(R-L) Angel Di Maria of PSG and Shkodran Mustafi of Arsenal during the Uefa Champions League match between Paris Saint Germain and Arsenal at Parc des Princes on September 13, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Dave Winter/Icon Sport) (Photo by Dave Winter/Icon Sport via Getty Images)
Arsenal drew 1-1 with Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday night. Here is a statistical and tactical breakdown of the disappointing performance but good result.
Tuesday night saw the return of Champions League football. It is a fantastic competition, especially once in the knockout stages from February onwards, but sometimes the group stages gets an unfair flack due to a multitude of uncompetitive, one-sided games where teams from the bigger European leagues dominate sides that herald from the lesser countries European nations. That, though, cannot be levelled at Arsenal’s opening match of this season’s Champions League campaign, as their 1-1 draw with Paris Saint-Germain was, for the neutral at least, an exciting, unpredictable open game full of drama, quality and disappointments.
PARIS, FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 13: Edinson Cavani of Paris St Germain celebrates after scoring to make it 1-0 during the UEFA Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal at Parc des Princes on September 13, 2016 in Paris, . (Photo by Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)
Breaking Down Arsenal’s Defensive Issues
The match started as it meant to go on. After only 42 seconds, Edinson Cavani had leapt for the stars, planting a header into the bottom corner, past the sprawling David Ospina who had no chance whatsoever. The goal was a good piece of football from PSG, but there were major mistakes from all of Arsenal’s back four. Before I proceed to break down the individual, mistakes, here’s the goal for those who haven’t seen it.
PSG have the ball in comfortable possession at the back and Arsenal are simply settling into their defensive positions. Goalkeeper Kevin Trapp chips it forward to Serge Aurier who had, like he does later for the goal and did for the duration of the match, advanced down the right flank. Four passes later and Cavani is leaping like a salmon to put PSG 1-0 up after 42 miserable seconds.
The first issue comes from Laurent Koscielny. As Aurier pops the ball off to Angel Di Maria from Trapp’s pass, Koscielny is dragged into PSG’s half, leaving a rather worrying amount of space in behind so early in the game. Di Maria intelligently realises the space, brings the ball down for Marco Verratti who is then in a position to clip a ball down the right channel. That’s mistake number one.
Aurier beats Monreal to the ball and here comes mistake number two, perhaps the biggest issue from an Arsenal perspective. Monreal never pressurises Aurier, standing two or three yards off of him, rather than looking to close the ball. Consequently, Aurier takes a touch to set himself and uses the space that Monreal gives him to simply whip in a cross to the danger area, rather than trying to beat his opposite number before looking to deliver a ball in, which is perhaps what Monreal was scared off and is why he didn’t get tighter. That’s mistake number two.
Mustafi actually makes two rather elementary errors, but I will combine into one as realistically it comes down to a decision of doing either action, and he does neither. The German defender, once Koscielny is dragged out of position, has two courses of action to limit the danger. Either, he comes across into the space vacated by Koscielny and cuts off any ball into the channel, or he drops deep in anticipation of Monreal recovering and looks to shadow any option that Aurier may look to when/if he gets to the ball. Mustafi neither covers the channel or keeps tab on Edinson Cavani – the likely goal threat and eventual scorer – and pays the ultimate price for seemingly a moment of hesitation and indecision. That’s mistake number three.
The final mistake comes from Hector Bellerin and his lack of intelligent position. Like Mustafi, as soon as danger appears on the opposite wing, Bellerin must cover the back side of the Arsenal defence. In fairness to him, with Lucas Moura behind him and a lack of numbers tracking back, Bellerin must be aware of the threat at the far post, as well as the currently unmarked Cavani. However, once the cross is delivered, Bellerin drops off the back of Cavani (a position that he worked hard to track back into), as if he misjudges the flight of the ball. In that scenario, the right back must either step up with Mustafi (he doesn’t and plays Cavani onside which is why Mustafi is so passionately protesting that the PSG forward was offside) or come right across the face of Cavani and get goal side, protecting the back side of Mustafi. Bellerin does neither and Cavani scores. That is mistake number four.
PARIS, FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 13: Angel Di Maria of PSG and Nacho Monreal of Arsenal (left) in action during the UEFA Champions League group phase match between Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal FC at Parc des Princes on September 13, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
Nacho Monreal Continues To Decline
Arsenal, as a defensive outfit under Wenger’s latter half of his tenure, have continually struggled with defending from crosses. A combination of poor goalkeeping, poor attentiveness and concentration and an inability to cut off danger at source has seen the Gunners leak goals from wide areas. On Tuesday night, such issues once again reared their ugly head, especially down the left flank.
PSG, excluding set pieces, attempted 13 crosses, including Serge Aurier’s assist. Four of these came from PSG’s left wing, nine came down the right wing, primarily through an overlapping Aurier who was exceptional and probably the man of the match. Monreal struggled to handle the fluid movement of Di Maria and Aurier, with the Argentine drifting inside dangerously and the overlapping full back maintaining the width, Monreal was often left in no man’s land.
It must be said that Alex Iwobi did not help Monreal’s cause whatsoever thanks to the outnumbering of Arsenal’s central areas. PSG played, essentially without a left winger, with a midfield five consisting of Krychowiak, Verratti, Matuidi, Rabiot and Di Maria. The four (more) central midfielders overpowered Cazorla, Ozil and Coquelin and consequently Iwobi found himself naturally drifting inside trying to even out the numbers. That left Monreal often facing a two-on-one situation, but nonetheless, he struggled greatly, even in such difficult circumstances.
What was particularly noticeable was his declining athletic ability, something is a vital attribute in Wenger’s system given how he demands his full backs to provide attacking width without sacrificing defensive solidarity. As his age advances and his performance declines, Monreal’s issues are something to keep track of over the coming weeks. With a very competent Kieran Gibbs waiting in the wings, Wenger may be tempted to make a switch if his issues continue into October and November.
PARIS, FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 13: Mesut Ozil of Arsenal FC reacts during the Champion’s League match against Arsenal FC at Parc des Princes on September 13, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
Mesut Ozil Needs Space
Throughout the past three seasons, Arsenal have been at their scintillating best when Mesut Ozil is allowed to orchestrate attacks from a central position. To do this, he needs space. On Tuesday, he was not afforded such a luxury.
Part of this was due to the very clever way in which Unai Emery set up his team. As mentioned previously, the four central midfielders (or basically central midfielders) suffocated the likes of Cazorla and Ozil as Arsenal persisted with trying to intricately tread their way through central areas.
Ozil’s issues were made worse by Wenger starting Alexis Sanchez up front. The Chilean rarely span in behind, running the channels and stretching the play. He consistently looked for the ball to feet and is not the physical nightmare that Olivier Giroud poses. Consequently, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos could push high up the pitch, only reducing the space of Ozil’s mastery and limiting the creativity of Arsenal’s attacking play.
Ultimately, Ozil created just one chance – where he drifted out wide left and played a beautifully driven low pass into the feet of Alex Iwobi, who’s rebounded shot saw Sanchez eventually scuff home the equaliser – and completed just 83% of his passes. He also didn’t take on one player the whole match and only made three crosses, all of which were corners.
Ozil is not the type of player to carry a side like Sanchez. He requires talent around him to excel. Nonetheless, if Wenger can pick a side that boasts weapons for Ozil to use and space for him to use them in, then he is by Arsenal’s best player. Getting him such weapons and space, though, is seemingly a tougher task this season, than last.