Saturday, February 28, 2015

Arsenal 1 Monaco 3 (Champions League Round of 16)

It was an extremely disappointing performance and disastrous result. We thought we got a favourable draw which was likely to see us through to the quarter-finals for the first time in 5 years. Pre-match reports revealed that Monaco were without a few key players through suspension and injuries. On top of that, we had home advantage. Our away form has been patchy this season, but we were much more solid at home. We knew that Monaco were a very organised team with mean defence, but we had world-class attacking players, well, at least on paper. In contrast, their lack of firing power was well documented. On balance, we went into the game as odds-on favourites. In the pre-match press conference, Arsene Wenger vowed that the north London club would not make the same mistakes, but the outcome was still the same: we have thrown away the tie in the first leg.

Arsene Wenger made two changes from the side that started in a hard-fought 2-1 win at Selhurst Park on Saturday. Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs replaced Calum Chambers and Nacho Monreal, respectively at full-back. With Monaco renowned for their quick counter-attack led by pacy wingers, these changes looked appropriate. David Ospina was passed fit after suffering a back problem against Crystal Palace, retaining his place in goal. Wojciech Szczesny occupied a space on the bench, as well as Calum Chambers, Nacho Monreal, Gabriel, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tomas Rosicky, and Theo Walcott.

For the first 15 minutes, we thought Arsenal didn't start too badly. They were on front foot, which was what they wanted at home against a defence-oriented team. Monaco's first goal was fortuitous as Kondogbia's shot took a heavy deflection on Per Mertesacker, which Ospina could do nothing about. However, Mertesacker was not totally innocent. In fact, Arsene Wenger was untypically critical about his player, stating "he turned a little bit and that's when you are most in danger with deflections - if you don't face the ball." Mertesacker's downfall this season is alarming. His lack of the pace is well known, but he has been compensating his shortcomings with his ability to read the game brilliantly, which has come under severe scrutiny this season.

On the other end, we were not clinical enough. Olivier Giroud had a few clear-cut chances in the 6-yard box, but it was just not his night. Considering that his improvement this season and his recent form (he was the Man of the Match on Sunday), those misses were somewhat unbelievable. If he had put away those chances, we could have won the game 3 or 4-0. In addition, Danny Welbeck's shot was blocked by a sliding-in Theo Walcott after the former Man United man ran onto a rebound from Theo's effort. Everything went against us.

The Ox's stoppage-time goal gave us a hope, which proved to be short-lived. The England forward was obviously devastated after he gave away the ball, which led to Monaco's third goal. However, he was 70 metres away from goal (not on the half-way line as Gary Neville claimed, though) and there should be defenders behind him. In fact, Koscielny was in our own half close to another Monaco player, but he did nothing to stop Monaco's counter-attack.

Arsenal were shambolic. It was plain that they lacked a leader on the pitch who has tactical astuteness and organisation capability. Ideally, we should have such strong leadership in a position, either as a holding midfielder or a centre-back. It was disappointing the fact that Per Mertesacker was one of the first Arsenal players to come out and criticise their own naivety. As a team captain on the day and club vice-captain, he should have taken more responsibility on the pitch. Knowing his lack of speed, he should never have ventured out under any circumstances.

Our big talking point after the match was who to blame. Was it down to tactical errors or players failing to perform? Judging from Wenger's reaction, he was as frustrated as we were. He knew how Monaco would approach to this game perfectly well. However, he could be blamed for not coming up with more concrete game plans and instructions. He allowed the players too much freedom, hence some players getting in each other's way or running around like headless chickens. With too many players wanting to play through the middle, the lack of width in attack was just playing into the hands of Monaco's compact defence. The introduction of Theo Walcott saw the Monogasque side's defence start stretching thanks to his positional discipline and runs in behind the defence. The freedom of movements has so far worked in some games, producing some breath-taking attacking moments, but it has its limitation especially against well organised teams.

Wenger also lamented the fact that his side rushed the game. He should have prepared his team better, reminding them that the tie is played in 120 minutes and this game is just the first-half. We have lost the first leg 4-0 against AC Milan, followed by a 3-1 and 2-0 losses to Bayern Munich in the first legs of this round in the past 3 years. Seemingly, the Gunners still haven't learnt the defence/attack balance in the Champions League knock-out stages.

Furthermore, Arsene Wenger was also critical about the team's naivety, but he did nothing to calm down the team or to encourage them to preserve a one-goal deficit when his side pulled back to 2-1 in stoppage time. Against Leicester in the nervy ending to a 2-1 win, he was seen instructing Mertesacker and Koscielny not to go up to the opposition box for corners but to stay back. The same cautions from the coach might have prevented a disastrous third goal.

Despite all the negativity prevailing post-match talks and headlines, the Ox's beautiful goal lit up the game. It was a great goal in its own right. Hopefully, more players will take a chance like the young Englishman did, rather than trying to produce easy-on-the-eye team goals on the end of hardly-ever-working one-twos in narrow spaces.

Now let's move on and concentrate on the domestic front, where we have still plenty to play for. We have two important league games coming in the next few days. Hopefully, we can get back to winning ways and cement our position in the top three.

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