Although Dinamo Zagreb’s talent shouldn’t be underestimated, Arsenal’s skill, speed, strength, and stamina have to be superior on paper. It’s the mental qualities, though, that so often determine success in European play. And the Gunners still have something to prove in that respect.
There were the two disastrous home performances against Anderlecht and Monaco in last year’s competition, when the necessary focus and savvy escaped Arsenal and expected victories didn’t materialize. This season’s home Premier League opener against West Ham turned on two mental errors; that was proof that Arsenal’s superior physical talents can still fail to carry the day.
Manager Arsène Wenger and his players have recognized the mental requirements, particularly in a six-game, round-robin tournament. Wenger said this week:
It is important we go to Zagreb highly focused and conscious of what is at stake there. You can be quickly out of the Champions League, and we want to start well….
Left back Nacho Monreal made similar points in his pre-match comments, saying,
You don’t play too many games, so if you make a mistake, you pay for it. You have to be really focused in each game, and the level is higher. The difference is small, but you have to be really focused.
Arsenal’s quest to reach and maintain that mental level will be important and interesting in several respects. First, this match is the first in a challenging run of four matches away from home and could influence the team’s performances against Chelsea on Saturday, against Tottenham next week in the Capital One Cup, and against Leceister on September 26.
It’s also happening four days after the team’s best outing of the season so far, the 2-0 win over Stoke City. How do the manager and the team capitalize on that performance using an adjusted lineup?
We know that Saturday’s starters Hector Bellerin and Aaron Ramsey haven’t made the trip to Zagreb, so Mathieu Debuchy and, presumably, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will have to blend their contributions into the team’s style and efforts.
Unlike some of their predecessors on the substitutes’ bench, Debuchy and Oxlade-Chamberlain are well positioned to profit from the opportunity. Both are full internationals with substantial experience and talents suited to European competition. Debuchy’s toughness, aerial ability, and reading of the game and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s strength and speed are distinctive advantages against wily European opponents.
Wenger noted the improved quality of his options in his pre-match press conference, observing: “It is quite easy to change two or three players, [more] than it was in years before because they are all at a very good level.”
They’ll need to play and think at that elite level because Dinamo Zagreb are no pushovers. The Croatian champions are on a 41-game unbeaten run in all competitions and have outscored their three most recent home opponents 13-1. That record underlines the attacking threat of Angelo Henriquez, Armin Hodzic, and Soudani. The trio has combined for 18 goals already in domestic and European competitions. (Stats from Opta via whoscored.com.)
The problem for Dinamo is that they haven’t yet faced a team that required them to sit deep and defend. And, even when circumstances have dictated a defensive approach, they haven’t been able to execute one. The striking example: After scoring three early goals in a Champions League qualifier at Molde, Dinamo conceded three goals and advanced only by virtue of away goals.
Arsenal showed against Stoke City what it can do to teams whose defenses are not finely calibrated and executed. With a physical effort on that level, combined with the proper focus and intelligence, the Gunners should generate a promising launch to their Champions League campaign and upcoming domestic schedule.