Despite their start to the season, Arsenal remain a cut below the elite
The Gunners have played some unbelievable football in recent weeks, having been galvanised by the arrival of Mesut Özil, the rise of Aaron Ramsey and the confident displays of a settled back five. Spectacular showings against Norwich City on Saturday and Napoli in their last Champions League outing have led some to suggest that this crop is as good as any Arsène Wenger has had. Last night proved that this is not the case just yet.
Arsenal’s position at the top of the Premier League table is encouraging but not a true reflection of where they stand. The obvious point to make is that the fixture list has been very kind to them indeed. While you can only beat what is in front of you, scoring four against teams as dismal as Chris Hughton’s Norwich does not give any real indication as to a side’s true quality.
Many observers billed the Dortmund game as Arsenal’s first real test this season, and while that interpretation does Napoli something of a disservice, there remains the feeling that Jürgen Klopp’s side have given Wenger and company a long overdue reality check. In several games this season, they have committed a number of basic errors and got away with them. Dortmund showed no mercy.
The margins between defeat and victory were admittedly fine – Tomáš Rosický had a shot cleared off the line and Santi Cazorla rattled the bar – but the frequency and nature of Arsenal’s blunders proved that this side has some way to go before they can be considered among Wenger’s best.
Mesut Özil suffers against Borussia Dortmund once again
Arsenal’s talisman has a miserable record against Dortmund, having now won only one of his last eight games against die Schwarzgelben. He has turned out to be the weak link against Klopp’s high-tempo game of relentless verticality too often for it to be a coincidence.
This latest instance confirmed that while Özil’s subtlety is invaluable against 99% of opponents, his tendency to stay on the periphery of the game before striking is a fatal flaw against Dortmund. It is not new for creative, technical players to struggle when the primary demands of a match are physicality and steel – see: English football from roughly 1850 to the present day – but it is odd that his managers have failed to make the obvious call and leave him out of the starting line-up.
It is not my intention to suddenly come over all David Moyes – leaving flair players on the bench should only ever be a last resort – but continuing to send Özil out to play his regular game against Dortmund increasingly appears equivalent to voluntarily going out on the field of play with ten men. Wenger’s selection at the Westfalenstadion will be interesting, to say the least.
Three number tens but no third man in midfield
Taking that point forward, I never thought I would write this but: how Arsenal could have done with someone like Wayne Rooney. Time and again, Dortmund were not put under any real pressure at the back or in the second band and therefore found themselves with time on the ball and opportunities to exploit Arsenal’s lack of territorial control.
Olivier Giroud did about as much as he could to stem the flow but he toiled alone. As stated above, Özil came up a long way short, putting in the type of display that famously annoyed José Mourinho at Real Madrid. Tomáš Rosický and Jack Wilshere, too, seemed less than certain about the defensive requirements of their roles and when exactly to rotate with Özil.
Arsenal’s disjointed display was similar to those put in by Chelsea when Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar were fielded together last season: they showed considerable attacking and aesthetic potential but relied on full-backs to provide width and penetration; in the defensive phase they repeatedly allowed the opposition full-backs to advance and left their own double-pivot totally exposed.
The introduction of Santi Cazorla allowed the Gunners’ third band to clarify its responsibilities, tilting the balance of play in their favour, but it was paradoxically Arsenal’s undoing: with the midfield battle finally appearing won, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna increasingly moved higher up the pitch, giving Dortmund the opportunity to use the space they vacated to counter and score the winner.
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me four times, shame on me
Not to bang the same drum over and over again but nothing illustrates the bizarre failure of Arsenal’s midfield quite like the fact that Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s opener was scored with Dortmund’s fourth unopposed shot from outside the box in the first sixteen minutes.
Kevin Großkreutz, Mats Hummels and Marco Reus all found acres of space to power drives into the North Bank before Aaron Ramsey’s mistake allowed Mkhitaryan to convert from twenty yards, sending Wojciech Szczęsny the wrong way with a superb piece of body-language diversion.
To quote Bill Shankly: “Football is a simple game made complicated by people who should know better.” A manager of Wenger’s calibre should not need to be reminded to tell his side that allowing an opponent with legitimate aspirations of Champions League victory four free shots before they have broken into a sweat is a recipe for disaster.
Mats Hummels: the most overrated ‘ball-playing centre-back’ since Rio Ferdinand
First things first: there is no doubt that Hummels is a genuinely splendid defender. The statistics he produced against Arsenal – ten effective clearances, five interceptions, four tackles and, towards the end of the game, a decisive block – emphasised what an asset he is both to his club and the German national team.
However, anyone who suggests that he is a twenty-first century libero or the answer to the prayers of Barcelona/Manchester United/any big side looking to inject understated technical class into their backline is certifiably insane. Some of the long passes he shanked to the Arsenal ball boys would have embarrassed mid-2000s Steven Gerrard.
Dortmund’s attacking system relies to an extent on Hummels hitting ambitious passes, so my criticism is not based on choice of pass, as with the likes of Ferdinand (and, while we are here, Gerrard), but on the execution of these plays. It is time for the Hummels-hype to die down – or at least for his fans to praise him for something he is actually good at.