Can Arsenal qualify on Tuesday night? Can Arsenal beat Monaco by a 3 goal margin, in enemy territory? With odds stacked heavily against the Gunners after the first leg debacle and no quarter final appearances in the Champions League since 2009-10, Monaco have more than one foot in the last 8. But despite the Herculian task at hand, there’s a bubbling confidence among the Arsenal ranks that the deficit can not only be erased but also overhauled. So as far as the confidence and optimism-meters are concerned, players and manager seem to be well armed but will that carry on to the pitch and even if so will it be good enough to knock Monaco out? We lay down the recipe for what might turn out to be one of the most memorable comebacks in the competition.
1. Get the lineup right.
Margins don’t and won’t get finer than this. The best and most balanced set of 11 have to start. Arsene Wenger will have 2 major selection headaches one can imagine. Gibbs or Monreal. Bellerin or Chambers. Monreal has impressed in each of the last 2 games, tipping the scales in his favour. Gibbs might miss out because of his eagerness to bomb forward and rightly so in a knockout game of this magnitude. Bellerin-Chambers is a far more tricky dilemma for the manager. While Chambers is definitely the better defender of the 2, he has looked horribly out of depth against pace. Bellerin on his part has improved his defensive game and always seems to provide an auxiliary outlet in attack. Expect both Spaniards to start.
2. Utilize the width of the pitch.
If you look at the average positions of the wide players in the first leg, or even the most touches of wide players Welbeck(later moved to the center) and Alexis, they happen to crowd out towards the central attacking positions, with massive overlaps with the central midfielders Ozil and Cazorla. Only later when Walcott was brought on did the team seem to have an edge from wide because of his diagonal runs. Walcott and Welbeck, probably the quickest attackers at Arsenal, will again start from the bench, so the onus will be on Ozil and Alexis to stretch the play laterally. Unless the wide players themselves drift into pockets away from the center, vertical fullback runs become redundant with random hopeful crossing the only resort. Ozil is a master at shadowing away from the play and then putting the ball precisely in the path of a runner. If he starts on the left on Tuesday, he’ll not only have Monreal bursting to his left but also the ever-hungry Ramsey to connect his passes with. Alexis likewise will need to take responsibility from the right hand side.
3. Score an early goal.
There is no substitute for an early goal in matches like these. Going 1 up in the first 15-20 minutes would be ideal, especially when the opponents are most likely to set up in a counter attacking fashion. The early goal not only puts immediate pressure on the players, but also makes the home fans jittery and that more often than not leads to a sloppy back pass or a mistimed challenge in the box or a shaky clearance back into an attacker’s path. A high tempo start is key and a resulting early goal preferably will play straight into Arsenal’s hands. Not to forget the Monaco side doesn’t boast of a lot of experience with most players aged 23 or below and early pressure could just force them to wilt. The fact that Monaco haven’t played in the knockouts of this competition since being knocked out back in 2005 will also play a part, with most players completely alien to the demands of a 2 legged European tie. All that comes into factor, only if Arsenal pile up enough pressure to get an early breakthrough.
4. Don’t be over-expansive. Be clinical.
Arsenal are serial offenders in trying to pass the ball into goal. Arsene Wenger has established a style whereby football is preached on the pitch as an art, with every goal aimed to be a masterpiece. But well obviously, that isn’t quite possible all the time and definitely not in games like these. Arsenal’s 3-0 win on Saturday probably could have been 6 or 7, if not for the attempt to play an extra pass inside the box, and of course the poor finishing. On Tuesday night they can afford neither. They will definitely create with an attacking core of Cazorla-Ozil-Alexi, but what shall count is whether they take their chances. Giroud was the major culprit in the home leg and will look to set the record straight in his home country.
5. Commit fouls when outnumbered on counters.
Another very common and prevalent mistake made by Arsenal players is they are too reluctant to make fouls. Just because you have to score at least thrice, doesn’t mean defence or defensive shape is a low priority item on the list. Coquelin for starters should not wander anywhere even remotely close to the opposition box, especially on set pieces when the center backs are high up the field. Ramsey too with his work-ethic must give the Frenchman ample company. Losing the ball is part of the game, but what is not an acceptable part of the game is to not try and win it back. But then again over-enthusiasm leading to cheap free kicks also doesn’t help much. Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil the 2 ends of the spectrum in that regard.
By the end if there is any shortage of motivation or inspiration, just look back at the 3-0 win over Milan back in 2012 and that’s your blueprint. If that seems too far, just go back a week to Schalke’s 4-3 win. Fearless, sharp and proactive, Schalke probably laid in stone what Arsenal are expected to do. And also what they are not. When playing with such high energy it becomes difficult to maintain it for 90 minutes, and there were times when Schalke felt they were in a comfortable zone and thus surrendered the initiative and Real pounced. So discipline and defensive shape shall be the obvious cornerstones if Arsenal are turn this one around, the attack shall fall in place. Monaco remain the best defensive side in the competition and no matter what the tactics or style, Arsenal could and probably will fall short. Another round of 16 exit, another stain on Wenger’s cap, another “failure” or who knows, a 4-1 win? Believe in miracles.