Napoli vs. Arsenal: 6 Things We Learned from Champions League Clash
After a hectic final day of the Champions League group stage, Arsenal have advanced from the so-called "Group of Death," albeit in second place, to the Round of 16.
The Gunners simply needed to avoid losing by three goals to Napoli, and they skated by with two. They will no doubt be disappointed with finishing second after leading the group for virtually the entire group stage, but so it goes.
Now that a little of the dust has settled, let's look at six things we learned from the match.
Arsene Wenger Was Conservative from the Start
One look at Arsene Wenger's team selection tells you all you need to know about his mentality coming into the game.
Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini both started in midfield, which Wenger only does when he wants to be secure at the back and conservative. See, for example, Arsenal's match against Manchester United.
And instead of finally giving Theo Walcott his first start in months, which would have given Arsenal an invaluable weapon on the counterattack, Wenger turned to Tomas Rosicky.
The Czech is one of the manager's most trusted and experienced players, but he was clearly put on the pitch to retain the ball and harry Napoli's defense, rather than push forward and provide a real attacking threat.
Arsenal Knew They Had to Avoid a Three-Goal Defeat
Napoli took the initiative from the opening whistle, and Arsenal were content to let them do so.
A team that was structured to play conservatively did so. And Arsenal's willingness to simply contain Napoli's relentless pressure was indicative of a team that knew it only had to avoid catastrophe to qualify for the knockout round.
The Gunners knew that a draw would have seen them top the group and initially played for it. When Gonzalo Higuain gave Napoli the lead and Borussia Dortmund was tied with Marseille, Arsenal did not really try to score, as they still would have topped Group F.
The decision to merely contain instead of taking the game to Napoli ultimately came back to bite Arsenal, as Dortmund scored very late on to win the group.
Napoli Can Be Motivated
Napoli, like Arsenal against Bayern Munich several months ago, knew they had nothing to lose and needed to pull off a nearly impossible result to advance.
So, as the Gunners did at the Allianz Arena, the Neapolitans played with frenzied passion from the opening whistle and put Arsenal on the back foot for almost the entire match.
No wonder Gonzalo Higuain was in tears at the end of the match—he and the rest of his team worked extraordinarily hard to chase down every loose ball and take the game right to the Premier League leaders.
Whatever Rafa Benitez said to his team before the match certainly worked because Napoli played miles better than they did during their first meeting with Arsenal this season.
Mikel Arteta Needs a Rest
When an Arsenal player has a poor game, his performance is usually not as abject as some in the Arsenal-verse make it out to be.
That's true of Mikel Arteta's rather sorry display against Napoli. He received two yellow cards for two fouls while Valon Behrami did not get any for the six fouls he committed. And the second yellow was very harsh.
But Arteta simply has not been the consistent metronomic presence he was last season when Arsene Wenger trusted him to marshal Arsenal's midfield in almost every game.
Every aspect of his game this season has been a bit slower; he lingers a bit on the ball, is not as quick on the turn or on the run and cannot seem to pick out the tight passes he used to.
Whether this is part of a temporary bout of fatigue, poor form or a more permanent decline, Arteta should be rested in favor of Mathieu Flamini, who does all the defensive work better than Arteta.
Arsenal Will Regret Their Performance After the Draw
There is simply no good option for Arsenal. Bullish fans might relish a rematch with Barcelona or a tie with PSG, who are arguably the weakest team in the pot. But the dichotomy between the two pots is enormous.
It's very nice that Arsenal have progressed for the 14th year out of 16, but the consolation of advancing will be brought into perspective when the draw for the next round is announced.
Arsenal Fans Should Be Disappointed with Second Place
Arsenal fans are entitled to one of two valid emotions after the club's defeat: encouragement at progressing from the group of death or disappointment about finishing second when such an outcome could easily have been avoided.
The argument employed by the former camp is that Arsenal will have to play the big boys if they are to win the competition, so we might as well start now. And if the Gunners can't hack it, that gives them more time to focus on the Premier League.
But this ignores the fact that Arsenal's odds of winning the Champions League are significantly improved if they play more teams of less quality than them. It's that simple.
And by playing Zenit St. Petersburg instead of Real Madrid, for example, there is a greater chance of a smaller team knocking out an elite club before Arsenal would have to face them. Progression also brings in millions of dollars of television revenue.
So, while Arsenal's progression from the group of death is a fine achievement, they should be kicking themselves for letting a golden opportunity slip.