It seems trivial to be pre-occupied with an unglamorous Champion’s League match in the middle of the seemingly interminable group stages, when tonight we wait to see who has become the most powerful democratically elected person on the planet.
Wags might suggest the fortunes of Wenger and Obama have been on a similar trajectory since the optimism of this time four years ago. Both have been accused of stubbornness, naivety, and misuse of resources, both are more loved overseas than at home, and both have found maintaining their principles in the face of huge challenges to be difficult and painful. Two figures who have provided inspiration to millions struggling to live up to their reputations.
As wait for the outcome of the big match on Capitol Hill, let us focus on events in the Schalke district of Gelsenkirchen.
Getting a result in Germany is never easy at the best of times, and the last few weeks have been rather nearer the worst. An injury-hit squad in the middle of a very poor run of form , fighting it out in the backyard of opponents who totally outplayed them in London only a fortnight ago. Shalke’s home support are incredibly vocal, and we saw against Manchester United two seasons ago that they can create an intimidating atmosphere when their side are in full flow. The German side is also leading the chasing pack behind Bayern in the Bundesliga, and in Huntelaar have a centre-forward with one of the best strike rates in European football.
With this in mind, Wenger tried to solidify the back four, dropping Santos, who had a torrid time when the sides met in London, in favour of Koscielny, with Vermaelen moving across. This had the convenient side-effect of taking our off-form captain out of the centre of defence without dropping him. Walcott came back into the starting eleven on the right flank; an obvious choice in terms of available personnel, form and the potential vulnerability to counter attack of the Shalke back line.
The home side started much where they left off at the Emirates, by relentlessly attacking our left flank. That said, their usual tactic is to overload the flanks with two wingers and two wing-backs, regardless of the opposition, so perhaps it isn’t a comment on the perceived vulnerability of Santos or Vermaelen.
Within ten minutes Mannone was forced into a smart save down low against a rejuvenated Afelley. Arsenal struggled to get a foothold, and were wasteful, hurried and shorn of confidence in possession, and resembled a team of strangers.
Then, out of nowhere, 18 minutes in, an Arsenal goal. A gift. A weak back header put Giroud through. The Frenchman wasted the chance, but Walcott followed up calmly beating a man and slotting in from close range with the keeper committed. None of our other wide players would have the pace to get there, and the likes of Gervinho would not have remained as calm when the chance came.
Arsenal were suddenly comfortable in possession, and when Podolski broke free on the left, his long cross narrowly missed the onrushing Walcott. Having been in control, Shalke started to look rattled. The Germans suffered a further blow when their energetic full-back Uchida pulled up after matching a Podolski run.
The departure of the Japanese defender would prove influential. A fluid move involving Cazorla, Wilshere and Giroud eventually came to the Podolski on the left, and he immediately wriggled free of the fresh subsitute Hoger and dropped the ball into the six yard box, where it was met emphatically by Giroud with a diving header. Two-nil.
All was going well. After a shaky start Arsenal were on top and cruising. The home support was silenced. The Shalke’s players were visibly disheartened. This was a chance for the team to play themselves back in form.
Then bang. In first-half injury time Cazorla slipped in midfield, not for the first or last time on a well-watered pitch, that suited the home sides longer studs. Within two passes the ball had arrived at Huntelaar’s feet and the expert marksman didn’t waste the chance, striking an efficient finish into the far corner with his supposedly weaker foot.
It felt crucial at the time, and ultimately changed the game.
Into the second half. The Germans, buoyed by their talisman’s goal, upped the tempo and physicality of their game. This urgency inspired the home support, who once again found their voice, putting pressure on the officials at every opportunity.
This nearly paid off when Huntelaar, though marginally offside, was allowed to run through and shoot, but Mannone made the save, to general surprise. Throughout the second period Arsenal got nothing from the match officials, and a couple of influential decisions went against us.
The first moment of controversy occurred when Hoger went down injured having twisted his ankle chasing Podolski, and the referee blew up with the Arsenal man through on the left of the area with runners in the middle. A clear chance denied, and totally inconsistent officiating by a referee who had earlier played on when Wilshere stayed down after a late knock on his ankle. A frustrated Podolski was booked for protesting by the Italian official.
More crucial was the decision five minutes later. The referee blew up to allow Hoger to belatedly be substituted when Arsenal had won ball and were on the attack. The home side declined to return possession to their guests, and eventually scored from that possession. A cross from the left was met by an awful header from the otherwise excellent Lewis Holtby, but fell directly at the feet of Farfan, who rifled it in via Vermaelen’s attempted goal-line clearance.
The time elapsed seemed to make players and officials forget whose passing had been interrupted. That is not to say it wasn’t thoroughly deserved on the balance of play, but I wasn’t happy.
On the field, Shalke had expended most of their energy getting level, as Arsenal had trying to keep them at arm’s length. Despite the odd sporadic foray forwards, the game petered out to a conclusion both sides might have taken at the start.
There was, however, still time for a possible defining moment. In the 94th minute, Walcott, feeding on scraps, managed to muscle his way through the defence. Surrounded by three converging defenders, he toe-poked it goalwards, trying to nutmeg the goalkeeper, who was almost on top of him. It hit Lars Unnerstall’s back heel and fell to safety.
Like the overall performance, it was nearly, but not quite.
In the end Arsenal held on for a vital point, having surrendered a two goal lead for only the second time in the Champion’s League, twelve years after they did so against Schalke’s nemesis, Bayern Munich. The result keeps Arsenal ahead of Olympiakos by that margin, despite the Greeks’ win against Monptellier.
The home side had dominated possession, applied more pressure in attack, and had generally been the better side. They had also looked dangerous from set-pieces throughout, due more to excellent delivery than Arsenal’s zonal marking system.
Equally Arsene’s management was also not as proactive as it should have been. In the second half we offered little going forward, bar a couple of wasteful efforts from Cazorla and Giroud either side of Shalke’s equaliser and Walcott hitting the post when incorrectly flagged offside. In a finely poised tactical battle, Wenger’s reluctance to utilise his bench until the 90th minute was criminal. It implies either a total lack of initiative, or a lack of trust in his bench, neither of which is good enough for a club of Arsenal’s stature.
In normal circumstances an away point in the Champion’s League is nothing to be sniffed at, but it will do nothing to dispel the growing groundswell of supporters who feel they aren’t getting value for money. Financial prudence, responsible investment and long term planning aren’t inspiring to a fan base who sees its rivals disappearing towards the finish line.
Many feel that the incumbent President of the United States faces a similar perception problem, and tonight the world watches to see if he will have the chance to prove his doubters wrong.
Let’s just hope for a more conclusive outcome in the battle for the White House.------------
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