Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Three Things We Learned from FC Basel v Arsenal

Lucas Perez’s hat trick decided Arsenal’s 4-1 win over FC Basel in the Champions League and, in an unlikely outcome, clinched the top spot in Group A for the Gunners.

Unlikely because Paris Saint-Germain, heavy favorites at home, could only draw with Ludogorets Razgrad. As a result, Arsenal’s won the group for the first time in five years.

The Gunners blitzed Basel at the beginning of each half and warded off most of the hosts’ pressure to secure the victory.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Arsène Wenger still goes for it

The talk leading up to the encounter focused on whether the Arsenal manager should and would give his important players a rest. After all, PSG was almost certain to secure the group’s top seed at home, and the Gunners face a challenging Premier League calendar.

If you needed reminding of Wenger’s unpredictability and his respect for the Champions League, his team selection should give you all you require. Yes, he made six changes from the lineup that dispatched West Ham on Saturday; those six, though, did not include Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez. Arsenal’s two stars played long enough to secure the result, then left for substitutes.

Elsewhere, the manager picked an aggressive starting XI, fielding Aaron Ramsey in midfield beside Granit Xhaka and Lucas with Alex Iwobi, Özil, and Alexis farther forward. The priority was clearly on the attack, a focus that proved smart as Arsenal’s speed on the break overwhelmed Basel.

This risk-taking did mean that, early 2-0 lead in hand, this was not the team to lock it down. But the group, particularly central defenders Laurent Koscielny and Rob Holding, did enough to keep Basel from getting too close.

Lucas Perez gets to the right place at the right time

The two goals Lucas scored in early the first half displayed his opportunistic streak. He recognized the threat that left back Kieran Gibbs was posing on Basel’s right, and he got himself into can’t-miss positions in front of goal.

For his first, Lucas sneaked in as Alexis released Gibbs to the byline with a delicate chip in the eighth minute. Gibbs drew the Basel keeper Tomas Vaclik’s attention then slotted the pass to Lucas. The Spaniard waited a split-second, Alexis style, for the last Basel defender to commit, then eased the ball into the net.

Eight minutes later, Lucas scored a poacher’s goal, jumping on the rebound of Gibbs’s stinging shot to sweep home.

He had more work to do to finish off the second Arsenal hat-trick in as many matches. Again, Gibbs was instrumental. His intervention and strong pass upfield was deadened by Alexis into Lucas’s path. Lucas swung his weaker right foot, didn’t make clean contact, but had the angle perfect to beat Vaclik.

That’s five goals in just nine Arsenal appearances for the late summer arrival from Deportivo La Coruna. An excellent return.

Gibbs and Iwobi jelled well

Arsenal enjoyed a smooth combination on its left. Unlike in the last match against PSG, Gibbs and Iwobi synchronized their movements and reached dangerous positions.

Gibbs played much of the match practically as a winger, getting forward at every opportunity. Of his 62 completed passes, Gibbs directed the plurality (26) forward and connected on 13 of 14 passes in the final third. (Statistics from FourFourTwo StatsZone)

Gibbs could influence the match in this fashion because Iwobi frequently moved in from the flank to overload the midfield. Running from that central position onto Özil’s cutback, Iwobi scored Arsenal’s fourth goal of the night.

Meanwhile, Basel couldn’t exploit the resulting gaps on Arsenal’s left. Center forward Marc Janko wasn’t mobile enough to run into that channel, and right back Michael Lang, though 15 of 15 on passes in the attacking third, could not produce the decisive quality.

Extra time

Until the point in the 78th minute when Rob Holding surrendered possession, leading to Basel’s goal, his partnership with Laurent Koscielny at the heart of Arsenal’s defense performed impeccably.

Koscielny succeeded on seven of seven attempted clearances, while Holding was five for five. Koscielny also made a game-high four interceptions, while Holding completed 93 percent of his passes. All added up to solid contributions from a novel partnership.

A brief word about Granit Xhaka, too, upon his return to his original club: The Swiss international pushed Arsenal forward from midfield, completing 41 of his game-high 104 passes forward. He was also alert defensively, intercepting four Basel passes, making 14 ball recoveries, and succeeding on three of five attempted tackles. No player was more effective on those measures.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Southampton: Changes Coming

We can expect another change in complexion for Arsenal's EFL Cup quarterfinal match with Southampton on Wednesday.

