Thursday, 26 February 2015

Same old Arsenal

Arsenal 1-3 Monaco

Arsene Wenger. Shock....

Arsenal once again gave themselves a mountain to climb to qualify for the quarter finals of the Champions League, after yet another disastrous first leg.

In seasons gone by the Gunners have been undone at this stage of the competition by phenomenal performances from the best teams in the World, as the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich lit up the Emirates Stadium with displays that would eventually see them win the tournament. On Wednesday night, Arsene Wenger’s side were well and truly beaten by Monaco, a side whose name did not strike fear into anyone with affiliations to the Gunners when the draw was made.

This could well have been the problem as throughout the entire game, it appeared as though both the players and the manager had underestimated their opponents. Monaco came into the game with a reputation as a solid defensive unit who look to hit teams on the break, but having only scored four goals in the group phase, the suggestion was that they would not be able to hurt the Gunners.

Yet Wenger played into his former side’s hands. Against a team which looks to defend deep the objective for the attacking side is to stretch the game, look to get in behind the opposition with movement and pace and play the ball as quickly as possible. But Arsenal did none of this on Wednesday. Welbeck and Sanchez were deployed on the flanks but kept on cutting inside, further congesting the play, as they rarely sought to run with the ball down the wing and turn the full back. As a result, Monaco found it extremely easy to defend against the Gunners, with the home side playing in front of them and ultimately having to attempt intricate passes in an area full of players.

The creative midfield players Ozil and Cazorla also struggled throughout the game as every time they had the ball and looked up, there was absolutely no movement whatsoever ahead of them. The forward players have to make runs to force the defenders to make a decision between staying put or covering the run, either leaving that player in space or creating space for others to exploit. But Arsenal’s forward players stood still far too often and Monaco were able to stifle the attack far too easily.

The lack of movement and willing runners also resulted in the painfully slow build up play, as with no forward options, the midfield ended up playing square balls, rather than penetrative passes and given the woeful performances of every single Arsenal player, any quick one-two play was simply beyond them on Wednesday night. Even the simplest passes were either being under hit or over hit and easily intercepted. As the crowd’s frustrations grew, they looked to the dugout for some inspiration from their manager, unfortunately, rather than rousing his players from the technical area, Wenger just sat in his seat for virtually the entire second half.

Arsenal’s forward play may have been poor on the night but they still managed to squander a host of chances with some of the most woeful finishing one can imagine. Giroud was the chief culprit having skied a couple of chances in the first half, the Frenchman failed to trouble the goalkeeper with a completely free header in front of goal, sending the ball ridiculously wide, before missing an open goal, to the astonishment of the home crowd.  Giroud was replaced soon after that miss, for Theo Walcott, with Welbeck moving into the central role and the two Englishmen combined to ensure another open goal went begging shortly afterwards, with Welbeck’s goal bound prod hitting Walcott on the leg and deflecting over the bar.

Lady luck it seemed was not on Arsenal’s side. In the first half a long range shot from Kondogbia was going straight to Ospina before taking a wicked deflection off Mertesacker, leaving the Columbian goalkeeper stranded as the ball flew into the net. The Gunners could look upon this moment as a cruel twist of faith, but in truth they only had themselves to blame as their defending left much to be desired. First Welbeck went into a challenge half-heartedly and lost possession, then, as Kondogbia picked up the ball and took aim, not one Arsenal player attempted to close him down, inviting the shot which led to the goal.

More woeful defending was to follow in the second half as Monaco’s second and third goals saw Arsenal revert to the na├»ve defending that has cost them so dearly in the past. At one-nil down, the Gunners had no reason to leave themselves so exposed at the back, and again when Oxlade-Chamberlain reduced the deficit in the 90th minute, Arsenal were right back in the tie and simply had to make sure Monaco didn’t score again. Yet on both occasions Monaco won back possession inside their own half and had a clear run on goal from the half way line. Dimitar Berbatov’s goal which doubled the visitor’s lead saw Mertesacker hopelessly exposed on the half way line allowing Anthony Martial to run through and set up Berbatov for a well-deserved goal. The Bulgarian had simply dominated the pathetic Arsenal defence from the very first whistle, winning aerial battles at will against Mertesacker in particular, who seemed afraid to jump all night long.

Monaco’s third arrived in the final minute of the game and essentially sealed Arsenal’s faith. With the score at 1-2, the Gunners had a chance of progressing to the next round by winning the return leg by two clear goals. Unfortunately the players seemed to forget there was another 90 minutes left in the tie and surged forward in search of an equaliser.  As a result, when Oxlade-Chamberlain was dispossessed in the Monaco half, there was a gaping space for Ferreira-Carrasco to exploit, racing through on goal and beating Ospina with a fine finish.

After the game Wenger declared that he had not seen that performance coming, but those who have watched this team struggle over recent weeks would disagree. The players let him down on Wednesday night but the manager was equally to blame, with tactics that played into Monaco’s hands and substitutions that failed to make sense. Yes Giroud was having a terrible night, but once he was replaced, the chances dried up even more, while taking Francis Coquelin off was just suicidal, given the terrible performance of the back four and the fact it meant Arsenal were left with no defensive midfield screen. Arsenal supporters have now become accustomed to seeing their team beaten at this stage of the competition, but to come up short against Europe’s best is one thing, to be humiliated by a team that simply wanted it more is something else.

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