After the thrilling finale of last season, when Arsenal pipped Tottenham to fourth place on the ultimate day, overturning a seemingly irretrievable 13-point deficit, the Gunners’ form thus far in the Champions League has been somewhat of an anti-climax.
In the first game of the campaign against Montpellier, Arsenal were fortuitous to return to England with three points.
The French side dominated large portions of the match, and had it not been for the home side’s poor finishing and slice of luck, it would have been a different story for the north London side.
Having said that, the way Arsenal reacted after going a goal down early on – thanks to a Younes Belhanda penalty after an unnecessary foul by Thomas Vermaelen in the box – was certainly encouraging. The players remained calm, and within ten minutes had scored the two goals that would eventually see them earn the win.
Lukas Podolski equalised with a clinical finish having been set up adroitly by Olivier Giroud, and moments later it was Gervinho’s name on the score sheet, prodding home from a typically dangerous Carl Jenkinson cross.
Many expected the second half to be somewhat of a formality for the Gunners, having turned the score line around in the opening half. It transpired to be anything but. Montpellier, backed by raucous support from their fans, came out and really tested Arsenal’s metal.
Wenger’s men were overrun in midfield; Santi Cazorla’s influence faded and the team struggled to maintain possession. Montpellier arguably should have had another penalty and Belhanda missed a glorious opportunity late on.
In the end, however, the lead was protected. Had Arsenal been Manchester United, they would have been lauded for “grinding out a result” and showing their resilience. It was an unconvincing win, but one must not forget they were against a side who won the French league just months earlier.
Olympiakos at home was next for the Gunners. In the corresponding fixture the previous season, Arsenal were extremely fortunate to beat the Athens club, and it was a not too dissimilar story this time round.
Arsenal’s performance was categorized by sloppiness and complacency, particularly at the back.
Some shocking lapses in concentration by goalkeeper Vito Mannone and skipper Vermaelen were fortunate not to be costly, and Arsenal eventually took the lead in the final minutes of the first half, after an accurate shot by Gervinho evaded the keeper.
Then Arsenal’s carelessness came to the fore again. No one applied pressure to the man in possession, who promptly curled in a perfect cross that was expertly headed home by Mitroglou. Arsenal’s lead lasted three minutes.
Podolski then restored the advantage with a typically clinical finish, and in the dying embers of the game Aaron Ramsey added a bit of gloss to the score line with a Messi-like chip over the keeper.
It finished 3-1 which was certainly a flattering result and again Arsenal rode their luck, most notably when Olympiakos’ Machado missed a tap in from six yards out, at nil-nil.
However, credit must be given to Wenger’s side for taking their chances.
Then came Schalke. After the dreadful display at Norwich four days earlier, a positive response from the Gunners was desperately needed. Unfortunately it didn’t materialise.
Make no mistake – Schalke are an excellent side; admirably hardworking with an array of attacking talents. Any team that beats Borussia Dortmund in their own stadium, as Schalke did on the preceding weekend is, by implication, a very good side.
Thus, it is not the defeat per se that Arsenal fans should be most worried about. It is the toothless performance and reactivity of the players and coaching staff.
Andre Santos was targeted by the German side as Arsenal’s main weak link, and his deficiencies as a left-back were made abundantly clear. However what is most bewildering was the failure to address this situation.
He was continually left exposed against Jefferson Farfan and the overlapping right back. Normally Lukas Podolski diligently works back to provide cover – the reason for his deployment on the left rather than his natural position up front.
However, he found himself being forced inward and thus the necessary protection for Santos was not provided.
And yet, nothing was done to circumvent this problem.
As for an attacking perspective, Arsenal were ineffectual. The fact their sole shot on target came as the penultimate kick of the game – by 17-year-old Serge Gnabry who was making his Champions League debut – tells a story on its own.
Arsenal fans have a right to question the decision to play Gervinho up front rather than Podolski. Indeed, the German provides that added bit of steel down the left flank when defending, but the Gunners were at home, they should be taking the game to the opposition.
Overall, Schalke thoroughly deserved their victory against an Arsenal side who lacked any impetus and imagination.
Wenger’s touchline ban must be taken into consideration with the manager missing for all Arsenal’s European fixtures this season, and also the sorry number of injuries the club have at the moment.
Arsenal are second in their group, one point behind Schalke, which is a reasonable return.
A draw in Germany and a win in Athens against Olympiakos will be enough to qualify for the knockout rounds, so Arsenal need to get the job done.
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