20,000 Köln fans marched through the streets of London, fueled by ale and lager, chanting and singing. They started in Oxford Circus where they snarled traffic, throwing bottles, and aggravating booji shoppers trying to get into Forever 21. There they boarded public transit and made the 25 minute train ride to Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, whereupon fights broke out and police contemplated abandoning the match out of fear for everyone’s safety. Inside the stadium, Köln supporters took over three levels of the corner of the stadium, they did the Poznan – a dance where supporters clasp each other shoulder to shoulder and pogo en masse – they threatened people. The match went on anyway.
For people of an older generation these scenes were familiar – this was a good old fashioned “take over”. In the olden days men with tough jaws and tough fists would do battle every weekend for a bit of bragging rights over a small group of similarly tough jawed and tough handed men. If they planned it perfectly, and they got lucky, these toughjaws could literally take over the opposition’s stadium. They would sneak in to the home supporter’s stands and/or find ways around the away segregation barricades and then perch high up above the home supporters. When the whistle sounded they would “steam in” on their opposition raining down toughfists, and hardboots, from above.
It’s all very romantic – for men who think highly of other toughjawed men. For most people who say they “want their Arsenal back” that was what Arsenal were like – sort of.
But for the rest of the world, no one wants scenes like that. And so, UEFA is opening an investigation. How, exactly, did 5-10,000 Köln supporters get tickets to a match which had an allocation of 2,900?
The Arsenal are blaming the touts and I have to say that there is a huge chance they are right. One of my early Arsenal matches I used tickets from a friend of a friend and I was seated in that exact section, right next to the away supporters (Sunderland). In front of me were two blokes from Ireland, who got so plastered that they passed out for Arshavin’s debut. And at half-time when I went to get a beer I met two decent enough guys from Sunderland who asked me “not to tell anyone, eh?” What did I know? I’m just a Yank. I just laughed nervously and marveled at their impenetrable accents. I must have said “WHAT???” a hundred times in a 10 minute conversation.
This is the double-edged sword with the Arsenal: they love to announce the 59,000 ticket sell outs but they have to know that a huge number of those are going to tourists. I’m sure some Gooners are responsible with their season tickets and only loan them out through the official Arsenal resell scheme – and I’m also sure, by the very visible presence of 10,000 Germans, that some fans are less responsible.
But before I blame the supporters completely, I’d like to see a full and independent investigation done into how the Germans took over die Emirates stadion. There were more than a few rumors that Köln supporters had gotten tickets through red level memberships. The Arsenal have put out a statement saying that they blocked any red level member from buying tickets to this match if they bought their membership after the tie was announced. But I have heard dozens of reports that Köln supporters were bragging about buying red memberships to get in. That needs to be investigated and fully brought to light.
In the book “Steaming In” by Colin Ward, the football matches are often treated as an afterthought. They are merely the setting for the real subject of the book, the punch up. You will get whole chapters and pages devoted to the way a fellow hooligan dressed which was all wrapped up with maybe a sentence or two on the actual game. It is a surreal read.
Arsenal beat Köln 3-1. The Köln center forward, Jhon Cordoba, gave Arsenal fans heartburn when he struck from 40 yards to open the scoring. The goal came about because Arsenal started with a back three of Mertesacker, Monreal and Holding. Instead of starting Kolasinac, the wing back he bought this summer, Arsene Wenger started a center mid named Ainsley Maitland-Niles as left wing back and then put a number 10 player named Iwobi in the free-floating center mid role and left Arsenal with a single center mid named Elneny.
Köln scored when Mertesacker – who was never a speedy player in the first place – was beaten for an over-the-top ball. Ospina – the Arsenal goalkeeper – came rushing out to clear but only hit the ball to Köln’s Bittencourt, who just let the ball bounce off him and fall to Jhon Cordoba. Cordoba knew that Ospina was well out of goal and that he was unmarked, so he just turned and shot. The crowd went nuts. Which you might expect considering the fact that many Arsenal supporters went home after the club announced that there would be a one-hour delay which would make it difficult for many fans to get home.
I can’t tell whether it’s Wenger’s plan to make the 343 look bad or whether he just can’t seem to figure out how to make the 343 work. Every team which deploys the 343 is happy with 5 at the back: 3 center backs and 2 center mids in front of them. Wenger seems to insist on a system which looks more like a 3133 with 3 center backs and a center mid in a diamond. His other center mid is told to go forward, to vacate the space and let the other four build up play. But that leaves way too much space in midfield for one player to cover, usually Xhaka and yesterday Elneny. Elneny, to his great credit, sprinted back on several occasions and covered when needed but you get the sense that Wenger is over-complicating things.
It’s also frustrating to see Wenger playing players out of position constantly. Why he started Ainsley Maitland-Niles (who is a center mid if I ever saw one) as left back when he has several viable left backs is going to go down as one of life’s enduring mysteries. Why he started Iwobi in the Ramsey role is, however, clear: Wenger wants to play with a single deep lying mid with a much more attacking mid in front of him. I suspect he does this because he wants to start play wide, rather than through the middle, because wide play suits his two star players, Ozil and Alexis. When Holding was still on the pitch he was playing excellent balls up to the wide players like Theo and Iwobi. And down the left side, Arsenal started play through AMN, who was tasked with supporting Alexis.
What’s also equally clear is that this system doesn’t work. At half-time Wenger brought on Kolasinac as the left back and put Ainsley Maitland-Niles in midfield, dropped Holding (for the second time now this season), and moved Bellerin into the right back role. I know it’s considered jokey to call Wenger’s version of a 442 a 244 but it’s true. I’ve been writing about Arsenal now for almost 10 years and as far as I can tell, his fullbacks have always been wingbacks.
In Kolasinac and Bellerin he finally has full-on wingbacks, guys who can and do score. Gibbs, Sagna, Clichy, Monreal, and others have always gotten forward but they weren’t real good at it. Bellerin already has 5 goals for Arsenal and Kolasinac 2 goals and 2 assists. Gibbs had 6 goals for Arsenal, Monreal 3, Sagna 5, and Clichy 2. So, when he moved to a “back four” he was really moving to a back 2 and it shouldn’t be a surprise that both Kolasinac and Bellerin scored.
But crucially, AMN and Elneny kept good space next to each other in midfield. They are both more conservative type players and that suits Arsene Wenger’s much more liberal attacking approach. They kept Köln quiet and contributed to the Arsenal build-up and attack from a slightly deeper role: AMN even made a nice run where he nearly scored, thanks to a series of beautiful little close passes, which reminds people why Wenger likes those runs from deep – they cause chaos.
But Maitland-Niles only made ONE run. It wasn’t a series of sprints. He wasn’t standing in Giroud’s space constantly. And frankly, Arsenal could have scored a lot more goals in that second half as they were able to exploit the fragile Köln defense. Theo Walcott was caught offside too many times and Giroud had several good shots collected or just miss.
It was a good win among a hostile crowd in what felt like an away game in a tournament which Wenger seems eager to throw away. But if we get more performances like last night’s and they feature young players like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Bellerin, and even Jack Wilshere (who is only 25), coming on strong, we might have a fun run in the Europa League.
Provided they can keep the away fans from buying up all the tickets.
Steaming In by Colin Ward – http://amzn.to/2y3WxpN
The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/sep/14/koln-fans-arsenal-europa-league-london
By the Numbers – http://news.arseblog.com/2017/09/arsenal-3-1-koln-by-the-numbers/