The Arsenal Column

Arsenal Analysis and Tactics. All views expressed are those of Pat Rice. (Disclaimer: they are actually not his words).

Borussia Dortmund treat Arsenal to a taste of their medicine

In the end there were two Arsenals: the one fromNorth London and the one from the westernmost region of Germany. Both teams tried to play the same way but for a long time last night, Borussian Dortmund out-Arsenaled The Gunners and did everything the way they would have wanted to. In the end, Arsenal will be content with the draw although it leaves with a bit of a sour taste due to the way it came; Ivan Perišić’s wonder goal from the edge of the box came on the 88th minute. For Dortmund though, it was a spectacular way to mark their return to the biggest stage but it was the way they played, that ensured that their return is warranted.

Jurgen Klopp’s side outclassed Arsenal but for profligacy in front of goal, we could have seen a different result. For much of the match they had The Gunners boxed inside – partly due to the way Arsenal were set up – but also because of asphyxiating pressure they put them under. Dortmund pressed – very hard – and it seemingly looked as if they wouldn’t let up. Indeed, they couldn’t because their game plan hinged on stopping Arsenal getting forward so that they themselves could spend as much time in the opponents half as much as possible. When it didn’t pay off – such as a spell of ten minutes in the second-half and around an hour or so – they panicked. But other than that, Dortmund were superb.

They pressed high up the pitch, never letting the defence play the ball out from the back and quickly putting pressure on Arsenal’s sole holding midfielder, Alex Song. They created a line when they didn’t have the ball and that made it hard for Arsenal to pass through. It was particularly effective when it got wide as they suffocated Bakary Sagna for space and closed down his passing options. At full-back, there’s a limited number of passing options you can make as the square ball to your stronger side is effectively null (because of the touchline). And whenever they got the ball, the movement was intelligent and incisive, Mario Gotze in particular was a handful, drifting in from the left but the real plus was the return in form of Shinji Kagawa who ran the channels very well as the “false 10”.

Arsenal’s problems, however, were as much self-inflicted as Dortmund’s mechanical pressing forced them. They played a high-line which BVB constantly sought to get men beyond but it was a lack of cohesion in front that was the real cause of the trouble. Arsenal’s 4-3-3 isn’t the real problem although in this game, there were valid assertions that they should have gone with a 4-2-3-1. Perhaps an available Arséne Wenger in the dugouts would have altered the team as he did in the second-half against Swansea. But the overriding flaw in Arsenal’s game is that it just doesn’t work – you can’t not press and play a high line at the same time – and for that you can accuse Wenger of tactical naivety. Maybe it’s just that; that he’s trying to account for his team’s youthfulness that sees him focusing firstly on shape before they press but that merely invites the opposition at them.

At Signal Iduna Park, Arsenal allowed Dortmund to stride forward with ball from the back and as the midfield attempted to organise itself in their own half, the back four pushed up at the same time. As a result, the two nearly collapsed on top of each other to become one indistinguishable band.Dortmund pushed their full-backs further up the pitch penning Arsenal in their own half and that meant the formation almost became a 7-3. As it showed; you can’t not press and play a high a line at the same time; they’re two incompatible beings.Dortmund showed how it should have been done, pushing the excellent Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic forward and the midfield and attack pressing high up the pitch as a unit. Sebastian Kehl’s error for Arsenal’s goal showed the risks an expansive game has as ironically, it was one of the few times Arsenal closed down high up the pitch that the opener came from. Theo Walcott’s pass to find Robin van Persie after a neat interchange was wonderfully weighted.

That was one of the few good moments from Arsenal and considering the pressure they were put under, they defended with their backs-to-the-wall superbly. And at periods their passing was snappy and direct but that was mixed with some woefully inaccurate ones too. Strong individual performances go to Laurent Koscielny and Song who recovered from nervy starts while Mikel Arteta showed the assurance Arsenal need technically as well as tactically even if it wasn’t the dominant performance he was signed for.

