After a disappointing defeat to Norwich City, Arsenal would be expected to respond tomorrow evening with the visit of Schalke to the Emirates Stadium. In recent seasons, Champions League home games have proved largely comfortable for the Gunners, especially in the group stages.
The last time Arsenal lost a home game in the Champions League? May 2009 – a dismal showing as Man United swept us aside 3-1 in the semi-final second leg. The last time we lost a group game takes us back incredibly far: 17th September 2003, when Inter Milan shocked us with a 3-0 win at Highbury. This is also the last time we conceded more than one goal in a Champions League group game at home.
Our pretty formidable record (excluding qualifying matches) since moving to the Emirates reads: Played 30, Won 21, Drawn 7, Lost 1, Goals for 67, Goals against 15. In the group stages: Played 19, Won 16, Drawn 3, Lost 0, Goals for 51, Goals against 8. We average 2.23 goals per home game in Europe, 2.68 in the group stages, conceding on average 0.5 and 0.4 respectively.
In fairness, some might argue that, in interpreting these statistics, it is important to remember that because Arsenal often don’t go very far in the Champions League, they don’t tend to face very strong opposition in the group stages or early knock-out rounds. So, how much of a threat to this record are tomorrow’s visitors?
Unbeaten in their last five games since a 2-0 home defeat to Bayern Munich, Schalke come into this game on the back of a big away win at current two-times champions and local rivals Borussia Dortmund (the same Dortmund that outplayed Man City recently and were unlucky to come away with only a draw). Interestingly, their manager, Huub Stevens, who led the club to 3rd in the Bundesliga last season, was in his first spell in charge of the club when they last met Arsenal in the 2001/02 season. They lost 3-2 on their visit to Highbury on that occasion.
Perhaps the most notable name in their ranks is a man who actually scored the first ever goal at the Emirates Stadium, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who netted for Ajax in Dennis Bergkamp’s testimonial game. The Dutch striker has often been linked with Arsenal down the years, due to his predatory instincts in the box that some other of our forwards have failed to show. After difficult spells with Real Madrid and AC Milan, Huntelaar seems to have found his feet at Schalke, scoring an impressive 48 goals in 47 appearances last season. In the last three Bundesliga seasons, only Bayern’s Mario Gomez has scored more goals than the Dutchman. After the Gunners allowed Grant Holt to score a typical poacher’s goal to win the game for Norwich on Saturday, they will certainly have to be on their guard for loose balls in the penalty area when Huntelaar is around.
Playing upfront on his own in a 4-2-3-1 system, he owes a lot to the good service behind him. Occupying the attacking midfield three should be Jefferson Farfan, Lewis Holtby and the other big name of the side Ibrahim Afellay, on loan this season from Barcelona.
Farfan, a skillful right winger, averages a team-high average of 2.5 successful crosses per game. Meanwhile, Afellay on the other flank prefers to cut in onto his preferred right foot and shoot from range and dictate the play, with an impressive 92% pass success rate. However, their player of the season so far is probably Holtby, the half-English German international. The 22-year-old has 3 goals and 3 assists so far this season playing centrally behind Huntelaar, and has the highest average rating of any Schalke player on WhoScored.com.
The key for Wenger on Wednesday night is the right partner for Arteta. The Spaniard has been the player making us tick from deep this season and you would expect us to dominate possession as we so often do. With that in mind, a more defensive option alongside him might be wise, to deal with the threat on the counter attack of Holtby and Afellay in central areas. For this reason, I hope the manager picks Coquelin ahead of Ramsey, who is basically a poorer version of Arteta and therefore somewhat redundant in this system. Coquelin is stronger and better defensively, and more likely to give the ball to Arteta than to try and dictate play himself as Ramsey might try, and fail, to do.
There’s no doubt Schalke will be one of the stronger teams we’ve faced in a group stage game. Then again, Dortmund last season probably looked a bigger threat on paper and and proved to be quite poor. Hopefully the players will be more fired up for this than they were for Norwich; Schalke have shown that they will probably be our main contenders for qualifying from the group, currently sitting two points behind us, so it’s crucial that we don’t slip up.
One more stat: Lukas Podolski scored home and away against Schalke for Cologne last season. Hopefully a habit he’ll keep up!