Having seen what feels like every team with rat leg advantage wobble a little bit at some stage over the last couple of nights, it’s hard to not go into tonight’s game against CSKA Moscow with no kind of butterflies in the stomach for me I’m afraid, because all of the teams we’ve just witnessed don’t tend to choke as much as Arsenal. So I think it’s fair to say that this evening I won’t be counting our chickens in Russia.
I’m looking at that first fifteen minutes and hoping that Arsenal can just stem the tide, weather any initial pressure, then grow into the game. Because I think there will be pressure. CSKA officials will have seen how Liverpool wobbled a bit with an early goal by City, even if they eventually went on to win, as well as Barca and Real both seeing pretty unassailable leads somehow become eroded in a second leg, then they’ll be looking at our propensity for brain fart moments and be hopeful that they see the same.
So for Arsenal tonight is about concentration. It’s about structure and belief and also taking chances, because we will get chances, I’m sure of it. The quality of our opponents in the first leg was poor – especially in the final third – but we need to ensure this doesn’t turn into a basketball match. It’s simple enough to do; keep the ball, simple passes with a high percentage rate of success, nothing sloppy across our goal. Then when a chance opens up look for the willing runners in Ramsey, Welbeck and Lacazette.
Tonight’s game feels like the kind of game we need Mesut Özil to be at his absolute ‘eye of the needle’ best. It feels like we need to see him picking the ball up and playing that channel ball to one of our forward-lying players because if CSKA play with the same back line as last week we will get chances. It isn’t the quickest defence in the world and so if CSKA are going to go for it tonight they’re going to need to press us higher up the pitch and that will either create gaps as the defence push forward in a high line, or it will create space in between their midfield and defence and that gives an opportunity for Özil to have more freedom if he then needs to push forward. The opening skirmishes of that game will determine where we need Mesut to be and I think he’s intelligent enough to know that too.
But it isn’t our attacking play that will be under the biggest scrutiny today. It will be that rickety old back five. Cech and Mustafi were culpable for the first goal on Sunday and that kind of lack of communication between ‘keeper and centre half will kill us tonight. The good news is that we have Koscielny and Monreal back but with the way any of our back line have been playing this season that hardly fills me with much reassurance.
The bizarre thing is that we know they have the wherewithal to put on good defensive displays. Before last weekend’s calamity corner of a performance we’d kept a few clean sheets. Yet I can’t really see us going the whole game without conceding tonight. I just don’t see how it happens. But there’s an entire universe of difference between conceding your first goal in the first minutes and the last minute and the whole complexion of the game will change if we concede in that first 15.
Conversely if we get through the first 15 without conceding then I think we’ve got a shout of growing into the game, frustrating the home fans and turning the tide in our favour.
I do believe we have to score though and I think doing it in the first half has a big impact. If it’s level at 0-0 and we get the first it takes the stuffing out of the home side. If it’s an equaliser then it doesn’t really change too much.
This is Arsenal and although this game should be dead and buried I can see the momentum of the game shift at least a couple of times. The first goal for CSKA will give them the impetus, anything for us wrestles it back, but if it gets to two or three goals up to them and its advantage to the Russians.
In terms of the team I think we can all take a decent guess at most of them. Cech, Bellerin, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Özil, Lacazette, but then it’s two from three of Wilshere, Iwobi and Welbeck and despite the fact I’ve lamented Iwobi’s form all season, from what I saw of Jack on Sunday I’d be severely tempted to go for Welbeck and Iwobi either side of Özil and behind Lacazette. If Arsène does that it gives us more counter attacking pace and also gives Moscow more to think about in terms of pressing higher. If they don’t press high as a team as I mentioned above, it leaves pockets of space for creative players, which is why I think a good performance from Özil is so vital tonight.
Let’s see how this unfolds. Hopefully in our favour.
Right, I’m off, so I’ll catch you tomorrow for more of the usual post match thinkings.