Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Arsenal 3 Dinamo Zagreb 0: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal worked out some of its recent discomfort with a professional 3-0 victory over Dinamo Zagreb in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday.

The Gunners’ star men--Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez--accounted for all three goals in Arsenal's first win in four matches. Alexis clinched the result in the 69th minute, having moved to center forward when starter Olivier Giroud was replaced just a minute earlier.

The win clarifies Arsenal’s task as it seeks to qualify for the competition’s knockout stages for the 16th consecutive year. A victory by two goals in Athens over Olympiacos, 4-0 losers at Bayern Munich Tuesday, will put the Gunners into the Round of 16 yet again.
Here are three other things we learned from the match.

Özil and Alexis drove and delivered

Arsenal’s two top signings looked as if they don’t want to leave the Champions League. Not only did the pair produce the goods in front of goal, but they provided the energy, tenacity, and talent to overwhelm Zagreb at the crucial moments.

Özil’s opening goal in the 29th minute was an excellent example: After some skillful interplay in the Arsenal half among Santi Cazorla, Özil, and Giroud, Cazorla found Mathieu Flamini, who got the ball quickly to the streaking Alexis on Zagreb’s left flank. Giroud and Özil kept sprinting toward goal, Giroud’s run to the near post creating space for the German playmaker to run into. Alexis lifted a pass to Özil, who connected headlong and sent the ball past Zagreb keeper Eduardo.

A goal of speed, skill, and desire.

Those qualities seem to have returned to Alexis’s game in his last two matches. Alexis made the highlights with two goals, breaking a month-long drought, and the assist for Özil. He also harassed Zagreb’s defenders and midfielders, making 3/3 tackles and seven ball recoveries, tied for second on the team, according to FourFourTwo StatsZone.

Özil matched Alexis’s drive and scoring intent, especially in the first half. As manager Arsène Wenger said after the match, “I think Mesut Özil had an outstanding first half, he has got the taste for scoring now. I have never seen him in the box so many times as in the last five or six games.”

Arsenal’s ostensibly retiring playmaker attempted four shots from inside the penalty area and put three on target. The influence diagram on shows how keen Özil was to get forward--he took, generally speaking, the most advanced position in Arsenal's attack.

On the day, the talents and dedication of these two world-class players made up for injury absences and proved too much for Zagreb.

Arsenal made Zagreb pay through transitions, not possession

Whether by design or by Zagreb’s more assertive approach, Arsenal allowed their opponents more possession than we expected. The usual pattern is for visitors to the Emirates to pack their defenses and force Arsenal to find a way through.

That didn’t materialize on Tuesday. Zagreb exerted pressure early and chased the game late. As a result, Arsenal finished the match with only a slight advantage in possession, 53 to 47 percent. Instead, the Gunners created dangerous situations by turning defense to attack with speed.

The first two goals played out this general scenario in a four-minute stretch of the first half. Özil’s goal came from a counterattack over three quarters of the pitch, while Alexis’s first resulted from a Nacho Monreal interception near the Zagreb penalty area and his centering pass.

In each situation, the Gunners moved and thought more quickly than their opponents and, as a result, found space right in front of Zagreb’s goal. A repeat of that idea and execution in the Premier League would be welcome indeed.

The Cazini midfield worked

There were ample discussions before the match about Arsenal's midfield structure and personnel due to the injury-induced absence of Francis Coquelin. His partnership with Cazorla, the thinking went, couldn't be replicated by another midfielder, so Wenger had to consider a revamp, perhaps even moving from the 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-3-3.

As it happened, Flamini moved alongside Cazorla but didn't try to imitate Coquelin. He made only one tackle and three interceptions; by contrast, Coquelin was averaging 3.2 tackles and 2.7 interceptions per game in the Premier League before his injury. (Stats from Opta via

Perhaps even more interesting, Flamini didn't combine with Cazorla nearly as often as Coquelin typically done. Passes from Flamini to Cazorla did not number among the Arsenal's top 11 combinations during the match, while Cazorla connected with his French teammate 12 times, the fifth most frequent Arsenal combination.

