Borussia Dortmund vs. Arsenal: Five Points to Ponder for Arsene Wenger
For the first time in as long as I can remember, Arsene Wenger has taken his Arsenal team into a UEFA Champions League campaign without a confident declaration of belief that his team can win the trophy. Words like “it’s too early to speak about winning it” and “we have to form a team in the next two months” do not befit the ever-confident Frenchman. But they are a fair barometer of the level of struggle, upheaval and criticism the man has been confronted with all summer.
Arsenal commence their campaign tonight in Germany against defending Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund. The fact that the German champions found themselves in "Pot 4" of the Champions League draw was in itself a shocker, and to that extent, Arsenal were unfortunate to draw such a pedigreed team.
Dortmund, managed by Jurgen Klopp, are well organized, as all top German teams are. They additionally boast of an array of attacking talent, the shining star being the 19-year-old German international Mario Gotze. Arsenal may well be stronger on paper and favorites to get all three points, but if the team doesn't bring its "A" game to the Westfalenstadion tonight, they may well be in for a shock.
Here are five critical success factors for the Gunners tonight.
5. Keep Mario Gotze Quiet
This sounds like a no-brainer, doesn't it? But if you look at Champions League campaigns gone by, Arsene Wenger has been loathe to set his team up mark the opposition's star man. Think of the space afforded to the likes of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the past three seasons, think of how badly they've hurt us, and you'll see what I mean.
Mario Gotze is one of the top young talents in world football. He had 15 assists last season, more than any Arsenal player. If you need any validation of his ability and potential, consider the fact that Arsene Wenger tried and failed to sign him in the summer. And the Professor knows a special talent when he sees one.
Gotze normally plays down the right-hand side. It is imperative that Kieran Gibbs (or Andre Santos) does not give him room or allow him to run round the back. It is also essential that Gervinho (or whoever else starts in the left sided attacking position) tracks back to help out defensively.
We know that Gotze is the danger man. If we allow him to steal the headlines, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.
4. Play Both Alex Song and Emmanuel Frimpong
Arsenal are a team short on confidence. Success breeds confidence. And in football, success is built on the back of clean sheets. If you don't concede, you cannot lose. I must admit that even typing such words when speaking of the Arsenal is a repulsive experience, but with a rebuilt squad, the Gunners must start from scratch.
There are absences in central midfield: Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby, Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky are all out injured. Yossi Benayoun and Mikel Arteta are new to the club. Wenger would be best served to play just one of them (Arteta) and back him up with two solid anchor-men.
Alex Song and Emmanuel Frimpong will not start many games together, especially with a fully fit midfield available. But tonight, with a litany of injuries in the team's engine-room, and Thomas Vermaelen missing in defense, there is a strong case for the inclusion of both players. They will provide a solid defensive foundation to the team, will give the more creative players the confidence to attack at will, and in all honesty, neither is a shrinking violet when it comes to going forward. So we won't be compromising too much on our attacking game.
We must bring some points back tonight. And in our current state, the priority in an away game must be to not lose.
Song and Frimpong get my vote.
3. Allow Mikel Arteta a Free Role
Mikel Arteta isn't Cesc Fabregas, but he's as close as you will get.
What he showed us in that first half against Swansea was just a teaser. Once he builds an understanding with the likes of Robin van Persie, Arshavin, Gervinho, Ramsey, Wilshere and Theo Walcott, we will see the real Mikel Arteta. For a creative player to shine at a conservative team like Everton is no mean feat, and the Spaniard did that season after season.
Tonight, at Dortmund, with Song and Frimpong behind him, Arteta must be given the freedom of the Westfalenstadion. "Go express yourself, Mikel," Wenger should tell him, "and don't worry if you can't track back."
I am convinced that Arteta will go down as one of Arsene Wenger's best ever signings. And that's without considering the bargain £10 million price. He is a fantastic midfielder with a great engine who doesn't mind getting stuck into tackles either. He has unfortunately lived in the enormous shadows of Xavi, Iniesta and, latterly, Cesc, but he now has a stage on which to shine.
Break a leg, Mikel. In thespian terms, of course...
2. Give Andrey Arshavin a Start
Andrey Arshavin loves football and loves life.
He plays his best football when he is smiling. Remember 4-4 at Anfield, anyone?
Arshavin looked recharged and rejuvenated against Swansea at the weekend. The flair returned to his game. His finish smacked of a man with an uncluttered mind. Creative players need to be happy and at peace to express themselves best. They need confidence. They need to know that others share their confidence.
The Russian has not looked happy, confident or at peace for over a year. As a result, his performances have dipped. But at the Emirates on Saturday, I saw signs of the old Arshavin coming back. And the old Arshavin needs to be nurtured and encouraged. No better way than to give him a start in Germany tonight.
If I were Arsene Wenger, I would give Theo Walcott a rest, and play Arshavin and Gervinho in the wide positions. And much like Arteta, encourage them to run Dortmund ragged.
And if you don't mind an old, worn-out cliché, attack is the best form of defence, too.
1. Leave the Baggage Behind
Mario Gotze offered Per Mertesacker three Bratwursts on his return to Germany. But The Mert wasn't hungry; he only 8 2.
Heard that version before?
Well, if you're sick of all the "8-2" jokes and references, so am I. Whether it was 0-1 or 2-8, Arsenal deserved to lose at Old Trafford. And the only indelible legacy of that game should be the impact on Arsenal's goal difference. The rest of it isn't worth remembering at all. I'm not even sure there's much for the team to learn from that game, because it was such a one-off.
And there were so many players out injured. I read an amazing stat today from the wonderful people at Opta: "Arsenal have already used more outfield players (25) than they did in the whole of the 2010-11 Premier League season (23)."
Incredible, isn't it? We had 11 players out injured or suspended—and that was before the Professor's unprecedented shopping spree.
Forget Old Trafford, lads. Wipe it right out of your minds.
Where's Eileen Drewery when you need her?