It’s amazing how the attitude of fans can change. As soon as the final whistle went against Besiktas last week I felt completely confident that Arsenal would get past the Turkish team at the Emirates. The thinking being that while they gave Arsenal a scare in the first leg, fighting hard in midfield and putting in some excellent service to Ba, Arsenal gave as much as they got and a draw was the right result. Given the history of teams of Besiktas’ caliber and their travel woes, it was only natural to assume that Arsenal would easily put them to the sword at home.
But then Ramsey got sent off for a light foul (and dive) on Ozyakup. And Arteta limped off with an an ankle injury. And now Olivier Giroud trod on a ball or something and is ruled out for the rest of the year. I think it’s safe to say that my attitude toward this game has gone from quiet confidence to a slight feeling of dread.
The injury to Giroud has set the “I told you so” crowd on fire. This week’s news about Arsenal’s strike force has been like a small packet of fireworks were set off in a crowded theater: everyone went screaming for the exits. Then the theater management gathered all the customers together and promise them a free ticket to another movie. At the second movie some joker again threw a string of lady fingers into the crowd and this time instead of running for the exits the crowd turned on the prankster with blood in their eyes.
The first cracker was probably Alexis’ poor performance through the middle for Arsenal at Goodison park. It was quite the scene: Arsene has been widely criticized for not having a plan B and then suddenly here he was setting out his side in a counter-attacking mode with Alexis in the middle of the park and no one noticed. I know you won’t believe me that Wenger’s use of Alexis was part of a counter-attack plan, but that’s what the plan was. If you need an expert opinion I will point you over to Julien Laurens on the Times podcast ripping the often wrong Alyson Rudd by saying the exact same thing (20th minute) pointing out how Alexis was used to devastating effect as the focus of their counter at Udinese.
Rory Smith backed Julien Laurens (and Arsene Wenger) in that assessment as well saying that Alexis will get better as he is bedded in and given a chance to run in that role. Again, this is where I land on this debate: Alexis is far from a failure but rather a player who looks like he needs time to get fit and match time with his teammates to get a sense of how they play.
Still, if Arsenal set up as a defensive side against Everton in the first half, it didn’t show. Or maybe it showed that the defensive midfield is still a bit unsure of how to cover for each other when the fullbacks make overlapping runs.
I kept wondering why Everton were able to easily counter into spaces vacated by the Arsenal fullbacks and yet when they got Coleman and Baines forward, Arsenal weren’t able to counter attack them. Then I paused the action and snapped this photo:
All that said, I don’t know if this is the kind of game that Arsene will set up as a counter attacking team. The Turkish team will be the ones inviting pressure and Arsenal will probably spend a ton of time in their box.
But that might actually benefit Alexis in the lone striker role. Now, instead of looking to hit Besiktas on a quick counter, Arsenal will have Cazorla, Alexis, Ox, and Özil exchanging quick passes in the Besiktas final third. Alexis, Cazorla, and Ox are all excellent dribblers as well, which Arsenal will hope to use too cause panic among the Turkish defenders and with three nimble forwards up front, hopefully Arsenal can get good movement as well which will cause further trouble.
If Arsenal get an early goal, then Alexis up front by himself is all the better because Arsenal (with Ox’s speed down the wings) can revert to that counter attacking team that we saw used to such great effect over the last two years.
So, while I think Alexis is mostly going to be deployed in the lone striker role against top teams in away games, I think he may get the start there tonight against Besiktas because Arsenal really have little choice and because he could be used tactically to Arsenal’s advantage.
In midfield this is a big game for Jack Wilshere. Quick passing and movement are the keys for the Arsenal midfield today and without Arteta (passing) and Ramsey (movement) I have to wonder who Wenger is going to deploy next to Jack and what role Jack will occupy. I don’t subscribe to the theory that Wilshere is going to be some kind of defensive midfielder one day. He’s talented enough to do anything in midfield, no doubt, but his natural inclination is to play in the Ramsey role and get forward to try and score goals. That said, I could see Rosicky starting next to Jack today and Jack playing the deepest midfielder role. I like Flamini but Tomas’ movement and energy in midfield is key for me.
At the back, Chambers and Mertesacker need to keep Demba Ba in their pocket, especially early. Besiktas used big diagonals from Ozyakup to near devastating effect in the first tie and I wouldn’t expect them to do anything less again today. Mertesacker’s presence there and on corners (which the Turks will also look to score from) will be crucial.
Early on as Arsenal press to look for the opener, Besiktas will try to spring Ba on Chambers. The former Southampton man had one mistake in the last outing and as such his first taste of what it means to play center half at Arsenal: as I always put it, 88 minutes of boredom and 2 minutes of sheer terror where any slip is magnified into the worst possible moment imaginable.
On paper Arsenal are the better team, even with all the injuries: Sanchez, Wilshere, Ox, Özil, and Cazorla all ooze class.Moreover, Arsenal haven’t lost yet this season and have shown great composure coming back against Everton on the weekend. This should be a game the Gunners can win easily. I’ll try to remember that whenever I have a nervous glance around the room any time there’s any flash of light that might indicate someone is lighting off fireworks.
¹How many things can you count wrong with this picture?