Instead of replacing Coquelin's defensive stance, Flamini made a greater creative impact. He picked precisely the right pass to Alexis to send the attacker on his way to assist Özil's opening goal, and his flick along the touch line to Joel Campbell started the move that ended with Alexis's clincher.

Against different opposition, Flamini-as-attacking-hub might not be the most desirable formula, and he might need to deliver more discipline in front of the defense. Here, though, such license paid off.

Extra time

In just 22 minutes of action, Aaron Ramsey showed how valuable he is to the team's workings. Although he wasn't completely fit, his movement made Arsenal's attack much more dynamic. There was space for others and a renewed zip to the passing with Ramsey on the pitch; he also helped solidify the midfield when Zagreb had the ball. Not a moment too soon, Ramsey's return.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Match Preview, Arsenal v Dinamo Zagreb: 72-Hour Revenge Therapy

Tuesday’s Champions League clash with Dinamo Zagreb might be the ideal occasion for Arsenal. With an overwhelming display, the Gunners can ease the disappointment from their rotten performance and luck in Croatia and their unfortunate Premier League result on Saturday against West Bromwich Albion.

The payback will be all the sweeter against a known offender of performance-enhancing drug rules. Dinamo midfielder Arijan Ademi failed even UEFA’s superficial drug test after the home leg in September. UEFA has suspended Ademi for four years, a verdict that’s been appealed.

That development makes the timing perfect for Arsenal. Ademi’s absence will affect the muscularity--ahem--of the Dinamo midfield, and it will emphasize the points Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has made recently about doping in football.

Wenger has embarked on a solo campaign on the issue, beginning with his fascinating interview with L’Equipe Sport & Style’s Erik Bielderman (translated for Arseblog here). Wenger told Beilderman:
In 30 years as a manager, I’ve never had my players injected to make them better. I never gave them any product that would help enhance their performance. I’m proud of that. I’ve played against many teams that weren’t in that frame of mind.

The European governing body doesn’t seem to have appreciated the manager’s forthrightness. According to Wenger, UEFA has stepped up its oversight all right—of Arsenal.

“What I do know is that I came out on that [issue], and as a result we had a doping control from UEFA on Friday!” Wenger revealed at his pre-match press conference on Monday. “We had 10 people on Friday to control us!”

And he returned UEFA’s fire, saying the rule permitting victories to stand despite positive doping results “means you basically accept doping.”

There’s no better way for Arsenal’s players to support their manager than by laying waste to Dinamo Zagreb.

Certainly, the gap in talent makes Arsenal capable of doing that. Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez, in particular, provide an offensive threat that the Croatian side rarely sees.

The complicating factors facing Arsenal aren’t novel. The Gunners will have to cope with an extensive injury list, which since Saturday includes midfield linchpin Francis Coquelin, and they’ll be facing an obdurate defense.

Dinamo Zagreb’s plan at home was to frustrate the Arsenal attack and take advantage of any mental lapses. It worked the charm, as lazy tracking by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, inattentive defending of a corner, and Olivier Giroud’s red card doomed Arsenal to a 2-1 defeat. Manager Zoran Mamic will rely on an intensified version of this approach in London.

Mamic will be encouraged by Arsenal’s inability to break through West Brom’s deeply packed defense on Saturday. Arsenal had 73 percent possession but managed just three shots on target (of 11 shots total), according to FourFourTwo's StatsZone. And one of those, Giroud’s headed goal, came from a free kick.

The Gunners will need to move the ball more quickly and more imaginatively, ideally early in Tuesday’s match, to give Dinamo Zagreb what they have coming and to put recent flat performances behind them.

