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.

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