Category Archives: Champions League

Arsenal-AS Monaco tactical preview

In six matches, just one goal conceded in the Champions League group-stage—five clean-sheets. A stretch of nine Ligue 1 matches without conceding a goal, and a league-leading 19 goals conceded while keeping 13 clean-sheets in 25 matches. Truly, it seems like Arsenal are going to struggle to get past AS Monaco, a side that rarely, if ever, gives up a goal. And yet, for all of their stalwart-ness on defense, we’re overlooking a deficiency at the other end—Monaco scored only four goals in the Champions League group-stage (only two clubs scored fewer, and they finished bottom of their groups) and have managed just 26 goals in those 25 Ligue 1 matches. This might be the most-stubborn defense we’ve faced in a while, but it’s also the most-stupefied offense we’ll see in some time.

Graphic courtesy of GuaranteeTickets

What that likely means for Wednesday is a dour, dull affair in which we struggle to break down Monaco’s set-up. Against more-powerful sides like PSG and Lyon, they’ve adopted a 4-5-1 formation in order to crowd the box and dare opponents to shoot from distance. Most often, though, they seem to switch between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, but there doesn’t seem to be any strong pattern to why they switch to these formations. In any case, we know that it may be difficult to score against this squad. What’s more, given their anemic output, Monaco are almost certain to play for a draw in the first leg and hope for a chance to get a 1-0 in the second.

Then again, if there’s any apparent weakness in Monaco’s defense, it’s through-balls. They allow their Ligue 1 opponents to complete 69.6% of through-balls, second-worst in the league; in the penalty area, that figure rises to 75%. Savor that for a moment. If you’re having trouble with it, picture the likes of Welbeck, Alexis, and Walcott sprinting into space behind the defense to collect perfectly weighted passes from the likes of Cazorla and Özil. If Monaco doesn’t allow space behind their back-four, packing seven or eight defenders into the box, well, it does seem as if we can still create some chances anyway. For as high-flying as they’ve been in the Champions League and Ligue 1, it doesn’t seem as if they’ve faced an attack that can bring to bear such passing-accuracy as Arsenal does. That’s not to say that we’ll carve them open six ways from Sunday, but I do think that we’ll find a few ways through.

Taking a closer look at the squad, we’ll face off yet again against Dimitar Berbatov, who at 34 leads the club with six goals, and it’s worth a quick reminder that he’s done well against us in the past, at least well enough to keep an eye on. Elsewhere, manager Leonardo Jardim has a few selection-woes to sort, with first-choice defensive midfielder Jérémy Toulalan suspended, joining the injured Tiemoué Bakayoko (another DM), Andrea Raggi (CB), and Ricardo Carvalho (CB). The potential absence of defnder Layvin Kurzawa might force Jardim to deploy a defensive midfield of Geoffrey Kondogbia and João Moutinho, with 18-year old starlet Almamy Touré potentially making his first-ever start for Monaco at left-back.

Setting aside the trees to consider the forest, it would appear as if Monaco’s defense will go in shorn of a few options. If Touré does start, I’d imagine that we’ll target him relentlessly and mercilessly. Whether it’s Walcott, Welbeck, or Alexis on that right wing, or some awesom-amoeba-esque amalgation of them and others, I suspect that we’ll have more than a few chances to (a) dent this squad’s reputation for stinginess, (b) avenge our Emirates Cup loss (Falcao scored the winner before leaving for Man U), and (c) convince Arsène that he’s better off here than he ever was there, in case there were any lingering doubts. I’m sure it will be a sentimental reunion but one what Arsène would be happy to look past in search of larger goals.

Without slighting AS Monaco, this draw does represent our best chance in years to advance to the Champions League quarter-finals since 2010. After all, in the intervening four years, we’ve come up against some of Europe’s biggest and best only to come up short. This time through, it does look as if we have the upper hand, even if it’s Monaco who won their group.

Long story short, we have a golden chance to advance to those quarter-finals, after which it’s anyone’s guess who we’d draw and how we’d fare. Before we start placing bets on the the quarter-final draw, though, let’s make sure we get there.

Can we beat Beşiktaş? Will this draw goad Arsène into action?

Phew. We escaped with a draw from a match we arguably deserved to lose, and we’ll be licking wounds as we limp back home with a tough trip to Goodison Park looming on Saturday, while now having to look past that to a second leg even more fraught with uncertainty than it should have been. The away-goals rule now tilts in Beşiktaş’s favor, and we should be counting our blessings that we’ve come away in such blessed shape. The run of play went largely Beşiktaş’s way, and they had the lion’s share of best-chances. Whereas many clubs would be thrilled to emerge with a draw against Arsenal, Beşiktaş strikes me as being made of sterner stuff.