Manager Arsène Wenger made seven alterations to his starting lineup between last Wednesday’s Champions League draw with Paris-Saint Germain and Sunday’s 3-1 league win over Bournemouth. The only holdovers were central defenders Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, playmaker Mesut Özil, and center forward Alexis Sanchez.

Selecting that quartet for two high-profile matches shows its importance to the current Arsenal team. In all likelihood, Koscielny, Mustafi, Özil, and Alexis will get a deserved rest against Southampton. They will have few opportunities for days off before the return fixture against Bournemouth on January 2.

In their places, Wenger will send out young players and squad stalwarts—Rob Holding and Gabriel in the center of defense, for example, and Alex Iwobi in the attacking midfield.

The center forward choice will be an interesting one. Recent league supersub Olivier Giroud would get the nod up front, but he tweaked his groin on Sunday and may need more time to recover. Lucas Perez will be in the squad after a month-injury absence; he might not be ready to start, though.

The other options would be Theo Walcott, replaced by Giroud after 75 minutes on Sunday, Iwobi as part of a fluid front four, or debutante Stephy Mavididi. None ideal. As a result, Wenger may have to fend off arguments from the indefatigable and insistent Alexis for another run-out.

We’ll also see Kieran Gibbs return to left back and Francis Coquelin to the center of midfield. Other candidates for starting roles include Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Chris Willock.

All have earned playing time in Arsenal’s two wins in this competition. They’ll be backed by goalkeeper Emi Martinez.

This group will face its stiffest test in this competition so far. Not only are Southampton the first top-flight side to play Arsenal in this year’s cup, the Saints have posed serious challenges to the Gunners of late. Arsenal’s 2-1, stoppage-time, league win in September was just their second in seven outings against Southampton. That included a 2-1 loss in this competition two years ago.

Like Wenger, Southampton manager Claude Puel should adjust his starting XI from the one that defeated Everton 1-0 at the weekend. The Saints’ schedule is just as busy as the Gunners’, with a return to London against Crystal Palace and a crunch Europa League matchup with Hapoel Be’er Sheva in the next eight days.

There’s also precedent for Puel to rotate for this competition. He switched nine starters between Southampton’s league draw at Manchester City and the 1-0 home win over Sunderland in the last round.

Key Matchup

Alex Iwobi against Harrison Reed and Jordy Clasie. If Özil does get the break as anticipated, much of Arsenal’s creative burden will fall to Iwobi. He has not made much of an impact recently—as is normal for players who burst into the first team. Southampton are a difficult team to unlock, largely because their deep midfielders and defenders work so well together. Iwobi will need to find his daring and execution to create chances for his teammates.

Where to Worry

Shane Long annoys Arsenal every time he faces them. The Irish striker is tireless both in his running and in his niggly fouling. He’ll try to get under Gabriel’s skin and hope for a mistake from the relatively inexperienced defensive partnership of Arsenal.

Match Verdict

This one has the makings of a cagey and uneven affair. Because both teams will have relatively new makeups, synching the attacks might prove difficult. The heightened, if only mildly, pressure of a quarterfinal with Wembley on the distant horizon might also have a psychological effect on the players.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. His double propelled Arsenal to a 2-0 win over Reading in the last round. The incentive of facing his former club, plus his improved performances aside from his North London Derby cameo, could push him to make a telling impact here.

Southampton. Stuart Taylor. The ex-Arsenal man, now 36, may get his Southampton debut in goal in the absence of Alex McCarthy. He’ll need all that experience and good relationships with his back four to keep Arsenal’s youthful attack from bamboozling him.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Mesut Özil and Arsenal's Midfield Misadventure

When Arsenal's offense hums, playmaker Mesut Özil orchestrates it. But neither he nor the team got into a rhythm in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United. The Gunners’ inability to register a shot on target until Olivier Giroud’s equalizer in the 89th minute seems like clear proof of the team’s ineffectiveness on the day.

Combine that reality with the hosts’ crisper passing and effective defending, and you get a rather unpleasant display for Arsenal fans. A pleasing result, no doubt, but not with the aesthetic quality we would like to see.

Pause from the monocause

As ever in this era of reductive outrage, many observers laid the responsibility at the feet of either Özil or Aaron Ramsey. The attacking midfielders carried the creative potential in this particular starting XI; the other members of the front six tended to the direct (Alexis, Theo Walcott) or the risk managers (Francis Coquelin, Mohammed Elneny).

