Naive! Arsenal Concede an Unnecessary Third

barriecuda-120I would have happily taken a 2-1 defeat in today’s game against Monaco; especially considering that we only had the option of a 2-1 defeat courtesy a brilliant goal from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Instead, in woefully naive and typical Arsenal fashion, we managed to concede a third goal in the 94th minute against the “easiest” team we could have been drawn against following the Champions League’s group stages.

A couple fellows (namely Giroud and Ozil) will be able to count themselves lucky that the team’s amateur defending will take the attention off their below-par performances. For the rest of us, we’re left to seethe as Arsenal once again failed to show up for the first leg of a UEFA knockout stage tie. Home advantage? Lucky draw following a poor group stage? Forget it – Arsenal makes their own mountains.

As usual I will leave the full game recap for better people than myself, though I will offer a brief summary. We conceded the first on an unfortunate deflection, but questions will be asked if Ospina could have done a little more. The second Monaco goal can be summarized as “Mertesacker on the centre yard line”, an outrageously poor choice from a usually smart defender that left Kos’ the victim of a 2-on-1 finished clinically by the man who defines “languid”, Dimitar Berbatov. Things looked salvageable when super sub Oxlade-Chamberlain curled in a gorgeous strike at 90+1′ that requires a replay to do it justice. Brilliant composure coupled with wonderful technique, cool under pressure, the kind of thing I love to see.

Enter the usual Arsenal failing – naivety.

I’ve moaned about this before. Arsenal’s players are not good at simply closing-out games. Sure, many will point to the recent one-off win against City as a sign we’ve turned the corner, have some new defensive ethos, etc, but I don’t see it. There is still a culture embedded in this team that wants to pour forward for goals no matter what the circumstance. Further, the Arsenal players tend to play in a way that suggests when they decide the game is over, it’s over. Both of these are exceptionally dangerous attitudes… which have cost us before, and cost us again today.

Although the Champions League knockout stages are a two-leg affair, smart teams recognize that the tie is best considered a 180-minute game, NOT two 90-minute games. What you do in the first leg will cost you. You would think Arsenal would have learned that over the past few years. In 2013-14, we conceded an unnecessary 88th minute goal in the first (home) leg that let Bayern sit comfortably on a 2-0 lead in the second fixture, resulting in a 3-1 loss overall. In 12-13, we lost to Bayern 3-3 on aggregate due to three away-goals against in the first game. And who could forget 11-12, where we conceded 4 first-leg goals at home to AC Milan to lose 4-3 overall. Our first leg goals-against has killed us three seasons in a row. It’s not a problem exclusive to the Champions League either; let’s not forget that this month is the 4-year anniversary of the first time any team came back from 0-4 to draw in the Premier League era.

Having all of that in the club’s recent history, you’d think the message at 2-1 in injury time would be “good enough, let’s get ’em in the second leg”. Wrong.

Instead, Arsenal pours forward greedily looking for a second goal in the remaining seconds of the tie, impervious to the suggestion that Monaco still might be up for it. It strikes me as our naive players trying to be heroes for the hometown crowd, completely blind to the fact there is another 90-minute “half” to play. The breakdown that follows starts with one overly-attack minded fullback who’s been caught-out before: Kieran Gibbs.

Gibbs' position at 90+3', just before the Monaco goal.

Gibbs’ position at 90+3′, just before the Monaco goal.

Pushed WAY up the field, Gibbs has taken up an attacking winger position after overlapping Sanchez in an attacking move. He takes the throw-in, giving the ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain. Ox’ bobbles the ball and is pressured by multiple Monaco players.

Gibbs' body language is telling. Ox gets in trouble.

Gibbs’ body language is telling. Ox gets in trouble.

Ox’ has run himself into trouble, but Gibbs appears to be switched off for the night. By the time Ox’ loses possession, Gibbs has not started retreating; in fact, he doesn’t begin back-tracking until a few seconds after the ball is regained by Monaco. The counter attack begins.

Gibbs' out of the picture, Koscielny (yellow) out of position, Rosicky (red) elects not to run back.

Gibbs’ out of the picture, Koscielny (yellow) out of position, Rosicky (red) elects not to run back.

This is the critical moment. Koscielny, in yellow, has vacated his central position as a result of Gibbs not being at left-back and is pressing the player in possession. Carrasco begins an explosive run catching Oxlade-Chamberlain off-guard. Rosicky, in red, should see this play developing! The central defensive position has been exposed and the runner is beginning to move towards the gap. Where Rosicky is standing, if he covers his defender by following the GREEN line at speed, the gap will be closed. Instead, he tapers off his run down the RED line. Ox’ is beat for speed and Mertesacker can’t do much about it.

Carrasco explodes into the open gap, resulting in the third away-goal for Monaco.

Carrasco explodes into the open gap, resulting in the third away-goal for Monaco.

Rosicky’s pulled up from his run, Gibbs is still upfield, Koscielny is dragged out of position, and Ox is beat on pace by another super sub, Andy Carroll Lite Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco. Great finish, goal Monaco, and now Arsenal is down 1-3 heading to Stade Louis II.

The question to be asked is, did Gibbs need to be ~35 yards from the opposition net in the 93rd minute of the first, home leg of a Champions League tie? Of course not. That’s typical Arsenal, pouring forward for a goal thinking that the opposition is done for the day. Instead, Monaco’s fantastic counterattack gives them a massive three away-goal lead to take to the second game… leaving every Arsenal fan to wonder “Why can’t we just play out a decent European first leg?”.

At this point the only way we could be any more ludicrously “Arsenal” is by winning the tie. And to be honest, I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibility. Arsenal is at their best chasing a scoreline, when they can play without pressure, and despite Monaco’s defensive strengths I still think we’re going to manage to give them a real test on March 17th. My original prediction was that Arsenal would win the tie with some difficulty. I just didn’t expect them to make it this difficult.

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