We tend to worry ’round these parts about set-pieces. Now, I don’t think that a match’s opening kick-off is a set-piece in the sense that we usually use the term, but Demba Ba very nearly put Beşiktaş up moments into the match when he lofted the kick-off towards our goal, and Wojciech Szczęsny, who was blithely drifting around the penalty-spot, had to scramble to get fingers to it and deflect it off the bar. Sadly, this wouldn’t be the last time in the match that we’d be left ruing how we missed out on Ba, whatever the circumstances were. Suffice it to say, Ba tested Szcz on more than that occasion while Giroud failed to do the same at the other end (if we start saying “he Giroud-ed that” to describe a wasted chance six yards from goal, do we pronounce the silent “d” at the end of his name? Francophones, please oblige us).

Beyond that issue, it’s hard to say that we went in with the same purpose or confidence that we showed in our last trip to Istanbul, when we hung three goals on Fener in that first leg a year ago. For long stretches, we were stymied, at times even overrun, as we struggled to find any kind of rhythm or intent. Cazorla and Alexis were impressive but not convincing, Giroud flubbed chance after chance, and Ramsey, our most-talismanic player of last season, “earned” a second yellow in the 81st minute and will miss next Wednesday’s match. Rather than dwell on the match itself, a dour and depressing affair, I’d prefer to look ahead.

While admitting that we don’t know the details, it seemingly took a shocking loss to Aston Villa to force Arsène to bring in Mesut Özil (a move that, for as much as we mocked them for it, was probably only possible after Spurs sold Bale). In other words, even our most-audacious transfer of living memory came as a result of a shock-loss and a rival comic foil’s transfer-business. I don’t know what Arsène is thinking, but there’s a rather large part of me that hopes that this first-leg draw will jolt him into action much as the loss to Aston Villa seemed to do. No, 0-0 is not nearly as shocking as 1-3; then again, facing elimination from Champions League play is far-more frightening than one shock-result from 38 fixtures. Lose your first Prem match, and you still have 37 others to somehow make up the lost points. Lose the Champions League play-off, and you’re done. It’s not that we can sign someone and have him available for the second-leg; the dead-line for the 25-player squad has already passed. However, if we do advance, we could add a new player (or, ahem, two) for the group-stage squad.

We’ve seen first-hand how much a player like Ba can threaten. We’ve seen plenty of times how often a player like Giroud can infuriate. It’s abundantly clear that we need someone up top who can make good on the chances created by those behind him. Ba doesn’t even really qualify as “world class”. He’s certainly not on a level with Costa, Cavani, or other top-shelf strikers to whom we’ve been linked. And yet, he showed tonight a bit of what we’re lacking: a striker who can put shots on frame, if not in the back of the net. How much better might we be with someone marginally better than Giroud? Tuesday’s result forces us to consider the question yet again.

The definition of insanity is, of course, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. How many more times will we expect Giroud to produce a result different from the one he’s produced time and time again?

Beşiktaş 0-0 Arse: watch the, um, "highlights" video

Fair warning. What you’re about to see contains a cacophony of near-misses, spurned chances, silly non-calls, and ludicrous red cards. Some content may be unsuitable for minors.  If you have a history of heart-disease, you may be at greater risk for heart attack. Watch at your own risk.

Apologies for the pre-show adverts.

Bashing Beşiktaş: what? Selection woes already? No, not the good kind, either…

One match in, and I’ve come to two startling realizations: one, we don’t have anyone whose name is appropriately alliterative for facing Beşiktaş. We have Chambers, Campbell, Debuchy, Gibbs, and Diaby, among others, but none of them offer the strong “B” needed. This worries me when it comes to Burnley. Two, more importantly, we don’t seem to have enough defenders going into Tuesday’s clash to worry about such frivolities. Our trip to Turkey on Tuesday feels a bit fraught with uncertainty, unless one or both members of the Per-Kos partnership can be made available. Per is, of course, recuperating from his World Cup exertions. Kos, on the other hand, seems to be nursing an actual injury. We’ll learn more about what this all means when Arsène meets the press on Monday…

As it stands, Mertesacker will travel with the team but is still officially resting after winning the World Cup (his last international competition, after announcing his retirement from the German squad). Koscielny has a sore Achilles and will be assessed. If neither is available, we face some difficult decisions in the back-four. Presumably, Chambers would play as a CB again, but what happens next? With Gibbs also potentially out after suffering a little bit niggle to his hamstring, the knock-on effect kicks in. Monreal, who might otherwise step up to replace Gibbs, might be called on to play a bit of centre-back, but this would force Flamini out out to left-back. How do you feel about a back-four of Flamini-Chambers-Monreal-Debuchy? We may have little say in the matter (or so I’m told). If we can ask Kos or Per to make themselves available without jeopardizing their longer-term availability, I say do it. After all, the definition of success for last season was qualifying for Champions League play. It would feel silly to work hard enough to earn it only to spurn it in the first leg.