It’s true that neither Özil nor Ramsey created a chance for a teammate. Between them, they completed only one pass in the opposition penalty area. And neither took a shot.

So at one level you can see why Arsenal’s two talents took criticism for the pedestrian display overall.

But those complaints, true to our age, oversimplify complex developments.

Kelly Wood’s defense of Ramsey, “Aaron Ramsey! He is Great,” hammers the Ramsey critics effectively, so I won’t restate her points here. What I will do instead is try to understand the dynamics that brought on this performance, particularly from Özil.

So, what’s Özil’s scenario?

First, the statistics don’t reveal anything out of the ordinary. Özil completed 58 passes against Manchester United, just one fewer than his season average. His passing accuracy of 86 percent was only one percentage point lower than his norm so far this year.

The difference was where Özil did this work. Instead of combining with Alexis and Walcott on the edge or in Manchester United’s penalty area, the German playmaker operated much closer to midfield. The heat maps on whoscored.com show Özil frequenting the middle third. That was a change of his sphere of influence, given that he’s one of the Premier League’s most prolific final-third passers.

Not only did this shift of activity take Özil away from where he’s most dangerous, it jammed him into an area where others were operating. In particular, Alexis dropped deep from his center forward position to receive the ball—note the overlap with Özil on the heat map.

Rather than creating triangles to facilitate quick passing, the Gunners’ close proximity to each other in midfield allowed Manchester United’s midfielders to clog the spaces.

There was another team on the pitch

That was central to Jose Mourinho’s brutal design.

The Manchester United manager set out to deny Özil opportunities on the ball. The German genius often found himself surrounded by three opposition players—center backs Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones pushing up and midfielder Michael Carrick shielding passes into him. When he ventured to the left, right back Antonio Valencia and a central midfielder usually had him cornered.

Loosening these defensive shackles proved difficult. It required guile and skill from Özil's midfield teammates or a dangerous distraction elsewhere.

For all their positive qualities and contributions, Coquelin and Elneny could not provide the craft to free Özil. The central pair focused on breaking up the hosts’ attacks and making the simple pass out. These two responsibilities were difficult enough, what with the harassment they received from Ander Herrera.

To find the well-marshalled Özil, they needed more daring.

Creative responsibility wasn’t their brief, though, as manager Arsène Wenger admitted afterward. “I knew it would be a bit more of a physical battle, so I chose players who have experience and fight,” he told Arsenal.com.

Method to the midfield

There’s a logic to this approach. Many factors weighed against Arsenal in this match, even if this wasn’t the most fearsome Manchester United lineup of all time.

Early kickoff. Return from the international break. The Mourinho hoodoo. A 10-year league victory drought at Old Trafford. Injuries to dynamic players like Hector Bellerin and Santi Cazorla.

In that context, you can understand a more circumspect approach from Arsenal. Wenger was right that midfield robustness was important; it’s just that his charges didn’t cope superbly with the aggressiveness of Manchester United in that area of the pitch.

They handled it well enough to get a draw. If the players’ post-game comments are a true indication, they’ll be honest in their assessment of the performance and optimistic that better outings lie ahead.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Match Preview, Ludogorets v Arsenal: Not So Fast

Arsenal travel to Bulgaria to face Ludogorets Razgrad on Tuesday, with the opportunity of setting the pace in Champions League Group A.

The Gunners are level on points with Paris Saint-Germain and have a superior goal difference, so the target of winning the group is within reach with three matches to go.

The team shouldn’t grab for that objective prematurely, though. Any dip in performance or focus could be costly here.

Ludogorets posed dangers two weeks ago when they visited the Emirates. Yes, Arsenal ran out 6-0 winners, but there were moments in the first half when Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina had to intervene and prevent the Bulgarian side from seizing the initiative.

Indeed, Ludogorets did not follow the pattern most visitors use in North London: Rather than defending deep, they opened the game and sought to capitalize on Arsenal’s aggressiveness. They were particularly adept in transition, moving quickly from the wings to playmaker Marcelinho.

This success should make Arsenal wary. All the more so because first choice right back Hector Bellerin did not make the trip to Sofia. In his place, we’ll see either Carl Jenkinson, with only one Arsenal start since May 2014, or regular center half Shkodran Mustafi.

The center of Arsenal’s midfield will also look different. Santi Cazorla remains injured, and Francis Coquelin may get a rest before Sunday’s North London Derby.

