Schalke 04 2 – 2 Arsenal
0 – 1 Walcott (18)
0 – 2 Giroud (26)
1 – 2 Huntelaar (45)
2 – 2 Farfan (67)
It could have better, it might have been worse but in the end, Arsenal will be content with a point in what was viewed as the toughest fixture of this Champions League group. If you had asked beforehand, I am fairly sure that most would have been happy with a draw but the circumstances of dropping a two-goal lead always leaves a tinge of disappointment.
Schalke started brightly, Mannone made a couple of routine saves before the Germans conceded the opener. Giroud pounced on poor defensive work and bore down on goal, a recovering challenge halting his progress but Theo Walcott scavenged and scored from close range.
Eight minutes later, the start Arsenal wanted got better. Giroud’s value to the team was shown as he battled for the ball on the left, fed Podolski and met the German’s cross with a powerful head for a two-goal advantage. The defence seemed tighter with Vermaelen moved to the full back position, improving that side of the pitch as much as moving his own indecision from the centre. Sadly that improvement could not last the match.
Either side might have scored in the time to the interval; Farfan blasted high and wide, Giroud found the goalkeeper with a decent header from Cazorla’s free kick. Just as it seemed Arsenal had reached half-time with the advantage firmly entrenched, they conceded. Holtby has been impressive in the two matches and robbed possession, fed Huntelaar. The Dutchman had the time and space to shoot across Mannone into the far corner.
The Italian made a good save from Huntelaar early in the second half as the hosts sought to equalise. Arsenal were enjoying spells of possession and making it difficult for clear chances to appear. When they did, Mannone was performing well, protecting the lead. Until midway through the half, Farfan’s shot found its way home despite a valiant, if doomed, effort from Vermaelen to stop the ball crossing the line; the power of the shot meant it was always going in.
If the worst was feared, it never materialised. Schalke seemed content with retrieving the deficit and as the match drew to its conclusion, the clearest chances were Arsenal’s. Theo Walcott struck the inside of the post before he should have stolen the points at the death, we’ll be generous and offer it as a good save from Unnerstall; a centre forward must score those opportunities but even the best can be culpable in the circumstances.
The performance was a vast improvement on Old Trafford yet there is still further to go. The manager observed that if the team continue to work hard, in a month they will be back firing on all cylinders. To me, that is stark honesty but it is foolish to take it at face value, too many will though. Talking of performance levels is too obsessive amongst Arsenal supporters, the manager fed that to some extent before this match. But the results will drive those performances; good points in tough away matches and wins elsewhere bring the confidence that is missing from the players. The manager and coaching staff have to reinforce the outcomes, driving the players forward. Arsenal traditionally stutter at this time of the year and whilst he has a month to wait for performances, Arsène knows that the Premier and Champions League’s will not offer him that time in terms of results.
Re-introducing Theo Walcott to the line-up had a positive impact, offering another outlet for the defence, pace and provision for the rest of the attack. That is not to say he was the sole reason for the better performance, he wasn’t. However, he did enough to justify his inclusion last night and warrant a sustained run in the side. With Giroud and Podolski working well together, I would suggest that the manager would have options, fitness permitting, to vary the forward line when fitness allows.
Looking forward, Arsenal retained control of the situation. To finish top, they have to win both games and hope that others drop points. On current form, they will not want to be going to Greece needing to avoid defeat to qualify. The result does not alter the problems which beset the squad at the moment nor is it an indicator of matters improving beyond this single game. But it was a good point and an improvement. Small steps, walking before they run. It is a long road to recovery and Arsenal need the results first, performances second.