Regaining energy in this way may even be a more important objective than retaining hope of qualifying for the Champions League knockout stage. Arsenal need a victory against Dinamo and an Olympiacos loss at Bayern Munich to keep that possibility alive. If those two outcomes happen, Arsenal would need a two-goal win over Olympiacos in Athens in two weeks to reach the competition’s final 16.

In other words, in so many respects, this match calls for the maximum from Arsenal.

Players to Watch:

Arsenal. Alexis. Improbably, the Chilean devil rediscovered his verve against West Brom. If he can summon similar energy on Tuesday, Dinamo Zagreb won’t be able to handle him.
Dinamo Zagreb. Domajoc Antolic. The club captain returns from injury and must replace Ademi’s physical presence in midfield if Dinamo’s plan to frustrate Arsenal is to work.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Is This Arsenal's Year?

This international break is even less exciting than most, what with just four competitive ties in Europe among pedestrian national sides, World Cup qualifiers far in advance of the actual competition, and a host of friendlies. The main benefit of the current hiatus is the opportunity to assess Arsenal’s start to the season and the club’s prospects.

Arsenal have played 12 matches in the Premier League and return to action on Saturday with 26 points, the same as league leaders Manchester City. Will the Gunners be there in May?

A more favorable feeling

Because the dynamics of each campaign are different, obsessing over parallels with seasons past isn’t especially productive. Still, there might be lessons supporters and the players can draw from the 2013-14 league season, for example, when Arsenal topped the table after 12 matches.

“The second half [of that season], we dropped,” left back Nacho Monreal told Arsenal Player. “So we need to learn about that. The team is different now. We have different players—more competitive. I think the level of the team is better now.”

It’s hard to argue that point. The additions of Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech and the acclimatization of Mesut Özil brought three game changers to the side; recruitment in the summer of 2014 gave the squad needed depth; and the emergence of Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin added to the dynamism in the playing style.

Much has also been made of the team’s camaraderie and mindset. As Cech observed from his many successful seasons with Chelsea,
You never win things without being focused, without being right in the training ground. So far, I have to say that the team are focused on what we are doing every day, and I have to say, this is the key.

The results, at least in the League, provide the evidence. Arsenal have what it takes to compete with the top sides. The 3-0 demolition of Manchester United, still the team with the league’s best defensive record, is a clear sign of the Gunners’ ability to dominate a match at the summit.

They’ve also summoned the quality of winning when they’re not at their best, such as the 2-1 victory over an energetic Everton side, and have been able to grind out draws that in years past may have turned into losses.

The sample size is small, but two performances after taxing Champions League ties illustrate a possible difference between the seasons. In 2013, Arsenal traveled to Germany, endured the indefatigable pressing of Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund side, and escaped with a 1-0 win. Four days later, a drained Arsenal team lost 1-0 to Manchester United at Old Trafford. This season, the Arsenal team, exhausted by a 5-1 battering in Munich and seemingly overwhelmed by illness, injury, and Mauricio Pochettino’s midfield press, rallied to secure a 1-1 draw with Tottenham and finished that match its more likely winners.

A comparison of results

Beyond such anecdotes, do the numbers indicate that this team has reached a higher level of competitiveness?

In total, the 26 points from the first 12 matches (W8 D2 L2) is two fewer than the Arsenal of 2013-14 compiled over the similar opening period. The difference, really, is that of one draw in 2015 that was a win in 2013.

Given the strength of the two schedules, though, that’s a good outcome. At this point in the 2013 campaign, the median position of the Gunners’ first 12 league opponents was 11.5; this season, it’s 9.5.

Indeed, in 2013, nine of Arsenal’s first 12 opponents found themselves in the 11th to 20th league positions after 12 matches. Arsenal won seven of those nine matches, drew one (at West Bromwich Albion), and lost one, the opener against Aston Villa. That’s a total of 22 of 28 points, or 79 percent, from matches against the league’s poorer sides.