The challenge for manager Arsène Wenger is choosing among the qualities and strengths of four deserving central midfield choices. Granit Xhaka, out of action since his red card against Swansea, Coquelin, Mohammed Elneny, and Aaron Ramsey all have strong starting cases.

Our best guess is that Xhaka partners Elneny. It would be only the second start for the pair. Xhaka-neny’s previous performance came in Arsenal’s 4-0 EFL Cup win at Nottingham Forest, so in theory the two can combine effectively.

Whomever the manager picks, Arsenal’s midfielders need to attend to the home side’s threat. Ludogorets led PSG at home and drew with Basel in the Champions League. In domestic competition, they’ve scored 15 goals in their last four games, so they don’t lack firepower.

Where the hosts may struggle is in defense. Arsenal possess the speed of thought, movement, and passing to punish most teams. It’s unlikely that Ludogorets have the organization and defensive quality to keep the likes of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez quiet.

Key Matchup

Arsenal’s fullbacks against Ludogorets’s wide attacking players. Ludogorets will look for opportunities to isolate Gibbs and Jenkinson/Mustafi. Wanderson, Misidjan, and Cafú all flashed threats in the first meeting. If Gibbs keeps up his fine form and his counterpart on the right holds firm, Arsenal can limit Ludogorets’s effectiveness going forward.

Where to Worry

Too many changes in Arsenal’s starting XI, some enforced by injury and others by choice, could create uncertainty the hosts could exploit. Of particular concern would be the defensive support Arsenal’s right back receives from the midfielder and wide attacker. Jenkinson or Mustafi will need help to slot in effectively.

Match Verdict

A wide-open affair. Ludogorets will likely maintain its European record of scoring in all its home matches, but Arsenal will field enough offensive talent to overcome the hosts.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Alexis. Arsenal’s dynamo is humming at the moment. Two goals against Sunderland on Saturday punctuated his all-action performance. His is the kind of talent and energy that Ludogorets will struggle to contain.

Ludogorets. Marcelinho. The Brazilian pulled the strings for the Bulgarian side two weeks ago, completing 89 of 99 passes, both game highs. He also created three chances for teammates.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Second Coming of Francis Coquelin

Francis Coquelin’s reappearance in Arsenal’s midfield in Wednesday’s 6-0 Champions League victory over Ludogorets may have signaled the start of a very long reign.

If not messianic – because the team did not need saving – Coquelin’s performance came close to perfection.

In his first start since injuring his knee against Chelsea on September 24, the Frenchman regained his high level in defensive interventions. He made 13 ball recoveries, intercepted seven opposition passes, and succeeded on eight of 11 tackles. All those were game highs, according to FourFourTwo Stats Zone.

The catalyst and distributor

We’ve come to expect such defensive influence from Coquelin since his near-miraculous emergence in January 2015. Perhaps more surprising was his passing acumen. Against Ludogorets, Coquelin led all Arsenal players with 51 completed passes, on 55 attempts. No Arsenal starter had better passing efficiency.

Coquelin always seemed to choose the correct option, even the not-so-obvious ones. Two passes in the second half stood out. He intervened brilliantly and returned Kieran Gibbs’ cleared cross to the left back, keeping alive the possession that led to Arsenal’s third goal. That’s at the 4:10 mark of this video.

The second (at 5:24) shows his vision and execution. Coquelin spots Mesut Özil open on the left and finds the German with a perfect cross-field pass.

Combine those two contributions, winning the ball and distributing it effectively, and you have the perfect midfielder for Arsenal’s current setup.

That’s not to detract from the quality and performances of Coquelin’s midfield teammates. On the contrary. I’d argue that the quintet of Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny, and Aaron Ramsey are, as a group, the best midfield in club football. No other team boasts a five-deep central midfield of that ability.

The contingent gives manager Arsène Wenger a range of options, as Tim Stillman explored in his Arseblog column this week.

What Coquelin provides is a foundation both solid and vibrant for Arsenal’s attacking talent to thrive. His instinct upon winning the ball appears to be to get it forward.

With equanimity: Despite completing the team’s most passes against Ludogorets, he didn’t figure in any of the team’s top five passing combinations. He found Özil eight times; Gibbs seven; Cazorla and Shkodran Mustafi five; Theo Walcott, Alexis Sanchez, Laurent Koscielny, Hector Bellerin, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain four.

One of many cogs in the tactical wheel

Many of these interactions begin with Coquelin higher up the pitch than a typical holding midfielder would be. He’s serving as a midfield marauder, with Cazorla as a deep-lying playmaker behind him.

