After reading Michael Cox’s piece on how Monaco might approach the match I’m convinced that Arsenal need to be switched on for the full 90 minutes lest they become the victims of a classic continental smash and grab. But I’m equally convinced that Wenger’s rebuilt Arsenal attack is much stronger than in previous years and if they stay switched on, could do a real number on Monaco tonight and set up a good chance to get through to the next round.
Cox argues that Monaco have played very defensively throughout this Champions League campaign and will likely sit deep and defend for 90 minutes looking to hit Arsenal on the counter. They have a solid defensive setup with Ricardo Carvalho as their main anchor and Jeremy Toulalan playing in the holding role. He also suggests that Monaco’s fullbacks are a real threat with their speed and attacking ability. With the fleet footed, sure dribbler, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco in front of them and Joao Moutinho spraying passes out wide, they can invite Arsenal to play high up the pitch and hit Arsenal at speed while exploiting gaps in the Arsenal high defensive line.
That would be a familiar feeling for many of us who have lived through the last 9 years of Arsenal football. Whenever teams used to cede possession to Arsenal, the Gunners would press high up the pitch and pass the ball around in a horseshoe shape around the 18 yard box. During that period Arsenal lacked a real aerial threat and so the opposition would let our pass-happy team simply play the ball around while they sat buried in the box deeper than an Alabama tick.
But this Arsenal side has more options in attack than the Cesc Fabregas/Robin van Persie era Arsenal: Özil, Welbeck, Giroud, and Sanchez represent a major overhaul from the old days and a significant upgrade on the lone striker van Persie who, while talented when he wanted to be, was almost never fit.
Tactically, Arsenal have Olivier Giroud who is a big body in the box. Whipping in crosses to Giroud is not entirely a bad option, even if he doesn’t score many headers. Simply causing panic in that area and challenging Ricardo Carvalho¹ to defend in the air could bring joy because any ball that falls in the box is dangerous. Especially since Arsenal have goal poachers like Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck who will pounce on anything Monaco leave out.
Danny Welbeck is a second option for Arsenal. He’s also an aerial threat but more importantly he’s the kind of forward who likes to run in behind defenders. With Özil, Cazorla, and Sanchez standing at the top of the box looking to make through ball passes, if Arsenal can’t get anything in through the air, Welbeck’s runs behind could be a key to unlock the Monaco defense.
The one thing I worry about with Arsenal is that they have a tendency in these games, still, to send both fullbacks bombing forward. Arsenal’s defensive midfielder, Francis Coquelin, does a good job covering for a single fullback but it’s simply not possible to cover for both. The Arsenal forwards are going to lose possession at some point and when they do, if both fullbacks are forward, and with just one holding midfielder, Arsenal’s back two will be exposed time and again.
The good news is that Monaco are not a very high scoring team. That means we could see Arsenal’s fullbacks exposed but for nothing to come from the attack.
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.
There is a “fact” making the rounds that Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal have never conceded to a French side at home in the Champions League. I hate that stat because Arsenal aren’t playing against a gestalt “French side” today, they are playing Monaco.
Still, I think Arsenal have a real chance to go through. I should say that Arsenal have a better chance than the last 4 years where they were beaten at home in this round by AC Milan, Bayern Munich (twice) and Barcelona. I believe it so strongly that I am anticipating the next round where Arsenal play a Spanish team, Atletico Madrid anyone?
¹If I were to write him a birthday card it would read “Happy Birthday” on the outside and “I hate you” on the inside.