Robert Lewandowski’s late second half winner earned Borussia Dortmund an important victory at the Emirates Stadium.
Arsene Wenger made two changes to the side that thrashed Norwich City over the weekend. Aaron Ramsey partnered Mikel Arteta in the double-pivot for the injured Mathieu Flamini, while Olivier Giroud led the line ahead of Mesut Ozil, Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere.
Jurgen Klopp made four changes to his starting eleven, introducing Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer into the backline. Robert Lewandowski led the line ahead of Marco Reus, Jakub Blaszczykowski, and Henrik Mkhitaryan, while Nuri Sahin and Sven Bender played in the double-pivot.
This was a fairly even match between two sides playing identical systems – Kevin Grosskreutz’s impact on the right flank was decisive, while Dortmund’s ability to contain central areas nullified Arsenal’s strength in midfield.
A key component in Arsenal’s success over the past few weeks has been their ability to overload the midfield. They field three proficient ball passers behind Giroud aiming to outnumber their opponents in central areas, and create openings with their intelligent movement. Klopp was wary of this heading into this fixture and his sides shape without the ball displayed that.
Both sides kept a high-defensive line when dropping into two narrow banks of four, as the two holding midfielders sat closer to their backline, and the wide players tucked in to limit spaces in midfield. This forced the attacking midfielders to drop into deeper positions to get on the ball and build attacks. Frankly, neither side was willing to concede space in central areas, thus leading to a congested midfield.
Nevertheless, this was an intriguing situation, as Arsenal’s narrowness led to their downfall a few weeks ago against West Brom, and it would be interesting to see whether Wenger had another attacking option.
Dominance in midfield was always going to be pivotal, but Dortmund’s work ethic off the ball was significant. Lewandowski pressed the Arsenal centre backs, while Mkhitaryan stayed close to Arteta. The Armenian midfielder did help Lewandowski press when needed, which created a 3v2 situation at the back, in the favour of Arsenal, as Ramsey positioned himself a few yards forward.
However, despite Arsenal’s numerical advantage in their third of the pitch, Wenger’s men failed to play out of the back freely. Wenger noticed his sides inability to push forward fluently through midfield, so he instructed his attacking three to drop deeper, but Dortmund comfortably coped with this issue.
Bender and Sahin applied pressure on the spare midfielder in the double-pivot, while Blaszczykowski and Reus pressed the attacking midfielders who attempted to tuck into space around the flanks. Arsenal occasionally broke through Dortmund’s press, but Dortmund’s approach without the ball was superb, which ultimately nullified Arsenal’s attempt to dominate the midfield.
Space for fullbacks
With both sides maintaining a relatively narrow shape – along with wide men keen on drifting centrally – the onus was on the fullbacks to provide width. But in the opening 15 minutes of the match, the delivery from all four fullbacks was dire. Coincidentally, the quality from wide areas improved slightly as the match progressed and all three goals stemmed from fullbacks attacking the large amount of space available.
- Schmelzer drove forward from his half to play the ball to Reus who picked up a central position. Ramsey intercepted Reus’ pass to Lewandowski, but the German attacker worked hard to win the ball back. Reus then played a pass to Lewandowski, who laid the ball off to Mkhitaryan, to fire past Wojciech Szczesny.
- Albeit his poor delivery in the opening minutes, Sagna drove forward and produced a scintillating cross into the box, which led to a miscommunication between Neven Subotic and Roman Weidenfeller. Giroud was on the prowl and quickly pounced on the defensive error, tapping the ball into the net from four-yards out.
More so, in the second half Dortmund were aware of the danger posed from wide areas, thus resulting in Blaszczykowski and Reus being cautious about getting forward. It was more evident when Ozil took up a wider role, continuously attempting to overload Schmelzer, but Klopp’s men coolly dealt with the situation.
However, unlike Dortmund’s left side, Wenger failed to react to Grosskreutz’s threat from right back. Grosskreutz’s was Dortmund’s main attacking threat throughout the match – with Gibbs maintaining a narrow position and Rosicky failing to track his runs – and there was no surprise to see his involvement in Lewandowski’s winner.
- Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang played a pass towards Grosskreutz, who stormed down the right flank and played a lovely ball to an unmarked Lewandowski at the far post. Lewandowski waited for the ball to come down, and volleyed it into the near post.
Due to the narrow shape of both sides, attacking space in wide areas was logical. But Wenger’s inability to address Grosskreutz’s threat down the right flank proved to be the difference on the night.
As the second half wore on, there was a general improvement in Arsenal’s game, which saw them dictate the match for a short period. Wilshere – who suffered a few knocks to his ankle – was replaced with Santi Cazorla, leading to a few alterations in Arsenal’s shape.
As stated earlier, Ozil picked up a position out wide, Rosicky played centrally and Cazorla played in a deeper role – essentially roaming across the pitch. In fairness, Dortmund’s decision to introduce Aubameyang and Jonas Hofmann could’ve contributed to Arsenal’s success as they took time to settle into the match.
And while Dortmund’s press looked flustered, Arteta began to dictate the tempo of the match, as Cazorla’s movement and Rosicky dropping deep to provide an extra passing option, opened up space for the Spaniard. Cazorla helped Arsenal sustain possession and push forward with positive passes out to the flanks.
There was a lift in Arsenal’s tempo, but their inability to get behind the Dortmund backline, saw them create minimal chances, as they failed to test Weidenfeller.
Lewandowski stole the headlines with his match winner, despite having one of the quieter performances of his career.
Unlike Giroud, who battered his way through the flanks to get his side into dangerous positions, Lewandowski struggled – frankly some believe he was lucky to stay on the pitch, after unintentionally elbowing Laurent Koscielny.
Nonetheless, the Polish striker displayed why he’s renowned for his all-around link up play and it proved to be pivotal. Lewandowski has a knack of dropping deep into midfield to get his teammates involved with the play, along with guiding them higher up the pitch. This feat led to his winning goal – the Polish striker did well to hold up the ball, subsequently laying it off to Sahin, and made a run towards the far post to connect with Grosskreutz’s cross.
Although Kosicelny and Per Mertesacker contained Lewandowski for large portions of the match, his willingness to press the Arsenal defenders when they had the ball and his occasional link up play, helped his side earn three valuable points.
This was a vintage away performance from Klopp’s men – they combined energetic pressing with quick transitions and their two goals showcased their magnificent work.
It would be difficult to criticize Arsenal, as they didn’t play bad, but Wenger’s naivety towards Grosskreutz’s threat, along with their inability to penetrate in the final third led to their downfall.
“My team gave their all. We started very well, had fantastic work-rate when not in possession and created some superb counterattacking situations for ourselves. Then we took a 1-0 lead, but Arsenal are too strong to contain for the whole time. However, they didn’t end up having that many chances,” Klopp said.
Both teams then battled hard against each other, but we were always alert and ready to decide the game with one attack. After that happened, we did a great job, especially in the last eight minutes. It was a great performance, we were very mature,” he added.
The importance of winning your home matches in a difficult group is often overlooked, but Klopp will know that this victory puts his side in a great position to advance to the knockout round, as they’ll fancy their chances against Arsenal and Napoli at home.