This is an interesting shift from Wenger because it makes the midfield more proactive and interchangeable, given the personnel. Ramsey, Elneny, and Xhaka can all perform the role of Coquelin, though, as Stillman observes, with slightly different styles.

Meanwhile, Elneny and Xhaka can slot in for Cazorla as the deep playmaker. Yes, the aesthetic would be subtly different, but none of those shifts would alter the overall approach the manager seems to be taking.

The direction is to press opponents early in matches. Alexis often initiates the pressure on the ball, with Özil and Walcott closing down the first passing options. That’s when Arsenal surrender possession in relatively open areas of their attacking half.

When transitions happen in a more crowded attacking setting, often it’s Coquelin who steps up, prevents the opposition from escaping, intercepts the pass, and quickly finds a teammate in a threatening position. Such a contribution led to a stinging shot from Theo Walcott on Wednesday evening.

Then, when the pressing has resulted in a lead for Arsenal, the team can solidify its defensive shape and try to hurt opponents on the counterattack. Coquelin is an ideal linchpin for this approach as well.

The bone of contention

Still, Coquelin, like every central midfielder since Patrick Vieira, provokes debate among Arsenal fans. When Wednesday’s team sheet came out, for example, Twitter erupted with consternation that Coquelin, and not Xhaka, got the starting nod.

Maybe this is because Coquelin did not carry a huge price tag. Perhaps he doesn’t exude the silky skill some expect of an Arsenal midfielder. Or folks have forgotten how he and Cazorla combined to such successful effect in 2015. Or they don’t like the apparent improvisation that created that partnership. Others might not recognize how much he’s improved from that excellent year, even.

What’s clear, though, is that Wenger holds none of these opinions. The manager is a first-hand witness to Coquelin’s abilities and attitude, both of which he deems important to this version of Arsenal.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Basel: Roll On

When Arsenal host FC Basel in the Champions League on Tuesday, the Gunners can establish a strong position in their Champions League group and continue their good form.

The Match Day One draw in Paris, on paper the most difficult of Arsenal’s group stage matches, gives the team a slight advantage in its qualifying campaign. Three home wins all but guarantee progress to the knockout phase.

A positive result would also extend the promising trend the Gunners have set since their opening-day league loss to Liverpool. They’re on a seven-match unbeaten run with a relatively attractive schedule until early November.

Basel will not be an easy target—the Swiss side has slain English giants in the past. They have also dominated the Swiss Super League, having won nine of nine matches while conceding just seven goals.

With respect, that competition will have not had the quality of Arsenal.

That’s the case even though we can expect manager Arsène Wenger to adjust his starting XI. Midfielder Francis Coquelin will miss out, having re-injured his right knee on Saturday. That means a start for Granit Xhaka against his former club.

Although Wenger did not rotate his side against Paris-Saint Germain, this looks like an opportunity to deploy some members of his strong squad. Based on their performances against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup, Kieran Gibbs, Mohamed Elneny, and Lucas Perez merit consideration.

Will Wenger go for this scale of change in a Champions League match? It would break from his usual practice, but four goals by the second string at Nottingham Forest point to a wealth of worthy attacking options.

The incoming quartet would bring a slightly different style of play from that of the vanquishers of Chelsea. A little less aggression and a little more flow in midfield, primarily. Lucas and Alexis Sanchez interchanging in attack could also cause problems for a Basel defense unaccustomed to their levels of speed and tenacity.

Of course, the XI Wenger sent out against Chelsea, with just Xhaka in for Coquelin, would be just as daunting a proposition for the visitors.

Key Matchup

Mesut Özil against Taulant Xhaka. Arsenal’s playmaker ran the show against Chelsea. His skills and smarts pose a constant menace to opposition defenders. Xhaka, facing his brother’s new team, will have to marshal his midfield teammates to minimize the space Özil can exploit.

Where to Worry

Arsenal’s biggest concern should be overconfidence. The Gunners look convincing but can’t take any match for granted. They’ll need to bring comparable intensity and swiftness of thought to this encounter, even if on paper the opposition is weaker. Because we’ve seen the consequences of not doing that in the past.

