Five things Arsenal can improve from Dortmund defeat

Cazorla Corner

Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund will have disappointed but there are a number of ways the Gunners can build on that performance to improve…

1) Maturity

Arsenal were in control for long periods of the game on Tuesday, with a superior share of the possession (54%) and a greater number of shots on goal (8 to Dortmund’s 7) and shots on target (5 to Dortmund’s 3) than the visitors.

However, where they lost they game and Dortmund ultimately won it was in the Gunners’ pursuit of a winner when they should perhaps have taken the opportunity to have what held at 1-1. As the home side and with the confidence of a 12-game unbeaten run acting as wind in their sails, Arsenal elected to attack the Germans, which, as Arsene Wenger admitted, was naïve.

Drawing against last season’s Champions League runners-up would have been a good point and seen them to the top of the group with the visitors, and, crucially, a point ahead of Napoli – as it stands all three sides have 6 points and a good chance to qualify but, obviously, only two can progress to the knockouts.

The more senior members of the team – Bacary Sagna, Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky, and Santi Cazorla – ought to have used their experience to see out the draw, keep their focus defensively, and not get distracted by the prospect of a winner. That winner might have come late on anyway for them if they’d kept it tight at the back, as Dortmund proved with theirs.

They did exactly what Dortmund would have expected and hoped they’d do after Olivier Giroud equalized – they came out all guns blazing and risked the point to try for all three, to their detriment. There are still three games to play and a point at home to the group’s favourites wouldn’t have been a bad result – a loss makes life for them a little more uncomfortable now but, alas, they can use that experience now and play with a little more maturity in the games left.

2) Passing

There were a number of positives to take from the game, which was, despite the result, a very close encounter between two very evenly matched teams – and considering the quality of the opposition, that’s a huge positive for Arsenal.

Their passing was overall superior to Dortmund’s – the team’s pass completion rate was 79% to Dortmund’s 74%. Dortmund’s most accurate and successful passer in midfield and attacking areas was Kevin Grosskreutz with a 77% completion rate. Arsenal had Tomas Rosicky on 78%, Mikel Arteta on 80%, Mesut Ozil on 82%, Aaron Ramsey on 79%, and Santi Cazorla on 90%t which demonstrates the almost uniform level of quality in Arsenal’s midfield.

However, Jack Wilshere was operating a 50% accuracy rate and whilst some of that may be attributed to his knock in the first half that saw Cazorla replace him in the second, it was in the first half that Arsenal looked most uncomfortable.

Interestingly, Arsenal were poorer than Dortmund at short passes which is something that is ordinarily bread and butter for the Gunners – they completed just 68% of their short passes compared to Dortmund’s 72% and, again interestingly, compared to 84% success with their medium passes and 75% with their long passes compared to Dortmund’s 50%.

Why is this interesting? Because Dortmund and Arsenal play a very similar style and brand of football and it has tended to be against similar teams that Arsenal have experienced discomfort (the likes of Barcelona previously, and even in the Premier League against Swansea more recently). Those teams tend to press Arsenal high up the pitch and pressure them into mistakes.

Where Arsenal had the most joy was from long-range passes and crosses, most obviously demonstrated with Giroud’s equaliser and Bacary Sagna was pumping those kinds of crosses in to decent effect all night long. Giroud is aerially very strong and that direct approach is something they should look to exploit against similar opposition because, like Arsenal of the last few years, they tend to get caught out by aerial bombardment.

Against teams with players of inferior quality, Arsenal’s tiki-taka works well (as it did against Norwich on Saturday) but against Dortmund, the Gunners found it very difficult to penetrate the penalty area via that approach.

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3) Take-ons

Synonymously, Arsenal were not expansive or ambitious enough in terms of their take-ons – without Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Serge Gnabry, the lacked energy and dynamism, especially on the flanks.

The fact that Sagna and Kieran Gibbs were throwing crosses in so much is a reflection of the lack of movement and impetus to take players on from the wide players ahead of them.

Jack Wilshere tried a couple of take-ons that on another day might have come off but they lacked width, pace and invention in the channels. It has been mentioned that Mesut Ozil had a fairly quiet game but there wasn’t enough movement around him to generate the momentum for him to pick out that killer pass.

Arsenal played the entire game with five players in central midfield – after all they were playing without a single recognised winger which meant the space in the middle was cramped for most of the game and Dortmund were never stretched enough to create the pockets of space for Ozil and Cazorla to exploit.

Personally, I think if they’d have started with Gnabry they’d have found at least some more energy on the right side, which could have opened the game up more in central areas.

They need that danger coming from the channels to give the opposition fullback a constant headache – not only does it pin the fullback back but it isolates him and drags a central defender out wide at times which gives players like Giroud the potential to get in between the centre-backs as he likes to do.

4) Making possession count

Subsequently, Arsenal were rendered fairly unthreatening as they attempted their tiki-taka in and around Dortmund’s penalty area but they never really broke through – the closest they came to a winner was Cazorla’s shot that rattled off the bar and that was from fairly long range.

They couldn’t find that incisive pass within the congestion and they couldn’t make their superior possession of the ball count which is something that Arsenal often frustrate their fans with – especially against teams that sit back and park the bus in their own half which, under mounting pressure in the second half, Dortmund were quite happy to do on the off-chance they might be able to break as they did and score from a counter.

As I mentioned with reference to their long passes and crosses – Arsenal must use their possession of the ball to cause genuine problems for the goalkeeper and the best way to do that – as Sagna found – is to pump crosses into dangerous areas where the keeper doesn’t know whether to stay or come for it.

That more direct effect also means the defence is constantly having to clear and parry without being able to pick passes out and counter as they can when they intercept Arsenal’s short passing game. It's much more effective and much less risky and they have the players who can deliver those kinds of balls all day long and the players to get on the end of them too.

5) Team Defending

Arsenal’s back four did very well for most of the game – they kept Dortmund at arms length and reduced them to long-range shots and speculative efforts that rarely troubled Szczesny, who made just one save all game.

What let them down was the lack of team defending – the first goal was Ramsey’s individual error, having a little wonder with the ball on the edge of his own box and the second was Arteta’s failure to get back into his protective position.

If you’re going to push forward to try and win the game, at least man mark one of the best strikers in the world. Lewandowski punished them for their naivety – they switched off as a team defensively and brought the late winner completely onto themselves.

When Arsenal beat Bayern Munich 2-0 last term, there was a focus on, first things first, not conceding and not giving them any gifts then trying to attack. Arsenal have, on the back of the unbeaten run against inferior opposition predominantly, had they joy of scoring a lot of goals but, crucially, they’ve kept cleans sheets against tougher opposition (Napoli, Fenerbahce and Tottenham).

They lost their concentration and forgot their responsibility – especially in midfield where there were five of them and at least one of them, Arteta and Ramsey too, should have been more conservative and defensively aware.

image: © Ronnie Macdonald

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