Attention turns to the Champions League and the visit of Bayern Munich to The Emirates tomorrow night for The Next Big Test ©. It could be worse, we might be in the same boat as Liverpool with nothing to do this week but bemoan the last refereeing performance whilst lacking the self-awareness to realise that having an outstanding attack is pointless with a porous defence. Arsenal tried it for years; entertaining but fundamentally flawed.
The latter certainly applied to the visit of the German champions last season; Arsenal were outmanoeuvred and well-beaten on the night. Victory in the second leg, whilst ultimately futile in terms of the Champions League, provided impetus domestically and from there, the squad has improved. Whether that is sustained until the end of the season remains to be seen. Arsène will demand an improved performance from his charges in the same way achieved when Barcelona visited north London in consecutive seasons at the turn of the decade.
That will only happen if Arsenal are alert and switched on from the start, a vulnerability exploited at Anfield and evident in the two subsequent games against United and Liverpool. It is a fundamental flaw that seems as hard to explain as it is for the players, coaches and manager to solve. Bayern will have noted this and seek to exploit it as ruthlessly as they did last season when the tie was all but gone inside the first twenty minutes. Arsenal cannot afford to allow a repeat of that performance if they have any genuine hopes of progressing to the quarter-finals. That is hard enough as it is without rolling over and offering Bayern the chance to tickle tummies in the process. Look at the trouble that has got Olivier Giroud in.
Despite the rocking of the boat by the drubbing at Anfield, Arsenal are stronger than last year as Arsène pointed out and acknowledged by Rummenigge and Lahm. Whilst the improved league and cup fortunes are undoubtedly pivotal in that, key players are in better form individually and as pairings. The triangle at the heart of the defence – Szczesny, Mertesacker and Koscielny – are considerably better than last season, particularly the Pole whose vulnerability twelve months ago is the polar opposite to the confidence now. Mentally, the players have to believe and victory in the FA Cup was a prime example of that; when the waves of Liverpool attacks crashed in, there was a willingness on all parts to throw themselves into defensive duties with nary a complaint seen.
Flamini believes it is a sign that the squad shares the same ethos as their predecessors when he first joined the club in 2004. It is noticeable that whilst there are key players on the pitch, their egos have been subsumed into the collective and not as before when a star striker, for example, made it clear he believed his own press and was central to everything good. The bad, there’s always someone else to blame, isn’t there. Shearing the squad of that imbalance may yet prove to be Arsène’s best move, even if he wasn’t always in control of that destiny. It isn’t about being nasty on the pitch or too nice; this is the balance of the squad and how they work together.
His midfield has to this layman a good balance of artist and artisan. Some are still finding their way in that respect, unsure as to which category they fall into. Arguably, there are few whose roles are so clearly defined. Beyond Flamini, Cazorla and Özil, the rest have feet in both camps which leaves Wenger with a difficult decision for tomorrow’s team. Bayern will undoubtedly work the midfield hard which begs the question whether he can afford Cazorla and Özil alongside Rosicky? The former seems likeliest to make way if he believes that including Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the right course of action. As with Aaron Ramsey this season, a certain mythology is building around the England youngster building his current run of form into something more with stats about contribution to goals thrown around like confetti. Those, as with the dependency on Ramsey’s contribution, seem like a comfort blanket for supporters which unravels as quickly as it has been wrapped when the goals dry up.
Injuries may take that decision out of the manager’s hands; we’ll have more of an idea when he speaks to the press today. Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs were reportedly injured at the weekend but apparently trained with the squad yesterday so who knows whether they are fit or not. If they are, I would expect both to start tomorrow night.
Away from the match, the noise from Germany has not always been polite with Schalke continuing to talk up Arsenal’s interest in Draxler. According to the latest communiqué, Arsenal bid more than once for the player but not enough to entice the German club into selling. It begs the question as to why there is constant talk, why the topic never drops. It’s simple, Schalke are worried Arsenal might not come back and reading between the lines, talk of values being more than release clauses, smacks of a salesman worried that his best hope of custom might have been frightened off. Whether they have or not remains to be seen but what better way than press or broadcast media to remind them that you exist. It’s rather like a forlorn “Hellloooooo” every time they pass by the door and two meetings with the Inter-Galactic champions is too good a sales opportunity to miss.