The three keys for me, then, against Monaco will be: 1. keep at least one fullback back at all times, even if Arsenal are behind by a goal (unlikely). 2. Giroud v. Carvalho – I highlighted Giroud’s aerial ability but his ability to score from a tight, front post angle, could be crucial as well. And 3. get Welbeck behind the Monaco defense running onto Özil’s balls.
Writing yesterday’s preview I had this mixture of foreboding and calm. The foreboding came from knowing Arsenal’s weakness when dealing with teams that defend deep and the calm came from knowing that Arsenal had the superior attack and should be able to put the game out of sight before the opposition’s counter attack plan could bear fruit. But as I sat there and watched Arsenal spurn golden chance after golden chance, it was the foreboding that took over and eventually melted into resigned acceptance. This is just how Arsenal are now.
The eventual match outcome was foreshadowed by Danny Welbeck’s first kick of the game. Two minutes into the contest and Welbz was played in for a brilliant chance on the right side. He beats his man but fails to gather his feet and instead of blasting the shot on target, slipped, fell over, and sort of curled one over the top of the bar.
But after that shot Arsenal went into slumber mode and it cost them dearly. Kondogbia, a player I’ve had many fans recommend for Arsenal, took a wild shot from 30 yards out, it hit Mertesacker slightly in the chest, and Ospina stood oddly rooted to the ground as the ball got past him mere feet from where he stood.
It was a piece of shocking defending that no one picked Kondogbia up in midfield (Cazorla tried but was late), it was a piece of shocking defending from Per (Wenger criticized Per for not facing the ball), and it was a piece of shocking defending from the keeper Ospina (he isn’t even wrong footed, he just went blank, like a deer in headlights).
But even if you think I’m being harsh and Kondogbia was just lucky, what happens next is pretty much unforgivable. Arsenal spent the remainder of the half in a daze and didn’t do much with the possession that Monaco granted them. There was a distinct lack of urgency and application to Arsenal throughout the match, Berbatov alluded to this when he criticized Arsenal for taking them for granted.
Wenger seemed to light a fire under the troops and they came out barnstorming in the second half — getting a few good shots but nothing yet on target. But the problem is that while Arsenal were getting shots in good positions they weren’t finishing. And worse, Arsenal’s fullbacks were both playing high up the pitch in the Monaco final third, both at the same time.
I shouldn’t have to explain why having both fullbacks in the final third is suicidal but I’m going to anyway: 1. the opposition are crowding the box so space is at a premium. 2. the ball can only be on one side of the pitch at a time. Thus, if Gibbs is involved in the play, by definition Bellerin cannot be involved. He is literally DOING NOTHING in a premium attacking space. 3. fullbacks, right, are fullbacks for a reason: they aren’t good attackers. So when they are occupying premium attacking spaces, they are actually hurting the attack. 4. overlapping runs are hard to defend, but standing static in the opposition half is not. By occupying the spaces the attackers should be in, and mostly standing still to provide a wide outlet, the fullbacks are actually making it easier for the opposition to defend. And finally 5. THEY AREN’T FUGGING DEFENDING! THEY ARE DEFENDERS WHO AREN’T FUGGING DEFNEDINGUSG^*##H#DYGSGUUW*@U#HEGEYEOY.
Sorry, I died.
So, in the 53rd minute, with everyone playing forward, Per Mertesacker tried to make a tackle in the opposition half and failed. Martial waltzes into the Arsenal half, singing Skip to my Lou, faces Koscielny who is the last man, and then plays a simple pass to Dimitar Berbatov, who is slower than molasses in January. Monaco go up 2-0 and at this point, the tie is over. Thanks for coming everyone.
The goal seems to light a second fire under the players and in the 57th minute Arsenal register their first shot on target. Sanchez hits a screamer and Giroud shoots the rebound over the bar. It was a terrific clearance by Giroud who, if he learns to make basic passes (his missed pass to Sanchez in the first half was criminal), could be a serviceable center half. Maybe he could get a start over Per Mertesacker? He is Arsenal’s best defender of set pieces.
Anyway, Giroud is hooked a minute later and replaced by Theo Walcott. Giroud had missed six chances in the game, four of those are what Opta calls “big chances” — the kind of chances you would expect a forward to score about 50%. I would have taken a scoring rate of 25% from those chances. But Giroud scored… let’s see… is zero a percent?
In the 64th minute, Arsenal get their second shot on target, doubling the offensive output, as Walcott is played in with a brilliant through ball from Sanchez. The keeper doesn’t do well enough and the ball falls to Welbz who fires a shot right into Theo Walcott. It’s a good block from Walcott.
In the 81st minute Arsene Wenger hauls off Arsenal’s best player, Santi Cazorla and inexplicably leaves Özil on. Özil had one of those Özil matches where he is accused of nicking a living. Maybe Cazorla was tired, I imagine it was taxing for a guy who is 5’2″ to carry the entire Arsenal team on his back.
And once Cazorla goes off, Arsenal’s offensive impetus falls apart. Monaco, who came to defend, play keep away and their fans start oleing. Arsenal didn’t even look interested in winning the ball back for large portions of the final 15 minutes. Arsenal fans, sensing the gig is up, leave the Grove in droves. Empty seats all over the stadium. The only fans who stayed behind were the ones who wanted to boo at full time.
Ox scores a goal in the 91st minute, then loses the ball in the 94th minute and fails to track his runner, who scores the Monaco third. Chambo goes from Ox to Goat in 3 minutes.
Boos ring out.
It was a horrible night. Arsenal were profligate (remember when we used that word all the time?!?) but in order to be profligate had to get the ball into dangerous areas. The Gunners created chances but simply couldn’t finish. But worse than the finishing was the “suicidal” (Wenger’s words, not mine) defending at the back.
Wenger threw all the players under the bus after the match but I found his post-match analysis a bit too self-serving. Yes, the players were terrible. Yes, the players were bombing forward like nincompoops. Yes, Mertesacker should be considerably better, more organized, and much more brave than he is. But at the same time, this high-line defense frailty is a feature of Arsenal football that is so entrenched that every human on earth can predict it before the match. Even Wenger himself said that he warned the players against this kind of defending before the match.
That is maddening. It’s maddening to watch this same story play out time and again.
But the most maddening part is that this was a winnable tie. Monaco’s vaunted defense wasn’t that good: that much is evidenced by the fact that Arsenal dominated the shot chart, seeming to get dangerous shots at will. And Monaco’s offense isn’t that good either, they were lucky for the first goal and if Arsenal had kept two to three defenders back at any point from the 30th minute on I’m fairly certain that they wouldn’t have scored 3 goals.
But the part that worries me the most is that this is now the fourth time in a row that Arsenal have collapsed in spectacular fashion in this round of Champions League play. And while Wenger was quick to blame the players yesterday, each time it has happened has been with vastly different personnel on the pitch.