Arsenal 1 – 2 Borussia Dortmund
0 – 1 Mkhitaryan (16)
1 – 1 Giroud (41)
1 – 2 Lewandowski (83)
Not for the first time in recent history, Arsenal succumbed to a German side at home; Arsène will be hoping that the good form of last season’s away legs is repeated. If it isn’t, Arsenal’s desire to avoid Thursday night football may rest on the trip to Naples. An uncomfortable parallel with last season has emerged from an unfortunate result.
We can argue all we like about whether Robert Lewandowski should have been on the pitch but he was. The Pole did not escape any cell or leap over a barrier around the pitch to calmly slot home, leaving everyone scratching their heads about how quiet he had been for thirty minutes; he was there, an opponent with a big enough reputation to warrant a close eye being kept all night. The defence switched off and he delivered the telling finish. A Bergkamp-esque elbow as well, subtly measured in a deliberate and undisguised way.
Any defeat hurts but to lose to a sucker-punch is more painful, particularly as the manager and players are well-versed in these matches. They know what to expect, they know concentration is the priority and like all of us, at times they prove to be human. Unlike us mortals, they carry the hopes and desires of many on their shoulders and for the opening half an hour, it appeared to be a burden. There was a trepidation in their play; it hinted at the slack patch in the recent matches against Norwich and West Brom yet was unexpected in the cauldron of the Champions League. Inevitably questions will be asked and victory at Selhurst Park will not dispel them. Nor will winning against whatever Chelsea side turns up at The Emirates but those matches and the ones subsequent, collectively will tell us all we need to know. Are the wheels coming off or was it just a large stone in the road, the one that everyone saw coming but couldn’t react to quickly enough?
Dortmund deserved their early lead, they started the brighter of the two teams as Arsenal struggled to settle. Arsène was critical of his players for the goals, observing that the first put them on the “back foot” whilst the second was conceded naïvely. I don’t think anyone can argue with his assertion that several of the team were below par. It is an inherent weakness in the Arsenal squad, particularly in recent years, that they find themselves too disrupted by the international breaks. We get results on most occasions but in the Champions League matches against the group’s second seeds, rarely is a result achieved without a performance.
More than anything, the manager’s post-match comments suggest he is concerned by that; of course, he termed it more eloquently, calling into question his players “maturity“. That should be of concern to all given the experience that is evident in the spine of the team. If this is a one-off, quickly we will ascribe the defeat to the international break. If a more fundamental shift in form arises, it is a deeper and more uncomfortable question to face.
At this moment though, it is a question for supporters to answer; is the defeat more disappointing because – and I speak for myself only here – the hope was that the cobwebs were shaken in the final thirty minutes at the weekend, where the verve of the attack pushed lapses into the hedge. Not out of sight, we knew they were there but the goals were so sparkling that the duller sheen of problems took to the shadows for fear of the righteous light shining through?
That makes it seem doom and gloom; it isn’t but Arsenal started poorly, Dortmund well. I’m grateful to be able to copy and paste Mkhitaryan’s name and to have to mention it but twice in the whole post. And I did spell it incorrectly first time around. His finish came after Ramsey was robbed of possession close to his own goal, the exuberance of his own confidence and a desire to prompt the lacklustre Arsenal attack into action betraying the Welshman. Arsenal missed Flamini; his all-action style puts opponents onto the back foot, urging them to pass more quickly than they want. Many will construe that as criticism of Arteta, it isn’t. The Spaniard put in a good shift again, working hard to close down openings having read the play from deep but the contrast is marked; Flamini hassles, Arteta more thoughtful. I know which is more eye-catching and sometimes, it is more effective to be typically English in a Gallic way. Quite simply, Arsenal missed Flamini. Arteta did nothing wrong but there was a sense that the balance was wrong, there was something missing. Maybe it is just as simple as a bad day at the office being lost in Flamini’s absence; maybe Arsenal are thriving because of his style of play. Yes, the individual but famously derided, the water-carrier can be an integral part to a successfully artistic side. The pragmatism serves the skilled players well, trophy winning sides are built on such artisans. Arsenal need to find a temporary solution for his absences.
Jack Wilshere’s departure did not help. Inevitably there are questions about his fitness but as we have seen with others, long absences bring about stuttering returns in that respect. With a fully fit squad, such inconveniences are glossed over as others take their opportunities but Arsenal are some way from having that luxury. Santi Cazorla may dispute that and his rasping drive that left the woodwork reverberating loudly suggests his fitness cannot be questioned. Yet. But the bench last night underlined the manager’s problems. Defensively strong but his midfield and attacking options were Gnabry, Bendtner and Cazorla. It doesn’t bode well when chasing a game.
Not that it was the case by the time the Spaniard entered the fray. Rosicky had seen a low drive – beautifully tamed in its execution – cleared from the line by the impressive Hummels. Olivier Giroud brought parity to the proceedings, capitalising on a defensive error following a surging run from the enterprising Sagna. Half-time came, it felt as if Arsenal had found the level playing field and were now ready to press on.
It happened to a degree but not enough to force clear chances upon which to reflect, beyond Cazorla’s strike against the bar. Arsenal enjoyed a lot of possession, they got into good positions but it all petered out in a mesh of misplaced passes and defensive assuredness. And then followed the winning jab as Lewandowski delivered the volley home. For a moment his failings at Wembley came briefly into view but the finish justified the hype. At close hand, Arsenal saw why the media continuously link him with a bigger club. Or Bayern Munich, as they like to be known.
The reality of situation is that Arsenal sit in a three-way tie for the top of the group. We face facts that Marseilles abysmal showings thus far leave Napoli confident of winning next matchday. It places an uneasy feeling over the return of this match; it is one that neither side can afford to lose. I hate games where that is a desirable outcome, it instils a caution in the side that does not suit them. The best victories in recent years have been when the wind has taken caution in its arms and whilst not dispersing it to the four corners, has certainly loosened its grip on the team. Sensibly adventurous does not seem any different to adventurously sensible. To me the former was Munich, the latter Gelsenkirchen. I prefer the outcome of the former to be honest.