Thursday, 24 October 2013

Post-Dortmund analysis

UEFA Champions League: Group F tablePWDLFAGDPts
1. Arsenal32015326
2. Borussia Dortmund32016336
3. Napoli32014406
4. Marseille300327-50

The group standings make for slightly uncomfortable reading after Tuesday night's home loss to Dortmund. However, it doesn't do to get despondent. Yes, Arsenal must win when Marseille come to town, and we're also now reliant on getting decent away results at either Dortmund's Signal Idun Arena or Napoli's Stadio San Paolo. But although both are pretty formidable grounds, the last time we went to the former we got a creditable 1-1 draw (indeed, we nearly nabbed all three points save for an 88th-minute equaliser from Ivan Perisic). And we generally have a pretty good record in Italy too – that season's dismal performance in Milan notwithstanding. 

This team is much better than last season's vintage, and in my opinion surpasses 2011/12's too. We were also somewhat unlucky to lose the game on Tuesday. Arsenal generally played well, and it was an entertaining game played in a good atmosphere at the Emirates. The home fans were riding high on the team's recent form and responded well to Dortmund's vocal away support.

The Dortmund fans are rightly proud of their team. They are a very good side – without a doubt the best team we've come up against this season. They move the ball very quickly, hold an excellent defensive shape and press effectively. That caused us problems in the first half, when the Gunners struggled to keep possession or find a rhythm.

But in the second half, Arsenal gained the upper hand and, at 1-1, looked the most likely team to go on and win it. Cazorla hit a rasping shot against the bar – two inches lower and we'd probably be celebrating a famous victory. Unfortunately we were caught by a classic counter-attack, which was probably the only chance Dortmund had in the second 45 minutes, but they seized the opportunity courtesy of a precision strike from Lewandowski (who was a bit lucky to be on the pitch after elbowing Koscielny in the face a few minutes earlier).

It was gutting to succumb to such a sucker punch. Cynics might say that Arsenal failed their first stern test, but that is both overly negative and ignores the positives shown on the pitch. Alright, the goals we conceded were perhaps a bit soft, and the second in particular showed some naivety, as Wenger himself put it, although I think he was uncharacteristically hard on his side. At the end of the day, there is always the possibility for a swift counter when one team is pushing for a winner, and that's exactly what happened.

It's hard to direct too much criticism at individual players, as everyone on the pitch put a shift in. Perhaps the steel of Flamini or the pace of Theo might have made the difference, but if either had been fit then they'd both be in the team – it's just bad luck.

The players were obviously disappointed but have promised to learn from the game and bounce back. Jack and Rambo both pointed out that the result didn't match the performance but at the same time acknowledged the team switched off and got punished. Giroud and Cazorla said much the same thing while looking forward to getting back to the winning football we've been playing up to now.

One poor result shouldn't disrupt the optimism around Arsenal's play so far in 2013/14. In that respect, learn the lesson, consign it to history and move on quickly, starting with a victory against managerless Palace this weekend. We always knew that this Champions League group would be a tough assignment, and there is no need to panic yet.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Mathieu Flamini: unsung hero

Mathieu Flamini goes off injured against Norwich, 19 October 2013
Flamini goes off after 37 minutes against Norwich after a pretty heavy clash of heads with Alexander Tettey. Definitely a no-nonsense footballer. Just look at those boots...

Today's 4-1 home win over Norwich was a credible display punctuated with some really stylish goals from the Gunners, but the game also illustrated a fact about this team that is becoming ever more obvious – namely, the importance of Mathieu Flamini's midfield presence.

After all, the story could perhaps have been rather different. From the 37th minute through to about the 60th, Norwich had a decent spell in which they capitalised on the absence of Flamini, who was withdrawn with suspected concussion after a heavy clash of heads with Alexander Tettey. The difference without the Frenchman on the field was noticeable, and emphasised just how important a player he has already become in the short time he has been back at Arsenal.

Admittedly, Norwich changed their tactics slightly to get tighter in midfield, while Arsenal seemed to sit back and rely on the back four to hold firm. Part of the reason, I think, is that Flamini is the primary link between Arsenal's defensive and attacking players. Arguably, he's the only truly defensive player in the midfield, and as the anchoring presence, screening the back four and breaking up opposition play, he is a real asset. Today he offered the perfect foil to the probing, attacking interplay of Wilshere, Özil, Cazorla and Giroud. His loss, therefore, was significant.

It is perhaps a vindication of Wenger's decision to bring him back, although by all accounts the manager harboured a bit of resentment for the fact that he left in the first place. I think it's also fair to say that his return to the Gunners back at the end of August produced mixed reactions from fans. Some, admittedly, responded positively, but there were some who were rather more measured and still others who felt distinctly underwhelmed by the signing.

For my part, I hoped it would prove to be a shrewd move and, reflecting on the memories I had of the Flamini–Hleb axis that had started to form back in 2006/07, felt optimistic. As I recall, it showed all the hallmarks of an enterprising and effective partnership – before both had their heads turned by Milan and Barcelona respectively.

Since then the two players' career trajectories have been somewhat different. Hleb is now at BATE Borisov after loan spells at Stuttgart, Wolfsburg and, er, Birmingham. In 2009 he voiced his regret at leaving Arsenal for Barca.

In the meantime, Flamini clearly developed as a player during his five years at AC Milan (although he spent the whole of the 2011/12 season out injured). Milan is a club long renowned for tactical nous and its ability to get the best from players, so Flamini's experiences there must have been good for him, even if his time there was not without difficulties – spending periods out injured and on the sidelines, and ultimately becoming largely a squad player. Despite that, he was a regular for a long spell and in the end notched 96 Serie A appearances.

He seems to be relishing being back at Arsenal. Most impressively, Flamini looks to have slotted in to the side very well and remarkably quickly. Many Gooners have also commented positively on his vocal approach to marshalling and organising his fellow players – the mark of a leader on the pitch that many feel has been missing from Arsenal for some time.

So Flamini's loss after 37 minutes against Norwich was definitely felt. That statement might seem counter-intuitive and even overly negative, given the final scoreline, but the individual brilliance of Mesut Özil and then Aaron Ramsey were in the end enough to kill the game off. They both masked the change that ensued from losing Flamini early on, and meant that overall it didn't matter.

Against stronger opposition, however, things might have got more tricky. It all suggests that Flamini's fitness could be an important factor in the success of the season. The worrying thing in this regard is that there doesn't currently seem to be anyone else in the squad who could play this role in the team – Arteta doesn't look comfortable doing it on his own, and we can hardly count on the fitness of Abou Diaby. Hopefully Wenger has already realised this and might therefore move in January for suitable cover – perhaps a utility player who could play as a DM or a centre-half.

Hopefully Flamini will be fit for the Dortmund game on Tuesday, although head injuries are always (rightly) treated with extreme caution. Don't dwell on that just yet though. Instead, bask in the glow of a comprehensive 4-1 victory in which Arsenal played some truly scintillating football and scored some memorable goals, including one combination that the gaffer has called 'one of the best goals I've seen' – quite a tribute from a man who has been in charge of over 900 Arsenal matches and who must have watched countless hours of football in his career.