Croatian Crash Course

Is it Gunners’ new low? Giroud sees the stupidest red card he could ever get.

“10 men fall at the first hurdle” – wrote David Hytner from ‘The Guardian’. “If they play anything like that against Chelsea it will be like watching a live autopsy.” – claimed JJ Bull from ‘The Telegraph’. “Wenger folly exposed” – that’s the title in ‘The Week’ magazine. “The rotated fail to perform” – that’s the opinion on Arseblog. “Wenger gambles and loses” – said ESPN’s journalist, John Brewin. But not only media sources spoke about Arsenal’s most recent embarrassment: “They are short of the spine in the middle of the park.” – Roy Keane pointed out. “Giroud and Özil don’t work together” – Rio Ferdinand added. “Arsenal are under the cosh” – those were Gary Lineker’s words tweeted during the game. It’s a fact: nearly seven months after a spectacular defeat to Monaco in 2014/15 Champions League Ro16, The Gunners have failed yet again – just couple of days before their prestigious London derby with Chelsea. And this time, it wasn’t individual errors that saw them getting beaten.

Ironically enough, the proverbial Arsenal’s shaky defence has been their strongest point so far. Yes, they still cannot figure out the set-pieces, as Hammers demonstrated at the season’s inauguration. Yes, clearing the ball properly remains an issue (see: the dreadful first half against Liverpool). However, with Héctor Bellerín stepping up his game and Brazilian Gabriel replacing notoriously slow Per Mertesacker – things seem to be moving in the right direction. Petr Čech, after oversleeping Mauro Zárate’s shot against West Ham, has quickly redeemed himself against The Reds and has been a brick wall ever since. At the moment, Arsenal remain second-best EPL team in terms of conceding shots (8.6 per game, only Manchester United are better) and fifth-best team at intercepting the passes (19.4 per game, behind Watford, Southampton, Leicester and MU). Not much more could’ve been asked from lads: and Wenger himself knows it when he keeps complimenting his back four.

At the moment, Arsenal midfielders are the literal definition of hit-or-miss players. Every single one of them has struggled to maintain a decent form on a course of 7 matches played this season. Widely praised Francis Coquelin? Had an immaculate performance against Liverpool but also deserved a red card when faced with Crystal Palace. Mesut Özil? Excellent at Selhust Park, but manhandled earlier by 16-years old Reece Oxford from West Ham. Exciting, young prospect Oxlade-Chamberlain? Scored a winner over Chelsea in a Community Shield clash, yet was useless against both Stoke and Newcastle. Santi Cazorla? Man of the Match against Stoke, out of depth against Liverpool. Aaron Ramsey? Wenger already played him in three different positions in 6 games, not getting any goals or assists in return. Alexis Sánchez? The Chilean has been killing thousands of Fantasy Premier League teams this season with his goal drought. Consistency? 0%.

The lack of reliability in the middle of the park directly translates into problems upfront. For the entire summer, it’s been assumed that Gunners need another, class striker to give their team an extra boost of confidence they once enjoyed through the additions of Özil and Sánchez. Thanks to one, innocent, Instagram post by Karim Benzema, many Arsenal fans were tricked into thinking that the French international might be departing Santiago Bernabeu in favour of Emirates Stadium. No such thing happened, though, and instead of turning to another, more realistic transfer target, Arsène Wenger decided to utilize Theo Walcott as an alternative to Olivier Giroud. Fast-forward couple weeks, Benzema keeps flourishing in Real Madrid’s starting eleven while Gunners’ forwards remain far from their optimal form. 8 goals scored in 7 games this season is not a EPL title-challenger’s return – and two of those goals were actually a collaborative efforts by Newcastle’s Coloccini and Palace’s Delaney.

First half in Zagreb more or less confirmed all three impressions about Arsenal’s formations. Their defensive setup this time contained David Ospina, Mathieu Debuchy and Kieran Gibbs. In normal circumstances, they’d get the blame for a defeat – however, their performance was actually fine. The truly worrying things happened in front of them, though. Wenger, in a stroke of a questionable genius, gave another chance to Mikel Arteta – a footballer, who was widely thought to be finished at Emrates Stadium. As it quickly turned out: neither him, nor Cazorla had any clue on how to step up the pace of play and their lazy, positional attempts at attacking usually ended with either interceptions by the Croats or counter-productive crosses aimed at Olivier Giroud – of which, he’s won none. Combined with the absence of individual flair from Özil-Sánchez duo, the team was pretty much doomed to move the ball around pointlessly, marking time instead of creating chances.

To make things worse, the Croatian champions are far from being pushovers. As it stands, they’re boasting record of 42 games without a single defeat in all competitions, and it’s not without a reason. On Wednesday, supported by over 17.000 most devoted, extremely noisy fans, Zoran Mamić’s players have displayed much more than just the trademark Croatian technical abilities while on the ball. Their compact, 4-3-3 formation, transforming in 4-3-2-1 while off the ball, largely paralysed visitors’ main strength – swift, short-passing game. Portuguese stalwarts Paulo Machado and Ivo Pinto had particularly good evening, dealing well with Alexis, who, despite being in a sub-par shape, still remained the main Gunners’ threat. French centre-back Jérémy Taravel had couple close clashes with Giroud, but came out on top just enough times to deal with his presence. Upfront, if it wasn’t for Marko Pjaca’s poor shot accuracy, Dinamo might’ve been in front much earlier. This time, the phrase ‘there are no weak teams in Champions League’ wasn’t just a sign of common courtesy.