Among the first 12 opponents this season, by contrast, only five occupied a bottom-half spot after 12 matches. Arsenal won four of those matches and lost one (at Chelsea), amassing 12 of 26 points, or 46 percent, against teams below the current league midpoint.

The majority of Arsenal’s points, then, have come against teams in the top half of the league. There have been two decisive victories against teams in the top four, two wins and two draws against teams in positions five through 10, and the opening day loss to West Ham, currently sixth in the table.

In short, although the points total is slightly lower this season, the results are more encouraging, considering the competition.

Relative performance to date

How do these early results look in comparison to those of the other main title contenders?

The degree of difficulty in Manchester City’s schedule has been much lower than Arsenal’s, yet City haven’t accumulated any more points. The median league position of its opponents after 12 matches is 12.0.

They’ve played every team in the bottom six except 19th-ranked Sunderland and built their goal differential advantage with a five-goal win over Newcastle (#17) and a four-goal win over Bournemouth (#18).

At this point, the other main challenger for the title appears to be Manchester United. They’ve amassed 24 points from their first 12 matches, against opponents with a median position of 9.5. That’s identical to Arsenal’s strength of schedule.

The breakdown of matches against top-four opponents, those in positions five through 10, and those in the bottom half of the table is identical for Arsenal and Manchester United. The performance gap between the two is small, but so far Arsenal have fared better against the top four, winning two and losing none to Manchester United’s one draw and one loss.

Other statistics, such as expected goals (xG) and the difference between expected goals for and against, put Arsenal squarely in contention for the Premier League title.

The preliminary conclusion

More than two thirds of the season remains, and developments both foreseeable and unforeseeable will influence the final outcome. Health, particularly of Özil, Alexis, Coquelin, and Santi Cazorla, is probably the most important factor.

Injuries and other factors may favor the Gunners in ways they haven't in years past, or they may not. It’s that unpredictability that drives interest in sporting endeavors.

The most we can therefore do is give a “qualified yes” answer to the question “Is this Arsenal’s year?” Anything more definitive would just ruin the fun anyway.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Arsenal 1 Tottenham 1: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal fought back from a goal down to secure a 1-1 draw with Tottenham in the 161st installment of the North London Derby.

Mesut Özil again provided the crucial pass, finding substitute Kieran Gibbs with a cross at the far post. Gibbs got enough of the ball to bundle it past Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris, negating Harry Kane’s first half strike for Spurs and Tottenham’s superiority during the middle section of the match.

Here are three things we learned from the contest.

Arsenal now have the players to deliver the points

Although Spurs controlled much of the play, Arsenal had enough quality to make the key moments count. Özil and goalkeeper Petr Cech, players with international pedigree, exerted their influence at the right times to prevent defeat.

The German playmaker delivered an assist in his sixth consecutive league game and his 10th in 11 league appearances. The former is an unprecedented feat for a player on one Premier League team. His assist total could have been even higher, but for some slightly wayward finishing by striker Olivier Giroud. Overall, Özil created seven chances for teammates, according to the FourFourTwo StatsZone app.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger hailed his silky midfielder’s progress and contribution after the match. “He was outstanding again,” said Wenger. “He has grown into a very great player as he has added commitment, leadership qualities, and responsibility, and I’m very pleased with his development.”

Another experienced hand earned widespread praise for keeping the Gunners in this match. Cech had to stop goal-bound shots by Christian Ericksen and Toby Alderweireld in the match’s third quarter; otherwise, Arsenal would have trailed by two goals with little prospect of recovery.

The save of Alderweireld’s shot was especially important. The Spurs’ defender got himself free to receive a corner kick and directed a strong header at goal. Cech’s positioning and reflexes were exactly what they needed to be for the moment; this intervention gave Arsenal the chance of equalizing.

As Wenger put it, “He has shown again how important he is and that maybe goalkeeper is maybe the most underrated position in football, because there is a moment he can keep you in it. If you go 2-0 down, it’s bye-bye.”

