Klopp’s side are excellent on transitions but they are not that potent when they come up against a well-organized defence and a team that doesn’t lose the ball to their pressing. As a result the first half was extremely tight. Arsenal were mostly secure but the hosts did create a couple of big chances down their right flank. Having the central defenders in the right positions helped and this was enabled by hard work from the midfield that ensured they weren’t exposed and dragged all over the place. This was another big game where the defending of the team as a unit was appreciable. Do that, avoid mistakes, and you’ll always give yourself a genuine shot at winning any game.
The beginning of the second half did throw up some problems for the Gunners. Usually, it’s Wenger’s side who push on after a tight first half to establish their dominance following the break. In this game it seemed Klopp’s side came out with certain ideas and executed them well to break forward repeatedly. No one would have grudged them a goal in that period but just as the Gunners failed to convert their domination to a decisive lead in the reverse fixture, Dortmund failed to get past Szczesny.
Arsenal’s goal was also interesting in many ways. It came against the run of play but wasn’t a counter-attack. It was a very ‘English’ goal and flew in the face of Klopp’s pompous ramblings from before the game. It started with a long ball towards a big centre-forward that his central defenders couldn’t quite deal with, and was finished after two physical and aerial duels in the box that his defenders lost.
I accept that one off incidents don’t prove much but these kind of moments reinforce my belief that many highly rated European teams would not look quite as good if they had to play regularly in the Premier League. The point is not to say one league is better than the other but to highlight the different nature of the beast that is the English Premier League. It’s a hard one to tame and the process takes a lot out of teams in a way few other competitions do.
The most pleasing aspect of the game was Arsenal ability to see the game through without conceding any worthwhile opportunities. Although that late incident between Mertesacker and Lewandowski showed just how tight a rope the Gunners walk on. I have seen those given. That doesn’t mean it was a nailed on penalty – and I thought the Dutch referee was very good in dealing with the Polish striker’s gamesmanship for most of the game – but it certainly was the kind of event where your own fate is out of your hands.
The ease with which Dortmund were able to go from a free-kick near their own corner flag to such a moment in the centre of the Arsenal box in a matter of seconds shows us just how much Arsenal still have to improve. Indeed, it’s their defensive ability that has allowed Dortmund to forge their recent reputation even if their attacking exploits take up the most column inches. The Gunners have shown good resilience in the last couple of games but it will take a lot more work before teams start wondering how they’ll score against Arsenal. And until that stage is reached, the sceptics will always have a question or two to raise.
In terms of individuals, it’s hard to pick a MotM after such a game where many players performed equally admirably in different sort of ways.
As a slight negative, it can be said that Gibbs did have a tough time in one-v-one moments and the covering defending on the left wasn’t quite as reliable as it was on the other flank.
Tactically, it was good to see Özil spend a lot of time on the right with Rosicky filling in centrally to provide additional defensive tenacity and work rate. Özil also tracked back when he had to, unlike the previous game, and produced one memorable clearance that his defensive colleagues would have been proud of.
Moving on, Sunday brings the opportunity to end a big week on a real high and enter the third straight international break in a confident state. Despite the two wins this week the Gunners are still 2-2 as far as big games are concerned, and doubts about their credentials will resurface if they suffer a defeat at Old Trafford.
It’s an interesting fixture in that both sides have a lot to prove and have much at stake. Apart from the obvious points related dynamics, United have the opportunity to show they’re getting back into the groove under a new manager who is unproven for this level in many eyes. Their eight game undefeated stretch will not amount to much if they falter against the League leaders and lose another big game. They’ve not won any of their five League game against sides currently in the top half of the table.
In a similar vein, Arsenal and Wenger have to show they’re past the Ferguson stranglehold. The Gunners have only won one of their last nine League games against United and at times I felt the French manager and his wards had a bit of a mental block in this fixture. But their record against Moyes is much, much better. This game should tell us how much of either record was down to the quality of players available to each manager and what extent of it was attributable to managerial acumen.
In this game I expect United to be well organized defensively, a strength that they are slowly rediscovering. The key, though, will be in their ability to press the Gunners and work defensively a little higher up the pitch. Ferguson relied on persistent man-marking and tracking of runs and that’s a strategy Moyes could tap into. At Everton, the Scot often had his team chasing the ball at a very high intensity and in a methodical manner, almost akin to the pressing that works so well for Dortmund. But the Toffees didn’t have the individual attacking quality that produces the decisive moments for the Germans. Moyes will be hoping the likes of Rooney and Van Persie can provide that for him at his new club but thus far he hasn’t been able to make this United side work at the same frantic pace so the threat for the Gunners is likely to come from different sources.
Moyes does like using the width of the pitch when attacking and Arsenal should expect consistent forays down their flanks. In the previous game Rosicky and Özil swapped places but the Gunners might be tempted to have a more diligent tracker on the right side of midfield. Özil can always drift into that space when Evra is looking to go forward.
Mertesacker and Koscielny have come up against some top class strikers in Suarez, Sturridge, and Lewandowski. But in my opinion, the two they’ll face on Sunday are a cut above. Van Persie’s technique and the ability to create space for himself is exceptional while Rooney has always enjoyed playing against the Gunners. That team work in defence I was talking about earlier will again be vital but it might not be enough. Considering what I’ve seen in the last two games from the Gunners and the qualities of the various attackers they’ll face, a clean sheet will come as a pleasant surprise.
Arsenal will most probably have to score two or more to win this game. I doubt Wenger’s sides have scored 2 or more at Old Trafford in the Premier League (the 8-2 never happened!). It’s worth noting that the big games they’ve won in recent times (Bayern, Spurs, Liverpool, Dortmund) have all come on the back of defensive shutouts. I’m keen to see if the Gunners can win a big game where both sides score, particularly if they concede first. Not that I want them to, the stats are pretty convincing as far as the importance of the first goal goes.
Wenger doesn’t have too many choices but Flamini could be back in contention. An amusing cult seems to have developed in support of the Frenchman but the last two performances remind us that the team had been playing well way before he was anywhere in the frame for a comeback. His presence could, nevertheless, help the team if they are going to sit back and play another defensive game.
I’d like to see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Flamini, Ramsey, Arteta – Özil, Giroud, Cazorla.
Flamini can support Sagna when Evra drives forward while Ramsey drops into the central area and Özil stays a little higher up the pitch to break into space. But such an approach would be a consciously taken tactical decision and I’m not sure if Wenger prepares such micro-details for his team to follow. With that in mind, I won’t be surprised if Ramsey starts on the right flank.
In any case, fluidity and the ability to fill in for each other is vital to the way Arsenal play. The team will get some joy in the attacking areas if they can interchange positions without getting in each other’s way.
An away game at Old Trafford has been a lost cause for most teams for a long, long time. Arsenal have only won there thrice in the Premier League era. But this is a whole new ball game and the Gunners have the opportunity to reset the record. They have the ability but can they translate that into points?Follow @goonerdesi