From Russia with concern

(This was written before the Newcastle game. There’s obviously more reason for concern now…)

Arsenal were almost victim of another comeback story in Moscow. If not for a moment of shocking brilliance from Welbeck, who suddenly seemed to channel his inner Neymar to put the tie to bed, in a period when CSKA had seized all the momentum. Arsenal’s season could have concluded then and there.

At 0-2, few Arsenal fans could help but envisage CSKA’s comeback coming to fruition. “It’s happened to Barcelona against Roma, it happened in spirit for Juventus against Real Madrid and Salzburg is currently doing it against Lazio. Of course it’s going to happen against ARSENAL!”

Thankfully it didn’t. But except for a couple of great individual performances, Arsenal were awful. And the worst thing is, CSKA were as well.

Arsenal played the game like it had no extra layer to it. Like it was a league game away against Southampton. Arsenal didn’t adapt to the occasion that was: up by three goals against a weak side, just play cautiously and counter-attack.

The Gunners didn’t play defensively, didn’t suffocate the game with immense possession from the start, or come out with knives between their teeth ready to get that away goal and kill the game.

Instead, it was the usual game plan of making sure the opponent can’t find a way through the middle, counter-attack only if the opportunity is obvious and keep possession without much intention if not. It’s too complicated for a simple task and too predictable. Instead of leaning on several legs in a game like this, simply leaning on the most effective one is enough. The tactics seem like a facade held up by great players. But when they don’t perform well enough, when the extra pressure isn’t there, it crumbles.

CSKA countered this by utilising their wingers more, one of which had a goal and an assist, to a far greter extent than at the Emirates. And simply working harder than most Arsenal players.

Complacency is a natural instinct in a situation where you are 4-1 up against a weaker side. That’s when a team needs its tireless workers. Wenger rightfully started Elneny and Welbeck, two players who run all game long. Without them, I’m really not sure Arsenal would’ve gone through to the semi-finals.

Even excluding his two assists, the game in Moscow reveals how important it is to have a player like Elneny in the team. Someone who will run the full 90 minutes no matter what. And someone who won’t make mistakes in possession in games where defensive stability exceeds attacking importance, even if it means he has no offensive contribution (which very much wasn’t the case this time).

Credit to Welbeck as well in this regard. What a strange player. Trying to decipher him and his performance in Moscow would take another 600 words. So I’m not going to.

Wrapping up though.

The Gunners’ away record is a worrisome statistic that clouds the path to Arsenal’s ambitions this season and just won’t go away. Which is one reason why meeting Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals instead of the final is far from ideal.

Arsenal need to simplify their game plan against Atletico. The Spaniards are the better team in most regards, and focusing on the basics is a more effective plan for Arsenal than trying to battle against them on several fronts. Find their weaknesses and put extreme pressure on one or two of them.

Complacency won’t be a concern this time around seeing that Arsenal are the underdogs and it’s the semis and we almost certainly won’t be up by three goals after the first leg.

The first game will be at home (April 26). This is when Arsenal can do most damage, and relying on the poor away statistic to turn the game around in Madrid is risky at best. Arsenal need a good home result. Even though Simeone called it a “50-50” game, it’s closer to 60-40 in Atletico’s favour.

It will be a close tie, though, where the smartest team will win. The team that adapts most efficiently to the other goes to the final, which is a concern from Arsenal’s trip to Moscow.

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