However, despite the nature of the performance and the end result, the fact that a second anxious game in a row didn’t result in a defeat will see Arsenal’s confidence grow. If that keeps happening, Arsenal will surely recover their former glories. And who knows, maybe then they will reach the level that Borussia Dortmund showed in UEFA Champions League Match Day 1!

Next Up: Chalkboard Analysis – How Dortmund pressed Arsenal’s full-backs and the problem with Wenger’s defensive strategy.

Filed under: Match Analysis

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11 Responses to “Borussia Dortmund treat Arsenal to a taste of their medicine”

  1. TotalArsenal says:

    What a great post. Your analysis is spot on and very insightful. Food for thought!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0


  2. Frode says:

    Indeed this team has a long way to go. How far up is it to the best teams? The distance up to United, is comparable to the distance for Newcastle up to us. (

    It seems to me there is so little ambition. Moving still is regressing, because everybody else is improving. We are supposed to be a possession based attacking team. Then why was our pressing game better and more ambitious last season? How is that Borussia Dortmund could press better than we have practically ever done yesterday? How is it that our supposedly technical players can’t cope with ball pressure? How is it that they looked way more like Barcelona than we did? How is that they ran 10 km more than we did? How is it that we in the second half was so dominated we hardly even managed to counter-attack? Manchester United on the other hand would have severely punished them on the counter, just like they do against us in just about every game.

    Conclusion: Wenger has one heck of a job to do on the training ground.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0


  3. K-TR7 says:

    Good read also like to add that yesterday showed how much we missed sicky/jack and to an extent diaby.what they have that we lacked is their ability to deal with intense pressure.jack/sicky normally take a touch or no touch at all,swivel and turn away from pressure into the space behind that first wave.jack especially as he showed against barça.diaby can shrug off challenges and evade pressure through a feint and dash.we sorely lacked those qualities yesterday and as a result benny/arteta passed the ball back/sideways alot isolating our attack.thats why we need the 3 of them back asap for our attack to improve especially against intense pressing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1


  4. naz says:

    Arteta was super. He offers a defensive presence in addition to his creativity. He needs a few games to get the class oozing, but he has a good work rate and showed that he isnt afraid of a challenge.

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  5. david seago says:

    even though i think Arteta is an excellent player, we didn’t see him come and ‘offer’ to the back four as much as he might do in a month’s time. I say this because i think he’s used to Everton playing more long balls out of the defence. I know that Dortmund pressed us well, but for example, when Gibbs had the ball, he invariably had to turn and go back to Koscielny (or make a vertical pass to Gervinho). When it would have been better for us to have Arteta come short, and have RVP drop deeper, with Walcott on the opposite side starting in a more narrow position. Then as the ball is passed accross the back four, Gervinho then takes up the narrower position on the opposite side (with Gibbs providing the width).
    This says to me that they are not as confident as they should be yet, but it will come, hopefully we can beat Blackburn and Bolton in the meantime so by the time we get to the Spurs game we’re in better shape, and more confident.
    One of the reasons i think there is a discordance between the midfield and the back four (i.e the mentioning of the 7-3 formation when pushing up) is because they’re not as confident as they should be in their back four, but this should change with performances like yesterday. The midfield need to not just improve the pressure they exert but also they’re postitions when they’re not pressing because there are too many gaps. But as the column suggests to play a high line and not exert presure on the ball is basically footballing suicide, andwe’re lucky not to have conceded more goals last night.
    But ultimately i feel more positive about our situation. desperatley miss Wilshere though. Imagine us playing an important game without Fabregas or Wilshere last year? we’d be in big trouble, and that’s what we’re doing now.
    Onwards and upwards though (been a while since i’ve said that)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0


    California Gooner Reply:

    In fact, Arteta didn’t offer himself much to anyone… that is something I looked for. When Cesc is playing, the fact that he always gave an outlet to the passer was probably as important as the passes he himself made. It meant that we kept possession and the ball kept moving. I looked for Arteta to do the same, but too often our man with the ball would only have one passing option or two, which made us too easy to close down. Anyhow, good observation David and great post, as well.

