First In…Last Out?

By Patrick Grove

Wednesday night saw Arsenal Football Club’s victory over Borussia Dortmund move the Gunners into the knockout stages of the Champions League for the twelfth time in a row (Twelfth looks spelled wrong to me…doesn’t it?).  Allow that to sink in for a moment (the consistency not the spelling)….

Now that you have sufficiently basked in that glorious statistic showing the clubs’ great consistency throughout the “Wenger years” let me make it a bit more special.  Arsenal Football Club is the first English side to make it through to the knockout stage in this season’s competition.  And to heap a little more smile on your face, the Gunners are the only English team to have secured the top spot in their group.  Anyone expect that 6-8 weeks ago?  I thought not.

It is an amazing accomplishment that the club have managed to turn early season turmoil into what they have.  Being able to save first team players from traveling all the way to Greece for a Champions League fixture is a huge blessing and will also give some of the young stars and back-up first teamers some much needed game time.  But I’ll stop talking about the great things the win did for us (although I’ll probably return for more later) and focus on analyzing the game a bit.

All that rubbish I was talking in the last article about Dortmund having a let off after the big win in Munich over the weekend was indeed proved to be just that…Rubbish.

The Germans got off to a rip-roaring start and for much of the first half had the better play.  They pressed high up the pitch, forced Arsenal back, and counter-attacked with pace and ingenuity.  Two early injuries to important players (Goetze and Bender) really seemed to halt their momentum.  Almost as soon as Goetze came off the field, you could sense that some of the cut and thrust behind Dortmund’s attack faded away.  They still created chances, but they didn’t seem to be as threatening.  Lewandowski probably had the best chance of the half with a well-struck attempt from all of 30 yards out that went just wide.  Arsenal may have had the lion’s share of possession but I think the Germans definitely edged the first half.

The second started similarly to the first as Dortmund created a chance in the opening 2 minutes with Kagawa played through with some nifty one touch football that saw him one on one with Szczesny.  The Pole got down quickly to make a good save but it was definitely a warning shot to the home team that they could be picked apart.

Within 5 minutes of the restart though, Arsenal had their opener.  A good break was started with Gervinho played down the left who worked his way centrally finding Aaron Ramsey.  Ramsey was forced to back track due to some good pressure and played the ball back to Song.  And then the show began.  The Cameroonian profited from a bit of good fortune to beat the first defender, but then a great piece of skill skinned two defenders at once before standing up a wonderful cross.  And who was there to head it home…none other than Van the Man.  He got high enough to plant his header at the feet of the Dortmund keeper who just could not keep it out.

The visitors’ response was to use their third and final sub to bring on an attacking player for a defensive midfielder.  However, rarely did they trouble the Arsenal defense that really looked in control throughout the rest of the half.  Song and Arteta were working their socks off to provide a good shield for the back four while Aaron Ramsey and even RVP tracked back to provide outlets when possession was won back.  Gervinho spurned another chance but Arsenal found their way into the knockout stages through Vermaelan and Robin.  Arteta played in a driven corner to the near post that was flicked on by Vermaelan to a completely free Dutchman to sweep home with “the wand”.

Kagawa got a late consolation goal for the visitors (which he more than merited as he was by far their standout player of the match for me), but by then the Gunners were through to the next round.

There were good performances all around the pitch.  My Man of the Match vote went to Alex Song.  Not only did he help the defense with some really hard work to break up play, his moment of genius created the first goal from almost nothing.  He seems to like playing against Dortmund (2/2 for MOTM) and I hope he will continue to play this hard throughout the rest of the season.

Robin (F&*#@N – ed. He is just that good right now) van Persie….Enough said.

Thomas Vermaelan, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, and Szszesny looked solid and calm at the back.  They won almost every aerial battle and really only allowed 3 definite chances throughout the game.

Theo Walcott was also impressive.  One particular passage of play, when he ran into space, let the ball run through to Ramsey, received the return pass behind his defender, and then played an early cross which nearly picked out van Persie, was the kind of “footballing brain” type play I really doubted he had in him.  He continues to prove me wrong with his play throughout the last few matches.  He can continue proving me wrong as long as he likes if his play is as solid as it has been the last two matches.  He was even tracking back to help cover his defenders!

Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta also played quite well controlling the pace and staying calm under the high pressure that Dortmund exerted for much of the game.

However, there were some under performers as well.  For me, Santos’ defensive frailties were really brought to light in this game.  On multiple occasions he was beaten far too easily and required help too often for a player that is considered a defender.  With the ball and going forward he is a real threat but if he can’t sort out how to play proper defense I cannot see him being a long term left back solution.

Also, Gervinho was again a disappointment as he was over the weekend.  And like I stated in my last article, it was not that he played that badly.  He has shown that he is capable of some extraordinary moments of brilliance and those moments and his scoring touch seem to have had a bit of a let off recently.  If he can find his final touch again he will certainly be a formidable player for the Gunners.

Finally, the refereeing was also below.  I honestly do not like complaining about referees because I understand I am biased and will always have a problem with some calls in a match.  However, the inconsistencies in this game were hugely apparent.  Furthermore, if you look at the inconsistencies between games governed by different referees, you see dramatic differences.

For example, Schmelzer, Dortmund’s left back, sat on a ball that had gone out of bounds and then tossed it away from Aaron Ramsey (to obviously slow down play and momentum) and received only a talking to.  Less than 10 minutes later, Aaron Ramsey passes a ball back to Dortmund so that they can take a kick from an appropriate position and is yellow carded with no warning.  By the letter of the law, both players should have probably seen yellow but surely it doesn’t make sense for one to receive a yellow while the other receives nothing.

There are other examples but I don’t want to belabor the point.  Consistency is the only thing a referee can really hang his hat on (unless he is consistently bad).  When a referee is inconsistent, games tend to get out of control.  Thankfully, Arsenal weren’t made to pay for this inconsistency like they were at Barcelona last season*.

So here we sit.  Onto the knockout stage and top of our group with a game still to play.  Not too shabby for a team that was supposed to be fighting relegation a few months back.

Let’s stay grounded and remember where we have come from though.  “In football, things change quickly” according to Le Professeur.  Hopefully Arsenal’s continued progress won’t be one of those things.

We’re the first English team in.   Can we be the last ones out?  Only time will tell.

Arsenal Til I Die

Arsene Wenger’s Red and White Army!
Arsene Wenger’s Red and White Army!
Arsene Wenger’s Red and White Army!  

*And for those of you Barcelona fan boys out there that think RVP deserved his second yellow and sending off by “the letter of the law,” then clearly you must think that Eric Abidal deserved his marching orders for grabbing the Dutchman by the throat in the first half.  I’m just sayin……