Thanks to Cech and Özil, Arsenal did not have to depart this match with nothing.

A depleted Arsenal can survive—and nearly thrive

The Arsenal injury list consisted of seven players, three starters among them, prior to the match. That was actually a slight improvement from earlier in the week, due to the returns of Laurent Koscielny and Mikel Arteta to the squad.

But the strain was still significant. Midfielder Santi Cazorla, whose partnerships with Özil and Francis Coquelin are so important to the team’s flow and defensive solidity, was suffering from dizziness and nausea and could hardly kick the ball straight. Wenger replaced him at halftime.

Offensive dynamo Alexis doesn’t seem right, either. He’s been playing with some combination of a groin strain and fatigue for a month, and his knack for goals has left him.

Right back Mathieu Debuchy, himself a replacement for the injured Hector Bellerin, took a knock in the second half and had to come off just after the Gibbs goal. As a result, the team spent the ultimate period of the match with Mathieu Flamini, inserted for Cazorla in midfield, at right back and Gibbs at left wing.

Yet this ragtag bunch looked the more likely winners in the end, even though Spurs had fielded its first-choice lineup playing to the top of its capabilities. That’s an indication of this team’s desire and potential.

Mathieu Debuchy should stop talking

Anyone who pays the slightest attention to Arsenal knows that Mathieu Debuchy is dissatisfied. The Frenchman suffered the misfortune of two long-term injuries last season, his first at the club, and encountered the emergence of the phenom Hector Bellerin. As a result, Debuchy, who wants a spot on the French national team for the European Championships on home soil next summer, found himself on the Arsenal bench.

When Debuchy has gotten the opportunities to regain his place, he hasn’t made the most of them. To a certain extent, that’s understandable: It’s hard for many professional athletes to perform at their best with sporadic playing time.

But rather than knuckling down and improving his performances, Debuchy has made strong public hints of his desire to leave Arsenal for playing time elsewhere. That’s not optimal public relations work from a player who’s been involved in the team’s worst outings this year. To use a term from hockey, Debuchy has a plus/minus of minus-9, capturing the losses to West Ham, Dinamo Zagreb, and Bayern Munich.

A better approach than voicing his discontents would be to capitalize on the slight progress he made on Sunday. Debuchy succeeded on nine of 10 tackles and displayed an improved awareness of his position relative to those of his teammates. He’ll need to show improvements like these when he gets further opportunities if he’s going to catch the eyes of any suitors or French manager Didier Deschamps.

Extra time

Francis Coquelin does not surrender. With his comrade Santi Cazorla playing at peak peaked, Coquelin was practically alone in Arsenal midfield as Tottenham pressed. The Frenchman held his own, making nine ball recoveries, tied for most in the match, and succeeding on six of eight tackles. He also committed no fouls. Without Coquelin’s clever, stalwart play, Spurs would likely have enjoyed a comprehensive and insurmountable advantage.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bayern Munich 5 Arsenal 1: Three Things We Learned

Bayern Munich swamped Arsenal 5-1 on Wednesday, putting the Gunners’ hopes of qualifying for the Champions League knockout phase for the 16th consecutive season in considerable doubt.

With Bayern’s dominant, three-goal first half, this result was foregone by halftime. The night’s meaningful question was what would happen in Athens, where Olympiacos trailed Dinamo Zagreb and gave the Gunners hope that they might still control their European destiny.

Olympiacos scored late to win, though, meaning Arsenal must win its final two matches, including at least a two-goal win on the group stage’s last night in Athens, and trust Bayern to beat the Greek team, to move on.

That’s the big conclusion of the night. Here are three other things we learned.

Arsène Wenger has the Premier League in his sights

The Arsenal manager invariably speaks about his focus on the next game and how it’s the most important. There was a hint of something else prior to this match, though.

