1 – 0 Sanogo (2)
2 – 0 Sanchez (57)
Arsenal progressed to the last sixteen of the Champions League with victory over Borussia Dortmund last night. Yaya Sanogo scored his first competitive goal for the club as the game entered its second minute and the Germans, previously unbeaten in the group, never recovered from the shock. An untypical night went according to plan eventually for the French youngster as he suffered a hamstring pull, leaving the fray with ten minutes remaining.
As much as the win was needed to confirm their place in the last sixteenth for the eleventh consecutive season, the clean sheet was more important. Confidence has been destroyed by what Arsène described as “our generous attitude going forward“; it won’t return after one game but this was an important step in that recovery.
Wenger was understandably upbeat afterwards. It remains a tough time and when he needed a response from the players, he got one,
We had a good start and overall it was a very intense game between two very good teams where you had to fight for every ball and be focused. I felt we had a good combination between our usual passing game and our transition from defence to attack. We were highly focused to defend well together from the first to the last minute and we always looked dangerous. Defensively we were very good as well.
It was the latter which was the most important aspect. The back four were disciplined in their approach to the game, Per Mertesacker in particular took the opportunity to remember the fundamentals of the central defensive role but he was outshone by Nacho Monreal, once again. And when needed, Damian Martinez stopped Dortmund’s quest in its tracks, Mkhitaryan’s effort blocked with his legs as half-time approached; a pivotal moment as the inevitable Alexis Sanchez goal came fifteen minutes or so later, sealing victory.
Chambers and Gibbs were vastly improved, particularly the former. Whilst I am sure that it didn’t happen, there was a unity and discipline in their play which suggested Steve Bould had tied the quartet with George Graham’s infamous rope and taken them through the basic concepts of defending. Whatever has happened away from prying eyes, has worked. A strong foundation was built, the rest of the building blocks can be slowly worked back into position and cemented in place just in time for Laurent Koscielny’s return.
It was a victory that came at a price. Mikel Arteta’s calf has once more tweaked, twanged and strained; Sanogo’s hamstring has done the same. The pair’s seasons are resembling the hokey-cokey; they’re in, they’re out and they can’t shake it about in case they get injured once again. With the extent of Jack Wilshere’s absence decided today, the medical centre may well have the strongest XI.
Any win is timely but this one particularly so. Arsenal have a testing December, playing teams who are in form or traditionally tricky opponents. Looking at the fixtures, there are none that cannot be won but all bar West Brom and QPR can be easily lost. Going into that run shorn of confidence makes life harder, a ‘big-match’ win imbues some belief. They must carry on the performance levels at The Hawthorns for that to take hold and become ingrained.
The result makes the collapse at home to Anderlecht all the more costly. Arsène noted that Dortmund remain favourites to finish top despite losing last night. Even beating the Belgians would not have significantly changed that but Arsenal have to chase victory in Turkey. The reality for Arsenal is an eleventh season in the knockout phase and difficult opponents most likely.
For the fifth consecutive season – and seventh of this run – a second round exit is on the cards unless the fates give us Leverkusen, Porto or Atletico. Their track record in being that kind to the club is not good. Arsène thought there were four sides he would like to avoid, the truth is none will be easy just some are less difficult. Of course Arsenal can beat any side in this tournament but to do so, the tie cannot be over at the full-time whistle of the first leg.
That’s a problem for February though. Right now, Arsenal are concerned with last night and the next match. Outside of the improved discipline of the back four, a number of players jolted into life, not least Santi Cazorla whose intervention in Sanogo’s goal was pivotal. The impish vibrancy which is the hallmark of his game when in form, returned; the subdued and forlorn figure he has cut in recent weeks was cast to the shadows where it should remain.
Likewise, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a lively accompaniment on the right to Alexis on the left. Unfortunate when his impudence struck the crossbar, he has – for me at least – a continuing bright spot amid the murkiness of recent weeks. There is more to come but when in this form, he allows the manager of taking time to repair the damage England duty wrought on Theo Walcott’s groin. It’s the situation that many expected when he signed; now is a time to deliver.
It’s important to enjoy the moment – and I am sure Jurgen Klopp is this morning, knowing that his transfer budget for next season won’t be reduced – but one thing we have seen is the brittle nature of form and confidence in this squad. If Arteta is absent for any length of time, old frailties may resurface with the changes needed. It underlines his importance to the side but also the necessity to invest in a younger defensive midfielder as well.