Then again, we have to ask ourselves, just what result are we playing for? Should we win, might this not convince Arsène that all is well and that we don’t in fact need another signing to contend? I’m not calling for us to lose, not by any stretch of the imagination, but perhaps something short of a convincing win might be suitable. ‘Round these parts, we’ve grown accustomed to looking past the Champions League play-off and instead to the pay-off. I suspect that few of us fret over the outcome on its face (will we advance to the group-stage proper?) and focus more on what the result portends (whom might we sign?). Should we lose, we may slouch and slum our way towards the likes of White Hart Lane or, worse, Old Trafford. If we win, we can pencil ourselves in for the group-stage.

Presumably, losing (or even drawing) might slow us in our transfer-dealings. Instead of convincing first-tier players to make a lateral move, we might have to content ourselves with convincing second- or even third-tier players to make a vertical one. If we’re shorn of Champions League play, in other words, we can all but kiss the likes of Cavani, Carvalho, or Khedira adieu. Winning, of course, might matter more for this sort of thing than it does for actual Champions League qualification. If we can’t beat Beşiktaş over two legs, well, we don’t deserve anything more than another scrap for a fourth-place finish.

Saturday’s result may offer less than the spark of confidence we needed. Then again, we were facing a mid-table squad suddenly bereft of its manager (last season’s manager of the year) while playing a new formation (4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1, depending on whom you consult) that included as many as four new starters. If the performance itself was a bit diffident, that’s understandable. The stakes may have felt low. Make no mistake, though: Tuesday’s clash raises the stakes just a bit, and playing in the intense climate that is Istanbul will offer plenty of reminders of just what it means to play with heart and soul.

With all of this in mind, I see us building on the confidence of a scrappy win in the Prem opener while reprising the dominant performance we delivered a year ago when facing Fenerbahçe, a match we won 0-3. I won’t be so rash as to predict a similar scoreline, but I will suggest that we’ll win. Final score: Beşiktaş 0-2 Arsenal.

As for how we’ll line up, there’s a lot still up in the air, but here’s how I see it:

  • Szczesny; Monreal, Mertesacker, Chambers, Debuchy; Wilshere, Flamini, Ramsey; Campbell, Sanogo, Alexis.
That’s right. I’m boldly calling for Mertesacker to get off his arsch to lead the defense while looking at a 4-3-3 with Wilshere and Ramsey getting forward while Flamini shields the back-four. Ahead of them, I’d love to see what Campbell and Alexis can do. They’ve been brought in to electrify. Why not do so on Tuesday?

I hope you like Turkey. It’s what’s we’ve been served. Again.

Apparently not content at our demolition of Fenerbahçe in last season’s Champions League playoff, UEFA has pitted us against Turkish side Beşiktaş, who finished third in the Supr Lig and defeated Feyenoord 3-1 (5-2 aggregate) on new signing Demba Ba’s hat-trick. So we’re off to Istanbul for the first leg on 19 August and home for the second leg on 27 August, with a trip to Goodison Park sandwiched in as well on 23 August. It’s not the toughest draw we could have gotten (which might have been Lille or Atletic Bilbao, but we should be wary all the same. Just who is Beşiktaş, anyway?

Along with Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, they are one of Turkey’s biggest clubs. They’re the oldest, having been founded in 1903. They’ve never been relegated, and they’ve won the Super Lig thirteen times. They’ve once advanced to the Champions League quarterfinals, losing 0-7 to Dynamo Kyiv in 1987 (actually the European Cup at the time). More recentley, though, they were banned from European competition in 2013 for domestic match-fixing, as were Fener.

As to their squad, Ba might be their highest-profile player in a squad full of Turkish players, none of whom ring many alarm bells on their own. However, as with our previous trip to Turkey, it’s perhaps the atmosphere we’ll encounter, more than the players on the pitch, that we have to consider. Beşiktaş’s supporters are fervid, perhaps even rabid, in their support. Once known as Çarşı (innocuously translated to “market” or “bazaar”), their logo and reputation are a bit more ominous. Their logo features the “a” from anarchy, and they’ve been described variously as a philosophical collective with anti-fascist, anti-racist, democratic leanings, and their members were apparently instrumental in protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan back in 2013. Now, the supporters of each of Turkey’s big clubs are all known for their, er, enthusiasim, but the Çarşı are apparently notorious for their willingness to resort to violence against other clubs’ supporters.

If this is true, we should expect a reception more-hostile than the one offered by Fener’s fans, whose reputation seems less volatile. It’s odd, considering that most of what I’ved read of the Çarşı suggests a more-thoughtful, philosophical mindset, not to so much the stone-throwing, fireworks-tossing ultras who try to terrorize opponents. Then again, when “anarchy” features so prominently in the logo, I suppose a bit of violence is to be expected.

That said, travel always a bit to the challenge, but we handled it just fine last year and I expect we’ll do the same this time through.

Matchday 1
Tuesday August 19
Kickoff: 19:45 UK time
Ataturk Olimpic Stadium, Turkey

Matchday 2
Wednesday, August 27
Kickoff: 19:45 UK time
Emirates Stadium