Wenger kept star defenders Laurent Koscielny and Hector Bellerin out of Wednesday’s action, allowing them to recover from “small” injuries in advance of a major Premier League test against Tottenham on Sunday.

That decision is worth noting.

It suggests the manager and his staff sense an opportunity to compete for the league title and that they’re willing to put the European campaign aside to enhance that domestic opportunity. Doing so requires wisdom and restraint, particularly because Wenger has long coveted the top European trophy.

No doubt he expected a less damning result in Munich, but as long as he and his players can put it in the vault, this continental setback won’t be any more consequential for their league prospects than was the 3-2 loss to Olympiacos. We shouldn’t forget that that defeat immediately preceded Arsenal’s 3-0 destruction of Manchester United.

The first goal was the killer

The early moments of the game were actually promising for Arsenal. The Gunners had a shot in anger in the opening minute, passed crisply when they had the ball, and forced Bayern into shots from distance.

Hope of another upset was largely snuffed out by Robert Lewandowski’s 10th-minute header. The Polish striker slipped the attentions of Gabriel, who was alone among the Arsenal back line in dropping deep when Thiago had the ball near the right corner of Arsenal’s penalty area. Lewandowski’s well-placed effort gave Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech no chance.

This early goal meant Arsenal could not absorb the Bayern pressure as the Gunners had so successfully done two weeks ago. They had to seek a tying goal, creating the space and time on the ball that Bayern was designed to exploit. The only question was how ruthlessly they would do so.

Having lost to Arsenal, the German giants weren’t inclined to let up. That intensity—plus Arsenal’s sub-par defensive effort and ill fortune with officiating—sealed the Gunners fate on the day.

Arsenal’s first-choice defense is a well-oiled machine

Replacing Bellerin with Mathieu Debuchy and Koscielny with Gabriel shrank Arsenal’s margin of error. Indeed, the changes caused enough instability for Bayern’s talent to thrive.

A poorly synchronized back line left Lewandowski onside for the opening goal, and Debuchy’s tendency to drift into the center gave Bayern’s dangerous wide men the run of their left flank. The Frenchman wasn’t even effective at clogging the middle, failing to clear a pass that then fell to Thomas Müller, who fired off Per Mertesacker and into the net for Bayern’s second goal.

On Arsenal’s left, Bayern finally found a way to isolate left back Nacho Monreal, using runners from midfield to occupy Arsenal’s central midfielders Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla. This often left Monreal trying to cover two men on his own, Philipp Lahm and Müller or substitute Arjen Robben, because left forward Alexis was understandably focused on attacking. As a result, Bayern always had an outlet and frequently produced uncontested passes into more dangerous areas.

It was quite a contrast from the defensive performances Arsenal’s preferred lineup has delivered this season. The unit of Cech, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Monreal has won all of its matches while conceding just three goals, one at Crystal Palace and two at Leicester City. Crucially, though, the group has played together in just five of Arsenal’s 17 matches in the Premier League, Champions League, and Capital One Cup.

The ability to field that unit consistently might well determine Arsenal’s fortunes in the Premier League.

Extra time

Fair play to Mathieu Debuchy and Olivier Giroud, who kept plugging despite the obvious outcome of this match. Debuchy scampered back to rob Robben of a goal after the Dutchman had rounded Cech, and Giroud produced an exquisite chest control and lashing finish. Such moments were all the more noticeable because they were rare.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Champions League Match Preview, Bayern Munich v Arsenal: Use Their Anger Against Them

Arsenal confront an apparently enraged Bayern Munich in Germany on Matchday Four of the UEFA Champions League.

The Gunners’ 2-0 win over the previously omnipotent side two weeks ago seems to have stirred up Pep Guardiola’s charges. Star striker Robert Lewandowski, who had two goal-bound shots saved by Arsenal’s Petr Cech at the Emirates, said, “We desperately need the points. We have to show who is the better team.”