Deserved celebrations: Dinamo were quick to punish Arsenal’s mistakes.

Against an opponent so eager to play counterattacking football and so proficient at it, you absolutely need an outlet forward; someone, who could not only receive the service from the midfielders but who also would pressurize opponents’ centre-backs so that they couldn’t build up the counters with quick passes from the back. Olivier Giroud probably had all those ideas on mind when he walked into the pitch at Stadion Maksimir. To be fair to him, he really did try to comply with the tactical duties of his position. However, he got it all horribly wrong. It’s been a classic case of red card which, if it occurred to a smarter, more-tempered player, might not have even resulted with a yellow. The Frenchman started with a minor foul, then, committed another one just few seconds later, reacted with profanities that got him the first card only to eventually make a pointless challenge from the back of Dinamo’s player – in a rather harmless, free-kick situation! There’s only one word to describe this: moronic.

Once the break was over, Dinamo got back into the fray with just a single thing on their mind: to score again and put the game beyond doubt. In the first half, Giroud’s height almost caused them to concede from a corner-kick situation; at the start of the second half, they’ve nearly struck back in the same fashion, when Soudani has hit the post instead of scoring. Arsenal remained lethargic. The 4-5-0 formation they’ve been forced into required either Özil to perform as a striker or major substitutes being made immediately. Wenger refrained from the latter, and, regarding the former: the German #10 had one decent cross he could not get his foot onto along with one, diagonal pass from Oxlade-Chamberlain that found him too late to avoid the offside trap. Around 55th minute, Mesut’s activity was what lifted the team’s performance a little bit, maybe giving them a bit of a hope. Little did they know, it’s been just another fate’s deception before all the plagues in the world returned to haunt them.

The minute was 57th. The area: middle of the pitch. Following the rather naive attempt of pressurizing Dinamo that involved Alexis, Koscielny and Gibbs, the ball quickly went to Soudani, who ran into acres of space left behind Gunners’ backs and created a 4 vs 2 situation. It should’ve been a goal, especially considering that the Chilean striker, Junior Fernándes, was arriving into the area completely unmarked. Still, Soudani has somehow managed to run into Koscielny’s last-ditch challenge, slowing down the key pass just about enough for Debuchy to dive as well and block the shot. Arsenal players had their sigh of relief: and that’s where 2-0 goal sneak it. Near-post corner from Machado reached Fernandes’ head who had no trouble outjumping Gibbs and putting it in the top corner past helpless Ospina. The most basic set-piece solution actually worked. As Wenger later pointed out: “that goal killed our play”. He’s right: but where was the concentration before that happened?

The visitors’ boss waited until 64th minute – then, he had enough. Getting Coquelin, Walcott and Campbell in for Arteta, Chamberlain and Gibbs – that was surely a desperate attempt to shock his players out of their self-induced hypnosis. It did bring a certain effect: one Joel Campbell’s through ball has found Theo Walcott who, instead of scoring, nearly broke the nose of Dinamo’s goalkeeper. Soon afterwards, few forward runs of Sánchez and Campbell were stopped by some immaculate tackling by the first-goal contributor, Josip Pivarić. On the other hand, Ospina almost conceded a third when he had to play as a sweeper keeper for a while to stop Dinamo’s counterattack. Arsenal were on the ball, but not on top. Eventually, Theo Walcott has broken through, received a ball and scored. It was a clear offside, just like all other Gunners’ through ball attempts – but this one was never recognized by the referee. And, funnily enough, after the game, Wenger criticised the form of Mr Ovidiu Hategan…

The boss has a lot to think about before this weekend. Chelsea, his next opponents, have crushed Maccabi Tel Aviv 4-0. Cesc Fàbregas, useless in the Premier League, has finally broken his bad spell with a goal and an assist. And although Eden Hazard is still struggling (he missed a penalty), although Pedro and Willian will both be ruled out from derby due to the injuries they sustained – Chelsea do seem to look much better without Ivanović and Terry sabotaging their efforts. As Mourinho cheekily remarked after the win, he could not imagine going into the weekend knowing that he’s lost again. Can Wenger shake off that feeling, though? He will surely be back to his strongest starting XI, probably giving Walcott a chance ahead of Giroud, which, frankly speaking, should’ve happened much earlier. This Saturday, both him and Gunners’ fans will be counting the most on ex-Blue Petr Čech and the centre-back Gabriel. Whatever was best in Arsenal’s play over last few weeks – it involved them.

So, what’s going to happen at Stamford Bridge in two days? I’m predicting a safety-first game involving only one goal. The Special One will remain conservative and replace Pedro with Ramires, as recovering Oscar should take Willian’s place. Diego Costa, angry as usual, should receive another yellow card; so will Francis Coquelin, who probably won’t be able to finish the game without having a single brawl with the ex-Atletico striker. Those are the likely predictions: and the unlikely? My gut tells me that, despite his abysmal starts lately, Eden Hazard will finally emerge from his slump with at least an assist. I also do believe that Oscar’s impact as Mou’s “perfect 10” should be a deciding factor in favour of Chelsea. That being said, it should all be blood, sweat and tears for both teams.

But I’d still say: 1-0 to Chelsea. Just because it’s their ground.

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