Let me tell you a little story about a man named Pontus. He plays for CSKA Moscow and until just a few month ago he was normally deployed as a defensive midfielder but now plays as a forward.
Pontus Wernbloom earned his reputation as “the Swedish Gattuso” if that helps clarify his abilities on the pitch. Put it another way, he’s not so much known as a hard player as a hatchet man. His highlight reels are usually five minutes of him kicking an opponent in the midriff, sliding in with a crazy tackle, or elbowing someone in the face. He also typically likes to fall over after one of his crazy tackles and feign injury to himself.
We shouldn’t even call him a midfielder. His career before becoming a striker was bereft of any of the skills you expect to see in a midfielder. He can’t pass (sub 80% for a DM is truly awful), can’t dribble (he has 19 successful dribbles in the last… 5 years), doesn’t create (11 assists in the last five years), and doesn’t tackle or intercept the ball – he used to, but he’s 31 now and not nearly as mobile as he once was.
But he does like fouls! And yellow cards. He once said “getting cards is my job” and has 60 yellow cards in 5 years. In the olden days (three years ago) he used to get about a card every 154 minutes. He’s calmed down considerably (or learned how to foul more sneakily, depending on who you ask) and only has 10 cards this season for a rate of one every 259 minutes.
He’s pretty much a saint then.
The other thing he’s good at is winning headers. Even as far back as 10 years ago when he was still in Sweden, coaches have recognized that the nearly 190cm player was a rock and could win some aerial duels. So they would throw him up front when they needed a late goal. And Wernbloom delivered.
There is a glowing article on ESPN about his leadership qualities, which ends by suggesting that Arsenal should sign him this summer. That suggestion aside, he does seem to be a leader on his team and is a cult hero among the CSKA supporters for his uncanny knack of scoring late, important goals for his team.
Pontus Wernbloom is the kind of player who gives everything for his team. Tattooed on his arm is the Latin “Veni, Vedi, Vici” which is popularly attributed to Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar wrote those words – which mean I came, I saw, I conquered – after his victory over the kingdom of Pontus*. You have to admit that it’s a perfect tattoo for the guy named after the god/kingdom that Caesar conquered and who seemingly lives his life by that quote as some sort of motto.
Meanwhile, he’s up top elbowing, kicking, scrapping, stepping on people, and falling all over the place to make it look like he is also being fouled. In his new role as a forward Pontus Wernbloom has transformed himself from the Swedish Gattuso into the Swedish Kevin Cyril Davies.
CSKA Moscow are more than just Pontus. They have Aleksandr Golovin, another player with 9 yellow cards this season. He plays in CM and can do all the things a CM should be able to do, in addition to his fouling. They have a Brazilian named Vitinho who is their leading goalscorer and set piece taker. Bibras Natkho is their Israeli midfielder and he takes the remainder of their set pieces.
Statistically, they are an unremarkable club with two exceptions. They lead the Russian League in blocked passes and are 2nd in tackles. This combination is what I consider a “Liverpool” or pressing defense. In Europa League play, CSKA attempted an astonishing 37.5 tackles per game, 4th in the league behind Salzburg, Atletico, and Borussia Dortmund. They were also 2nd in the Europa League in interceptions with 17. Their manager Viktor Goncharenko will be well aware of Arsenal’s weakness under pressure and I expect to see CSKA harassing Arsenal for 180 minutes in this tie.
For Arsenal’s part, they cannot do what they did in the first half against Stoke. Which is the most obvious thing that Cpt. Obvious ever said.
Passing the ball out of play, playing the ball to their opponent’s feet, and players hiding out of range of each other will result in an embarrassing loss for Arsenal. The Gunners need to work together, stay tight, and pass the ball around CSKA. They aren’t a fast team and the ball moves faster than feet.
I’d also like to see Arsenal take a page from Pep Guardiola’s book and go long ball early in the game.
CSKA’s defenders will not want to run with Lacazette and Ozil. Long passes to chest (not headers which the Russians will win every time) from the Arsenal defenders, bypassing the midfield press, and swift one-twos between Ozil and Lacazette will almost certainly result in a goal. And an early goal is key to making CSKA play football and not just run around breaking up play.
I’m not expecting a pretty match. CSKA have no reason to be adventurous in the first leg and will look to ugly the game up to go home with a 0-0 draw or even a 1-1 draw. Pontus will be the focal point of fan ire but their whole team has no problem getting stuck in and I expect they will try to destroy Arsenal’s ability to pass through the midfield. Meanwhile, Arsenal have had problems in the team over the last month with players openly fighting with each other on the pitch and hiding and not helping each other out in possession.
This is Arsenal’s last chance to get into the Champions League next season. CSKA Moscow is one of the easiest picks they could have gotten in this round and the Gunners should advance. But they have to work together as a team to do that.
*I am not a scholar of Greek/Persian history but a quick search tells me that Pontus was a kingdom on the Black Sea and also the name of the Greek god of the sea.