    @david seago,

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0


    Arsenal Column Reply:

    @david seago and California Gooner,

    On reflection, I feel I may have been harsh to focus on Arsenal from an attacking viewpoint ( although that’s the standard we expect and this season we’ve been well below) because at the back, we were very resilient. Even if that resilience was being pushed very far back and belies Arsenal’s status as 1st seeds and Dortmund 4th.

    In regards to Arteta, in the periods where Arsenal gained in confidence with the ball i.e. sporadic spells in the first-half and early in the second, he dropped back to try and pick up the ball from deep. But yes, he didn’t do it as well as he or rather, the team should have.

    We often talked about how Barcelona avoid the press by having options and stretching the play; we did the latter length wise instead of laterally. Barca spread the centre-backs and watching United tonight v Benfica, they did it too, nearly dropping Carrick or Fletcher as the “centre-half” in the traditional sense. We need more options because right now, to avoid the press, we try to push players up when all it does is make it harder to get through the line with short passing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0


    The Brain Reply:

    @Arsenal Column,

    Actually, if we add statistics to this, you guys are actually right. Arteta didn’t offer himself enough on the ball – in fact, Benayoun did more.

    Passes Received: 23
    Passes Attempted/Completed: 29/21 (72%)

    Passes Received: 34
    Passes Attempted/Completed: 41/29 (71%)

    Passes Received: 33
    Passes Attempted/Completed: 46/31 (67%)

    Arsenal Total
    Passes Attempted/Completed: 482/317 (66%)

    Here’s the link:

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0


  6. dean smith says:

    looking forward to seeing the rest of the Analysis,!!!!!! About the the problem with Wenger’s defensive strategy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0


  7. Gennie says:

    @Brain, the analysis is good, but I would take issue with players rather than the formation. You could also say that Wenger did not choose the right combination of players. Last night, if you exclude the back four, only van Persie, Song and Arteta could be described as technical players. Benayoun, Walcott and Gervinho fall short. As a result playing tippy tappy football was not that easy. For, when Song receives the ball from defence basically he has only Arteta to look for (i.e. he has few options to pass to), van Persie is (was) too high up to offer help. Last season and the one before, Wilshere, Cesc, Denilson (despite the stick he got from fans) and Diaby were very good at opening up, finding space to receive the ball, and their technical skills and off ball movement allowed them to get away from opponents. Walcott and Gervinho (though much better than Walcott on the ball) are a bad combination. I would go as far as to say playing them both deprives the team of creativity, it is much worse if you then have Frimpong along Song as we saw against Udinese.

    Presently, the options for playing tik-taka is to play one of Gervinho or Walcott on one wing, the other wings should be occupied by Young, Santos, Benayoun, Rosicky or AA23. In the absence of Wilshere, Coquelin (instead of Frimpong) should be behind Arteta or Rosicky or Ramsey (both in front of Arteta). If Wenger was flexible enough, he would play Santos behind Arteta / Rambo / AA23 when Wilshere is absent. The Wilshere position needs some body who has good ball skills (as Santos is) to relieve pressure from Song and defenders (that is what Wilshere and Cesc used to do last season when the opposition were pressing high). I am given to believe his driving runs, ala Diaby, would particularly be effective in drawing the opposition to him and creating space for others to receive a pass. Diaby when he comes back can also do that .

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  8. Woolwich Peripatetic says:

    The focus on shape rather than pressing I think has a lot to do with unfamiliarity of the players with each other. The horror show at OT highlighted the problems when half the team plays a pressing game and the other tries to play a positioning based defensive strategy.
    For all the flaws with our defensive strategy it is more infuriating that our defence, when it concentrates on snuffing out opponents is highly effective.

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