Thanks to a dodgy penalty call and some lacklustre attacking play Arsenal lost 1-0 to Köln in Cologne but managed to win their group anyway and move on to the knockout round in the Europa League. After the game, I finished baking my pumpkin cake and went over to my brother’s house where I had dinner and was forced to listen to my family muse over politics and other topics that they don’t really understand but that they do love to TALK LOUDLY AND ANGRILY ABOUT.
My cake was a disaster. It was too dense and gummy. People often say “baking is unforgiving” or that baking is a science. It is and I messed up the science on this one. The recipe called for adding the baking powder to the sugar mixture and then creaming that with the butter. Doing it that way meant that the leavener wasn’t incorporated fully in the batter and I got pockets where the baking powder reacted, leaving a spelunking hole, and then dense pockets of gummy batter next to those holes. The flavor was great but I should have trusted my experience and sifted the baking powder with the cake flour to ensure even distribution.
I think that’s a metaphor for the match yesterday as well: Cologne was a huge spelunking hole and Arsenal was a dense pocket. That dense pocket was tasty but anyone who took a slice inevitably threw away half of it because it was weird and not at all cake-like.
Cologne sat back in their own half and invited Arsenal to attack them, which Arsenal did in one of two basic ways: dribble and/or cross. It’s not a bad plan but like the cake, they just couldn’t pull it off. Let me explain.
Arsenal attempted 38 dribbles in this match. That’s 30 more dribbles than Arsenal average per game in Premier League play (8.8). And all of Arsenal’s dribbles were in the Köln half, with 34 of them in their final third. Cologne tried to tackle, but they were dribbled past 28 times.
I can’t even explain how insane that is, Arsenal beat their man in 1v1 duels 28 times in this match. Brighton leads the Premier League with 10.7 “was dribbleds” per game, Napoli leads the Champions League with 16.6 “was dribbleds”, and Köln has been dribbled a total of 64 times in the Europa League, 28 of them happened last night!
Köln were sitting deep and Arsenal were attacking them, breaking them down, getting past their man, but then not getting off a shot. In the last 8 minutes of the match, Arsenal attempted 8 dribbles, 4 for Wilshere and 4 for Nelson but only one of those dribbles resulted in a shot (for Nelson). Arsenal’s only other shot in the last 8 minutes was Wilshere’s rather well taken shot from 20 yards.
Wilshere led Arsenal with 9/13 dribbles and Ainsley Maitland-Niles came in 2nd with 5/9. Even Welbeck was a dribblin’ fool – making 5/6 dribbles. Welbeck has four successful dribbles in 464 Premier League minutes. He had 5 in 46 minutes against Köln.
The problem was that Arsenal’s forward didn’t want to shoot or couldn’t create space to shoot. Olivier Giroud had zero shots. Wilshere was trying to get him the ball but Giroud spent most of the night standing still. And when he did move, all he did was act like he was fouled.
Ironically fans beg for Wenger to use Giroud in exactly these kinds of games when the opponent packs the defense. But Giroud had precious little to offer – he won zero headers, he took zero shots, he lost possession twice and gave away the ball with a bad pass an additional 14 times (of 35 passes). All he was able to offer this match was one key pass in the 29th minute.
The other tactic Arsenal attempted in this match was to cross the ball. Wenger’s team tried 30 crosses in this game – that’s twice as many as they normally attempt in Premier League play. But Arsenal only won one aerial duel in the box, that was for Jack Wilshere in the 20th minute.
It wasn’t like Arsenal were putting in excellent crosses all night and that Köln were out there winning tons of headers in the box, they won just five in their 18 yard box all night. Arsenal were crossing the ball on nearly every play but failing to find a teammate. Arsenal connected just 5 times on crosses; two each for Elneny and AMN and one for Wilshere. Those three players combined to complete 5 of 21, the other players went 0/9.
There were other problems as well. Both of Maitland-Niles’ successful crosses came in the first half and after the break he dropped off considerably both physically and to make room for Iwobi. In the first half he was playing with Welbeck in front of him and the Englishman likes to cut inside, giving AMN plenty of room to work but in the second half Iwobi (rightly) took that space from him. Maitland-Niles is an excellent footballer and I have high hopes for him but you can see that he’s raw.
The other weird thing was that both of Elneny’s successful crosses came from set pieces. I don’t know why Wilshere isn’t taking those kicks but I do know that Elneny’s free kicks were pretty awful.
Köln won the game when Debuchy apparently touched their forward who was already well on his way down before he was touched. To give credit to them, the move was well orchestrated and Debuchy was bone-headed to make the challenge. Guirassy passed the ball between Chambers and Giroud and then made a little run. Chambers stared at the ball – thinking about his latest level on Candy Crush and devising a plan to get past it. Jojic played a fairly poor ball into the box and Guirassy and Debuchy made a dash for the ball. Meanwhile, Mertesacker had plenty of time to get over and cover in case Guirassy tried a shot. I can’t stress this enough: Mertesacker was perfectly placed to stop any weak cross/shot that was going to come from Guirassy if he found a miracle and was able to control.
But that was NEVER the plan. The plan was to take a touch and go down. You can actually see it if you slow down the action – I’ll break my own rule against images to show you:
Here he has hatched his plan (note that Mertesacker is always in perfect position):
Here he wins the touch, why Debuchy is even challenging for the ball is a mystery. Guirassy wins his touch and…
His right ankle breaks. You can see that maybe Debuchy touches Guirassy’s left foot but his right foot is already dragging the ground. You see this all the time with forwards, I first pointed it out years ago when Rooney dived to win a penalty against Almunia. It’s really a disgrace and I don’t know why we as football fans put up with this.
And then he crumples, turning his shoulder over to simulate contact.
Note his right leg. It’s always the trailing leg which gives away the dive. They always (and I mean always) drag it on the ground, toe-down like this. It’s a common tactic by forwards and I don’t understand why defenders get sucked in to making contact. I’d love to see a defender start to make this challenge and then just stop short. It would expose this dive for what it is and we would possibly see more yellow cards for diving.
See, so the game was sort of like my cake. All the ingredients were right – if a team sits back like that against you, you probably want to dribble-attack and are probably going to have a lot of crosses – but they just weren’t incorporated quite right and the result was a gloppy mess.
Arsenal take on Burnley this Sunday and they are going to play the exact same way as Köln. So let’s hope Chef Arsene remembers to sift the leavening in with the flour to make something light, fluffy, and delicious.
Screen caps from Arsenalist.com.