Dortmund 0-1 Arsenal: Smarter Arsenal Prove They Can Play It Safe and Win

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2013

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 22:  Per Mertesacker of Arsenal clears the ball from Robert Lewandowski of Borussia Dortmund during the UEFA Champions League Group F match between Arsenal and  Borussia Dortmund at Emirates Stadium on October 22, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Arsene Wenger has heard so many of his Arsenal teams criticized for playing too open, taking too many chances and not being professional enough to play it safe in big games.

Well, that narrative can change after Wenger's current group of Gunners proved they are smart and mature enough to play it safe and win. The win was a single-goal victory in Germany over last season's UEFA Champions League runners-up, Borussia Dortmund.

When he saw his team lose the first meeting at home to a Robert Lewandowski sucker punch, Wenger had bemoaned his team's lack of maturity.

But no such naivety was evident in Germany.

It was a victory borne out of greater communication among a group of strong leaders on the pitch. Centre-back Per Mertesacker and deep-lying midfielder Mikel Arteta were at the heart of it.

Both were signed as part of Wenger's spending spree in the summer of 2011. That last-minute trolley dash was widely mocked by many, but yielding Arteta and Mertesacker now makes it look like very shrewd business indeed.

Both have wasted no time becoming indispensable figures at the club. They have helped redefine the personality of this Arsenal team.

Mertesacker's intelligence and assurance has brought the best out of his central defensive partner Laurent Koscielny, who himself was outstanding in Dortmund. Koscielny often receives the plaudits, but Mertesacker is the true figure of authority in this back four.

In front of him is where Arteta patrols, constantly barking orders at those around him.

The savvy veteran, who has reinvented himself as a defensive midfielder, has the happy knack of putting himself in the right place at the right time.

Players like Mikel Arteta were in no mood to wilt against Dortmund.
Players like Mikel Arteta were in no mood to wilt against Dortmund.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

He and Mertesacker are the backbone of this team, and their influence spread through the ranks in Dortmund. Nowhere was this more evident than in the midfield quartet ahead of Arteta.

Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil are all more known for their attacking exploits. But all four sacrificed themselves for the sake of team structure and defensive discipline in Dortmund.

It was Ramsey who scrapped his way to the game's only goal, but aside from that he was indifferent as a forward player. But the Welsh ace was certainly a valuable part of Arsenal's stubborn and resilient team shape.

As he did toward the end of last season, Ramsey provided excellent support for the deepest midfield player. But he wasn't alone in his efforts nullifying Dortmund's threat.

At times Cazorla gave full-back Kieran Gibbs decent support on the left flank. At others he tucked inside to prevent Dortmund from outnumbering Arsenal in the middle.

Cazorla and Ramsey's industry meant it was left to Rosicky and Ozil to press from the front. Both were outstanding in this regard.

Rosicky was the Arsenal's best player going forward in a game of limited opportunities for the away team. He was also a consistent nuisance when Dortmund were building possession from the back.

As for Ozil, he was again denied the chance to showcase his mercurial gifts going forward. His cross to help create the goal was important, but the real credit belonged to striker Olivier Giroud, who did well arching back to meet the ball and set up Ramsey to pounce.

Attacking midfielders like Mesut Ozil all did their part defensively.
Attacking midfielders like Mesut Ozil all did their part defensively.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

But where Ozil merited credit was for his work harassing Dortmund's centre-backs when they were on the ball. There were plenty of occasions in the first half when this was noticeable.

He didn't just press from the front, and one example of Ozil's willingness to defend, from the second half, should have earned him the respect of all Arsenal fans.

It came just after Ramsey's goal. Arsenal had a corner and Per Mertesacker just failed to connect with a diving header.

With both centre-backs forward for the corner, Arsenal were in trouble as Dortmund broke. As they did, Ozil sped back at the speed of lightning to keep up with the counter. Eventually, it was his decisive clearance from Arsenal's box that ended the attack and saw off the danger. It was brilliant stuff from a player hardly ever associated with defensive toil.

Ozil's effort was symptomatic of the whole team and speaks to the character of this squad. When Dortmund enjoyed a particularly strong spell at the start of the second half, Arsenal were forced to cling on.

Past Arsenal teams would have been expected to fold under the pressure. But this more mature bunch simply stayed strong and withstood the onslaught.

It was an example of the determination that was created and fostered during last season's run to fourth spot following so much adversity.

While the players were the visible heroes on the pitch, the real credit belonged to the embattled manager in the dugout.

Wenger has too often been mocked and chided for a so-called tactical naivety.

Arsene Wenger should be lauded for masterminding this result.
Arsene Wenger should be lauded for masterminding this result.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

But he rebuffed all of those claims in the best way possible. He sent his team to Dortmund to defend first, to be measured, patient and smart.

Wenger summed that approach up perfectly in his comments to Sky Sports:

It was a very tight game, very difficult, but we were united and had a compact block which didn't give them room to create chances.

We looked stable defensively. We were under pressure but we had a good mixture of technical awareness and attitude. Overall it was a very mature performance.

There's that word "mature" again. If Arsenal are more mature, it has come from a manager who has rebuked those who have claimed he doesn't pay attention to the supposed "ugly" side of the game.

When his opposite number Jurgen Klopp added forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to the fray, Wenger didn't waste a second bringing defender Nacho Monreal on to cancel out that change.

It was also Wenger who milked the clock and threw on centre-back Thomas Vermaelen to tick off some seconds and add even more solidity at the back.

These were the kind of pragmatic moves Wenger is so often accused of not making. Had this result come from a Jose Mourinho-coached team, the pundits would be waxing lyrical about tactical sophistication, ruthless efficiency and professionalism.

Now all of those labels should be applied to Wenger's performance. 

Arsenal's maturity and discipline were key in Dortmund.
Arsenal's maturity and discipline were key in Dortmund.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

He proved he can sacrifice his aesthetic principles for pragmatism toward the end of last season. He did it again here to earn a crucial three points in a treacherously tight group. It also garnered Wenger another piece of history as the coach of the first English team to win in Dortmund.

He should be used to that, having coached the first English teams to beat both Inter and AC Milan in the San Siro, as well as downing Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.

Victory in Dortmund is another landmark achievement for a manager who has been criminally disrespected during the last two seasons.

In the past, Arsenal have been labelled as a side who can't win ugly. They still have the critics who say they are too open to win major prizes.

But now those who hold that view will be forced into a rethink. Because this team can it play it safe and win.


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