Bayern’s motivation isn’t lost on Arsenal. According to Per Mertesacker, who likely enjoys some back-channel communications with several compatriots in the Bavarian side, “They will be angry I guess. We are the first team who really challenged them, so they will be on the ball and try to show that they are back and better than us.” (

There’s no question of Bayern’s quality. They’re the Bundesliga’s juggernaut and one of the two best teams in Europe. Guardiola has skillfully mixed the experience of players like Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso with the guile of Douglas Costa and Arjen Robben and the firepower of Thomas Müller and Lewandowki.

Arsenal witnessed the threat in Matchday Three, but the Gunners did not cower. Bayern’s skill in and dominance of possession failed to carry the day. That’s largely because Arsenal stayed disciplined in defense, forced Bayern to pass around the perimeter, and intervened only at the most opportune moments.

It’s likely to be the same approach at the Allianz Arena, perhaps with a slight variation. If Bayern let too much emotion affect their style and decisions, they’ll be vulnerable to a martial arts-style response from Arsenal. Frustrate them for another period of time, and they might be more prone to mistakes. Particularly on set pieces.

Arsenal also can’t allow changes in personnel to affect the proceedings too much. A different Gunner will have to summon the energy and intelligence of Aaron Ramsey on the right side of midfield. That’s especially important given the wide threat posed by Costa and Robben, who missed the London leg due to injury.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger may rejigger the midfield, bringing in Mathieu Flamini as part of a 4-3-3 formation, but a more likely choice will be to replace Ramsey with Joel Campbell. The Costa Rican had an excellent Premier League debut at Swansea on Saturday, scoring the team’s third goal and displaying a keen will for defending. He’ll have to match that performance—if not improve it—against Bayern.

As if facing Bayern’s wide men weren’t enough of a challenge, Campbell will have to manage the threat with a different right back. Due to Hector Bellerin’s groin injury, Mathieu Debuchy will get the start. The French international has the pedigree to compete in such a headline game; the question is his form. His performances so far this season, including in last week’s Capital One Cup loss at Sheffield Wednesday, have been rusty and unimpressive, to put it charitably. For Arsenal to stay in this contest, Debuchy will have to rise to a very big occasion.

At stake is the Gunners’ control over their own Champions League fate. Escaping Munich with a draw would mean Arsenal could qualify for the knockout phase with wins in their final two matches, regardless of the other results. A win would put them in even better position, level on points with Bayern and holding the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage.

Losing tonight, though, would hand the initiative to Olympiacos. If the Greek team beats Dinamo Zagreb in Athens this evening, a draw against Bayern in two weeks would secure passage to the knockout stage and destroy Arsenal’s chances of progressing.

There’s still a lot of football to be played and therefore a variety of possible outcomes in the competition. But those outcomes will look a lot more promising if Arsenal avoid losing this evening.

Players to Watch:

Arsenal: Olivier Giroud. Arsenal’s center forward changed the complexion of the match at the Emirates, winning the physical battles with Bayern’s central defenders and scoring the decisive goal. The Frenchman, who has six goals in his last six matches for club and country, has also scored at the Allianz Arena before. Another opportunistic goal would strengthen the Gunners immeasurably.
Bayern Munich: Arjen Robben. You can’t take your eyes off that pointy, bald head anyway, so you might as well watch the Dutchman. Although everyone knows his signature move, he’s so quick and wily he’s still difficult to stop. Debuchy and/or Nacho Monreal, and importantly, the assistance they get from Arsenal’s midfielders and forwards, will be sorely tested.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Swansea City 0 Arsenal 3: Three Things We Learned

Arsenal emerged 3-0 winners over Swansea City in a match suitably bizarre for the day.

Although the Gunners looked out of it for most of the first half, second-half goals from Olivier Giroud, Laurent Koscielny, and Joel Campbell secured the victory. Koscielny's goal, prompted by a borderline foul on/error by Swans and former Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, and the score by Campbell in his first Premier League start were oddly fitting on Halloween.

