It has started. I already got my first “banta” email. Sent to me by a friend from Wales who supports Man U. It’s titled “what do Arsenal supporters do on Champions League nights?” And of course it’s a gif that shows we do nothing. Ha ha, very funny. Except also weird. Arsenal have been in the Champions League every year since 2000 and United spent the last two years in the Europa League. So, I guess you really got me.
I can tell you what this Arsenal supporter did on Champions League nights: I recorded the Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund matches, then I came home after work, fixed dinner for my child, and watched them.
In Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Juventus Messi was the star, scoring what is now a classic Messi goal for the opener: weaving in between defenders, stuttering almost matrix-like, putting defenders on the grass, before poking home. But beyond Messi what was most fascinating about the match was watching two of the most organized teams in European football move as a unit in both attack and defense. The Juventus and Barcelona back lines seemed to almost breathe in unison as the game ebbed and flowed up and down the pitch. This wasn’t a wild 3-4 affair with both teams racing up and down constantly, looking to exploit spaces foolishly abandoned. This was a lesson in controlled football and Barcelona, well Messi really, just proved to be too much for Juve who will have to be feeling like they just got hit by a train. A Messi train.
In a complete opposite match, you have Tottenham v. Borussia Dortmund. Tottenham ran out winners in a pulsating contest but Borussia Dortmund can easily feel aggrieved by several terrible calls from the officials. The match started at an impossible pace: both teams are known for their pressing style but Dortmund have the added bonus of being able to actually play with the ball. Still Dortmund found themselves down 2-1 in the 15th minute thanks to two swift counter attacks. Dortmund expertly dealt with the fact that their team sets up to concede huge swaths of space but when you play like that you often rely almost solely on the strength of your keeper. Dortmund’s Burki allowed two goals from Spurs in those first 15 minutes which I have to think a more experienced keeper would claim. On the other end of the pitch, Dortmund had two good goals ruled out for offside and as is almost always the case, as soon as you have a goal ruled out, it seems like the opposition often marches down the pitch and scores which is exactly what Spurs did. Tottenham also had Vertonghen sent off for an ugly slap – and with Vertonghen and Alli out with red cards – plus Dier lucky not to get one as well – Spurs have reaffirmed their place as the filthiest team in England.
That Dortmund match had the feel of an Arsenal match from 5 years ago: loads of young players, technically adept, passing the ball around, full of energy, playing rings around the opposition, and being undone by two counters and some terrible refereeing. If you want to relive Arsenal’s glory years from 2008-2012 you should just watch Borussia Dortmund. They are so much like old Arsenal it’s uncanny, the big difference, however, is that they press, which Arsenal didn’t do in that era, content instead to just pass the ball around.
And tonight what I will do is watch Arsenal v. Koln. I’ll bake a potato, make some delicious cheese sauce, make a salad, and watch the Arsenal play Koln. It’s always been funny to me how fans get on each other over the smallest things – Arsenal playing on “Spursday” for example. But as my mom told me when I was a young boy and I opened the leftovers jar and saw the mold: the basic state of the universe is decay, son… decay.
Before the decay set in I was lucky enough to go to see Arsenal play AC Milan, Porto, and Bayern Munich (twice). And fans who live in Europe have had the opportunity to see Arsenal play Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid, and so many more big name teams so many times! Which is a lot more than any Spurs supporter can say, even if they were alive when Spurs were last in the Champions League.
As for Arsenal’s opponents tonight, Koln have conceded 7 goals in three matches this season and not won a single important contest. Their danger man is not the player all the experts have chosen, Jonas Hector. They are picking him on name recognition alone. He is actually leading Koln in tackles and is acting more as a shield. It’s Japanese international Osako Yuya who I think might unlock the Arsenal defense. He’s been finding a useful partnership with Jhon Cordoba, who was once likened to Didier Drogba (though that is WAY off the mark). Jhon has averaged a crazy 4.7 shots per game this season and most (10) of those are being taken inside the 18 yard box. He hasn’t managed to score a goal, yet, but with Arsenal’s cream cheese midfield he will get his chances.
Gooners should be worried. Wenger is going to rest Ozil, Lacazette, Xhaka, Cech, Ramsey, and Welbeck. Meanwhile, Koz is serving a suspension owing to the red card he picked up against Bayern Munich and Coquelin has been speared by the King of the White Walkers. My matchday prediction system is all over the place with this one because not only is Arsenal playing with almost no recognizable star players (save Alexis), they might even start Jack Wilshere who has been awful for two years now. Meanwhile Arsenal’s back three defense might have to be shielded by Mo Elneny who has little going for him in terms of defensive prowess. Without any top quality midfielders I worry that Arsenal will get played off the park by Koln, who are 4th in the Bundesliga in possession.
In his pre-match preview, Wenger indicated strongly that Jack Wilshere wasn’t ready to play so his inclusion would be a shock. Instead, I think we will see a 343 with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Elneny in CM, flanked by Kolasinac and Bellerin, with Iwobi, Giroud, and Alexis up front. Koln are vulnerable to set pieces so the match could come down to a simple header from Giroud and a bunch of defense after that from the Gunners.
This is one where we will have to wait until the lineups come out before we have a clear picture of how the two teams will play.
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