Arsenal returns back to drawing board
On the face of it, Arsenal failed their big test Tuesday night, losing for the first time in 13 games to a team from a higher class than they have been accustomed to meeting in the Premier League. But it wasn’t quite as gloomy as the result must look to English eyes.
With eight minutes left against Borussia Dortmund at the Emirates, Arsene Wenger’s side were level and looking the more likely to secure a winner. Substitute Santi Cazorla, who was pulling the strings, had just struck the goal frame and the home support were even challenging the vocal supremacy of the 8,000 yellow-clad travelers from Germany.
And then silence fell over the home crowd. Kevin Grosskreutz galloped down Borussia’s right flank and, although he appeared to overhit his cross, found Robert Lewandowski lurking beyond the far post. The prolific Pole was ruthless. His side-footed volley nestled in the net and suddenly Group F of the Champions League was a three-horse race, competing neck-and-neck for two prizes.
Instead of a victory that would have all but seen them through to the knockout stages, Arsenal had the prospect of two mountains to climb: away games against Borussia and Napoli, with only Olympique Marseille to face at home. Wenger conceded afterwards that they would now need something on the road "but we are capable of that."
They proved it last season, of course, by winning a second-leg knockout game 2-0 against Bayern Munich, who, having ousted them on away goals, proceeded to beat Borussia in the Wembley final. But qualification is going to be tougher than Wenger hoped it would be in the build-up to this game, which had culminated in a 4-1 home win over Norwich graced by a goal-of-the season candidate from Jack Wilshere.
Since losing at home to Aston Villa on the first day of the Premier League season, Arsenal had won 10 and drawn two in all competitions. Among their victims had been Napoli, beaten at the Emirates after overcoming Borussia in the game that led to coach Jurgen Klopp’s suspension from the dugout. So Klopp, completing his punishment, had a nice panoramic view from the stands as his team took the lead.
No player -- not even newly arrived hero Mesut Ozil -- had contributed more to the Arsenal revival in recent weeks than fellow midfielder Aaron Ramsey. Yet it was the young Welshman, dwelling in possession dangerously close to his own penalty area, who let Borussia in. Tackled by Marco Reus, he lost the ball and Lewandowski calmly passed it on to Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who, with equal composure, sent a low shot wide of Wojciech Szczesny.
For a while, the home fans must have feared a repeat of last season’s spanking at home to Bayern Munich, but it wasn’t like that at all. By halftime Wenger’s men were level, and deservedly so, for Mats Hummels had done well to clear from the goal-line an effort by the lively Tomas Rosicky before goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller found himself to no one to help out.
Indeed Neven Subotic hindered in lunging at a teaser of a cross into the goalmouth from Bacary Sagna and the ball bounced off Weidenfeller, high into the air, leaving the alert Olivier Giroud with the striker’s-dream task of volleying into an unguarded net from a range of one yard.
The second half proved similar to the first in that Borussia took control again, using the superior fitness Wenger identified as the main difference between the sides. Some of his men, the Arsenal coach said, were "a little jaded" which would be surprising so early in the season despite the hectic schedule that continues when they make the short trip to lowly Crystal Palace on Saturday.
Wenger may rotate the squad at Selhurst Park and will almost certainly make multiple changes for the Capital One League Cup tie at home to Chelsea next Tuesday. But it seemed there was more to the difference than conditioning and the aspect most apparent was how the respective teams performed without the ball.
Thus, as the second half unfolded, Arsenal became the more creative without seriously troubling the Borussia rear-guard except in that moment when Cazorla, on for Wilshere, attempted to round off the Premier League leaders’ finest move of the night only to see his effort rebound off the outside of the angle of post and crossbar.
They had to work so hard in the face of Borussia’s constant pressing, the hunting in packs that Wenger might profitably have made into a video compilation and shown to his players. Contrast that with how Arsenal were hit on the counter for the winner, Borussia surged forward in swamping numbers and Grosskreutz’s cross sailed over two colleagues in the middle before Lewandowski swooped to conquer.