Here are three things we learned from the match.

Mesut Özil is the Premier League's most dangerous man

We're still early in the Premier League campaign, but it's becoming clear that Arsenal's playmaker and record signing can push the Gunners to contend for the title. In the 10 matches Özil has played, he's tallied nine assists and created 47 chances, according to Squawka.

As 7AM Kickoff has pointed out in his "By the Numbers" articles for Arseblog, Özil has a real chance to deliver more than 20 assists this season. He's on an unreal pace of 0.96 assists per 90 minutes so far.

He picked up two more assists on Saturday, finding Giroud with a corner in the 49th minute, then working an intricate move with Alexis Sanchez on the left before fizzing a pass across the box to Campbell for the final Arsenal goal.

Özil also started the sequence that led to Koscielny's goal. When no Swansea player closed him down on Arsenal's right, he spotted the chaos in the Swansea penalty area and sent in the cross that Ashley Williams failed to clear properly. Fabianski, Giroud, and Koscielny were all waiting for the ball to come down, and Koscielny came away with it.

At the source of all these passages were Özil's ability to recognize the way to cause Swansea the most danger and the skill to execute the decisive play. It's a deadly combination.

Joel Campbell keeps the balance

A major question leading up to the match addressed the right attacking midfield position in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 formation. With six more likely candidates for that role injured, manager Arsène Wenger gave a league debut to Campbell, who, despite some credible performances on loan and on international duty, had never shown he could reach the level required at Arsenal.

Campbell's calm finish, if not his celebration, certainly showed he belonged, but more than that, he slotted seamlessly into the existing Arsenal framework.

The Costa Rican helped move the attack forward, exchanging tidy passes with right back Hector Bellerin and the central midfielders. With Swansea understandably focusing on the threat Alexis posed on Arsenal's left, Campbell proved willing to take a shot when he had a sight of goal.

He also hustled to reach the right defensive positions. That was especially important due to the danger posed by the tricky Swansea winger Jefferson Montero. Although Montero caused a few nervous moments, Bellerin and Campbell managed the threat admirably.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Arsenal team could proceed as normal. In light of the successful recent performances, allowing his teammates to stick to their roles and strengths was Campbell's most important contribution.

Arsenal can survive risks and wobbles

This was as shaky a 3-0 victory as you're likely to see.

Particularly in the first half, Arsenal seemed vulnerable. The choice to use a high defensive line seemed overly risky given Montero's wiliness, the ability of Jonjo Shelvy and Ki Sung-Yeung to pick a pass, and the Gunners' struggles against Swansea last season.

The high line nearly proved calamitous midway through the first half, when Shelvy found Bafetimi Gomis and sent the striker clean through on Petr Cech's goal. Only the experience of Cech and the speed of Bellerin prevented Arsenal from going 1-0 down.

Giroud's goal early in the second half steadied things somewhat, but, even then, Arsenal made some odd choices. The defense was less coordinated and diligent than you'd expect from a team looking to protect a lead and counterattack. A few times Swansea players found space just outside the Arsenal area and took a crack at goal or nearly worked a teammate free.

Still, Swansea managed just eight shots on goal and only two in the penalty area. When the three Swans' shots did work Cech, he was more than ready.

The sixth clean sheet in 11 league matches--and the lowest number of goals conceded in the league--are evidence of the stability Cech has brought to the Arsenal defense.

Extra time

Hector Bellerin doesn't just have a future; he has a present. As one-half of the league's best fullback tandem, the young Spaniard has brought quick interventions, sound positioning, and a real offensive threat to Arsenal's right side.

Against Swansea, he figuratively busted a gut to prevent Gomis from scoring and later literally busted one, throwing himself into the post to clear André Ayew's offside effort off the line.

Bellerin's contributions already and his clear talent warrant a long-term contract.