Conservative Tactics Nearly Costs Gunners
When Arsene Wenger switched his team into a 3-4-2-1 shape at the end of last season, it was a rare bit of pragmatism from a manager who typically prefers his team to play flowing, attacking football. It worked for the Gunners then, as defensive frailties threatened to unravel their season by the end of winter. However, Arsenal have struggled mightily this season when they play conservatively to counteract their opponent’s attacking strength, as was evident in the early season Premier League clash with Liverpool and each time they have faced Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. For whatever reason, the Gunners cannot seem to execute a more defensive plan with anywhere close to the same conviction as they do when imposing their will and playing style on the match.
On Thursday, Wenger appeared to fear CSKA Moscow’s attack, as he went with far less aggressive tactics than he had chosen a week ago at the Emirates. When defending in their own end, Mohammed Elneny was tasked with dropping into the centre of the defence to create a 5 man backline. Arsenal appeared content to sit back and force CSKA to beat them when their hosts had possession. The Gunners tried to counter attack with the pace of Danny Welbeck, Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette, but the passing was not nearly crisp enough to beat a far more ordered CSKA defence than they had to face in the first leg.
With the angry drone of the fans and the beating drums behind them, CSKA were far more aggressive putting pressure on the Arsenal players as they tried to play out of their end. Both of the Russian side’s goals came from rebounds as they crashed toward Petr Cech’s goal whenever a shot was taken. In the end, the Gunners’ individual class was too much for CSKA to suppress, but the possibility remains that Wenger’s decision to play it safe in this match nearly cost them their chance to advance to the semifinals.
Golovin Has Outgrown His League
Arsenal may have held on to eliminate CSKA over 2 legs, but it was hard not to be impressed with the quality of young Russian midfielder Aleksandr Golovin. The 21 year old was once again the focal point of his team’s attack, and he was unquestionably the best player on the pitch for the first hour of the match. Golovin possesses all of the tools a good central midfielder must possess, and his free kicks and long-range striking ability are real weapons for his team. He is a natural passer of the ball and appears to possess tremendous vision, and can pick out his teammates both long and short. His work rate is also top notch, and he could be seen chasing down players and making tackles right up to the final whistle.
By now, most supporters are aware that Arsenal have been linked to the Russian-born Golovin in the past, and after 2 straight eye catching performances against full-strength XI’s from the North London side, he has certainly caught their attention. His polish and technical ability is rare for a young player in Russia, and he projects to get even better if and when he moves to a team with more talent to put around him. Any transfer offer for Golovin now has likely gone up several million pounds, but considering the promise he showed across 180 minutes against one of the biggest clubs in Europe, he has an exceedingly bright future.
The Missing Metronome
Just as Arsenal were preparing to leave for Moscow this week, word came through that Granit Xhaka would not travel with the team. The midfielder has been a fixture in Arsene Wenger’s starting XI this season, and only Hector Bellerin has logged more minutes than the Swiss international. He was replaced by Mohammed Elneny, who was energetic and responsible in his defensive midfield role. However, Xhaka’s control of the midfield and ability to dictate the tempo was sorely missed on Thursday as CSKA jumped all over the trio of Elneny, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey. Arsenal finished the match with only 47% possession on the night, and the less cohesive midfield cried out for his stabilising presence.
Xhaka has been one of the most polarising figures in the Arsenal team, and some supporters still can’t seem to get over him not being the player they thought he would be when he arrived at the club. In some ways, Arsenal are still looking for the next Patrick Vieira, a commander of the midfield who can contribute to the attack or shut down the opposition in equal measure. Xhaka is not that player, but he has been extremely reliable this season for Wenger and he would have been useful to have on hand Thursday night.
The Hottest Arsenal Striker?
Don’t look now Gooners, but the hottest striker in the squad may just be the last man most would expect: Danny Welbeck. The 27 year old Englishman has been in resurgent form his last 5 matches for the club, scoring 5 and assisting 1 from his hybrid left wing/striker position. Now over a year removed from injury issues that forced him to miss most of 2 seasons, he has gotten a run of games under his belt and appears to be growing in confidence every match.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cup tied and Alexandre Lacazette only just back recently from his own knee injury, Welbeck has been leading the line capably for the Gunners in the Europa League. He may not be the most graceful and technically gifted player in the side, but his work rate is phenomenal and his pace and strength are a handful for most defenders to deal with. Long-term, it is hard to imagine Welbeck supplanting either Lacazette or Aubameyang as the top strikers in the side, but he possesses so many traits that managers love to be able to call on from the substitutes bench. When his contract is nearing its expiration, Welbeck may try and earn a move away for one last chance at leading the line as a starter in the Premier League, but until then, he continues to prove himself a valuable depth piece, a positive teammate, and recently, a match winner.
Onward To The Semifinals!
With the 6-3 aggregate victory over CSKA Moscow, Arsenal clinched a berth in the penultimate round of the Europa League, but they have yet to find out which opponent awaits. The Champions League set the football world alight this week with some shocking comebacks and brilliant matches for spectators, and the Europa League had plenty of drama itself. Lazio and RB Leipzig were eliminated by incredible second leg performances by Salzburg and Marseille, respectively. Arsenal will be joined by those 2 clubs and Atletico Madrid in the semifinals, and along with the Spanish giants will be considered favourites to advance to the final.
Atletico Madrid are without doubt the Gunners’ stiffest challenge, and they possess a deep and talented squad managed by one of the best managers in world football, Diego Simeone. Atleti have plenty of experience dealing with teams that move the ball as sweetly as Arsenal, often sharing space at the top of La Liga with Barcelona and Real Madrid, and they will not be intimidated by the moment. Atletico Madrid have been a part of 2 of the last 4 Champions League finals, losing both to their hated rivals Real Madrid, and they will be looking for their first piece of European silverware under Simeone. The Gunners will learn their fate today at 11 AM when the semifinal draw commences in Switzerland.