Match Verdict

I’m not entirely convinced by the momentum factor in football; I’ve never seen statistics to support the narrative of a team on a roll. So in this case, the focus, form, and quality Arsenal can showcase in 18 players will most likely be too much for Basel.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Granit Xhaka. Arsenal’s Swiss acquisition will have a chance to run this match from deep in the midfield. He launches attacks in a different way than Coquelin does—incisive passing vs. aggressive interception—and it will be interesting to watch Arsenal’s attack flow with Xhaka in charge.

Basel. Seydou Doumbia. Basel’s Ivorian striker, who has been rotated like Swiss clockwork with target man Marc Janko, will likely get the call with his teammate injured. Doumbia has six league goals in eight league appearances.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Match Preview, PSG v Arsenal: The Setup

Arsenal’s initial match of the Champions League campaign in Paris on Tuesday carries both peril and potential.

On paper, it’s the toughest of the Gunners’ group stage encounters. The runaway Ligue 1 champions are the top seed and recent four-time quarterfinalists in this competition. Arsenal also have a habit of starting the Champions League slowly, if not stupidly, losing the last two openers.

You wouldn’t fancy a reversal of that trend against one of Europe’s free-spending clubs. But other factors may weigh in Arsenal’s favor this time.

The biggest advantage is disarray at PSG. The club cashiered Laurent Blanc at the end of last season and hired Unai Emery from Seville, where he won an unprecedented three consecutive Europa League titles. The two managers’ philosophies differ, and a roster largely of Blanc’s making hasn’t easily adapted.

The Parisians also lost their most potent offensive threat, striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Without their Swedish talisman, PSG have so far lacked a player capable of rescuing them from pedestrian displays. They’ve labored in three of four Ligue 1 matches, including Friday’s home draw with Saint-Etienne.

Part of those struggles can be attributed to defensive injuries. Team captain Thiago Silva has been out; Maxwell, Serge Aurier, and Layvin Kurzawa have also missed time. With the exits of David Luiz and Gregory Van Der Wiel, PSG had only one experienced defender, Marquinos, by the end of the Saint-Etienne match.

Will Arsenal’s offensive threat be enough to capitalize? In eight halves of league play, the Gunners seemed fluid in one, the first half at Watford. They mustered just one non-penalty shot on target in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Southampton. That came from center back Laurent Koscielny, a bicycle-kick equalizer.

In truth, though, manager Arsène Wenger hasn’t yet fielded his first-choice attacking unit. Center forward Olivier Giroud has only appeared as a substitute, playmaker Mesut Özil had limited action in the season’s first two matches, and Alexis played just a half-hour on Saturday.

If Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey are also candidates for the first XI, we’d have to say the Gunners haven’t deployed their firepower in full.

Whether Wenger decides to open up in Paris is an intriguing question. When Arsenal have had poor results in Europe, the cause has most often been unwise aggression. The Gunners have been undone by continentals’ tactical savvy and efficient finishing. So there’s a case for a more circumspect approach here.

That would include enhanced positional awareness and flow in the midfield. PSG’s biggest strength, developed under Blanc, is in the center of the park. Marco Veratti, Blaise Matuidi, Thiago Motta, and Adrien Rabiot are all smooth conductors of play. It wouldn’t be a surprise for Wenger to choose Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny as a partnership to try to counter PSG there.

Their relative freshness—and that of their teammates farther forward--gives the manager flexibility he’s rarely enjoyed. As he remarked in his pre-match press conference, “I haven’t decided. The players don’t know the team.”

How he clarifies his thinking will be telling.

Key Matchup

Nacho Monreal against Lucas Moura. What dynamism PSG have generated thus far has come from the Brazilian winger. He’s a crafty presence, shown by the average of 4.1 dribbles he’s attempted every 90 minutes he’s played. Monreal held up well as Southampton tried to isolate him. He’ll need a similar performance and more support against Lucas.

Where to Worry

Arsenal’s midfield left too many gaps against Southampton, especially in the first 20 minutes. The Gunners can’t allow their hosts’ slick passers time to find their forwards, even if the likes of Edison Cavani and Angel Di María have been less than efficient in front of goal.

Match Verdict

Midfield skill will be on display, but the sides’ strengths in this area will likely cancel each other out. Loose defending permits a goal each. Arsenal emerges with a draw in its toughest group match.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman has an opportunity to silence some of his homeland critics. He’ll face a PSG backline unsettled by injury and unused to his brand of physical play.

PSG. Angel Di María. The Argentine is PSG’s creative mind. He’s capable of magical moments off the dribble, with the pass, and on free kicks.