Alexis Sanchez and David Ospina’s heroic performances earned Arsenal a valuable point against a superior Paris Saint-Germain side.
Arsene Wenger recalled Alexis back to the XI following a 2-1 victory over Southampton on the weekend. Alex Iwobi replaced the injured Theo Walcott meaning Olivier Giroud started the match from the bench.
Unai Emery’s 4-3-3 featured Angel Di Maria and Blaise Matuidi flanking Edinson Cavani. Meanwhile Marco Verratti and Adrien Rabiot operated as shuttlers ahead of Gregory Krychowiak.
PSG dominance was showcased over extensive periods of this match, but their profligate finishing combined with Arsenal’s resilience provided an entertaining draw.
It’s difficult to assess the significance of an early goal. Many tend to believe that it gives the superior team the onus to either increase their lead by exploiting the oppositions nerves, or provides the luxury to maintain a compact defensive shape and break on the counter. But the simplicity over PSG’s opener, here, was alarming.
PSG took the lead within the opening minute through a simple passing move where Serge Aurier stormed past Iwobi, and Di Maria’s movement pulled Laurent Koscielny out of position, thus enabling Cavani to attack the right-back’s cross at the near post. Perhaps the early goal highlights Arsenal’s lack of preparation, but surprisingly it didn’t alter the general pattern of the match.
It would be foolish for Wenger’s men to chase a game after falling behind in the opening 45 seconds, but the French side were less eager to swarm the Gunners higher up the pitch. However, the goal presented Wenger’s men with a stylistic dilemma as to whether they should persist with their initial approach – the XI suggested they intended to play on the counter – or push men forward away from home.
Arsenal’s attacking issue
The decision to field Alexis as a central forward has been quite interesting solely based on the notion that his all-round talent should transcend in central areas. This season, however, the Chilean’s difficulties as the lone striker is evident, which is partially down to his style and Wenger’s approach.
PSG’s centre-backs were pleased to see Alexis drop into midfield in search of possession – if Ozil was deeper Krychowiak would pick him up, or else Marquinhos would step forward and tightly mark the Arsenal forward. Alexis was an isolated figure throughout the first half, yet when he did receive the ball en route to goal, the wide players nor Ozil attempted to charge behind the PSG defence to offer a goal threat.
Ozil was often marked out of the match by Krychowiak and when he moved to the left, Verratti shifted to ensure Arsenal couldn’t create overloads. Iwobi and Oxlade-Chamberlain solely posed a threat when they carried the ball in transition, but rarely threatened during spells of possession. And while the full-backs rarely surged forward to offer width, both Monreal and Hector Bellerin lacked a focal point to deliver crosses to within the box.
With their key attackers struggling to find space in the final third, and the double-pivot swarmed in possession, the away side created few chances from open play. There were no aerial targets in the box which explains minimal crosses from the wide players, and PSG’s narrow defensive shape easily coped with Arsenal’s attempt to play quick intricate passes in central areas to bypass their back-line.
Aurier dominates right aids PSG
Although PSG monopolized more possession than the Gunners, neither side truly posed danger to the opposition from open play in the first half – a worry for Arsenal who scored both goals over the weekend via set-pieces. Rabiot and Verratti harried Cazorla and Coquelin out of possession, and then cycled the ball into wide areas opposed to playing penetrative passes beyond the Arsenal back-line.
This wasn’t necessarily an issues for PSG as they outmuscled and out-passed the Gunners in midfield, but their possession superiority suggested perhaps Emery’s men could have been more adventurous in the opposition’s half. Despite PSG’s inability to maintain Emery’s demanding energy levels to press and regain possession in Arsenal’s half, the French side cleverly combined and created overloads in wide areas.
Ultimately, the key player throughout was Aurier. The Ivorian created Cavani’s opener, yet he also surged into space behind Iwobi to constantly provide an outlet from the right flank. The Arsenal youngster failed to track Aurier’s running from right-back, and his first involvement subsequent to the opening goal was a quality cross through the six-yard box that forced Shkodran Mustafi to clear his lines for a corner.
Wenger’s attempt to fix the issue resulted in Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi swapping flanks, yet Aurier’s threat persisted against the former and Nacho Monreal. The first attempt rolled into the side netting, whereas David Ospina was quick off his line to keep Arsenal in the match.
Aurier was undoubtedly one of PSG’s few goal-scoring outlets, here, as the right-back he drifted into key areas in the final third on several occasions and was unfortunate not to increase the French side’s lead.
Where Aurier was the game’s key player, Cavani was heavily involved in the overall outcome. The summer departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic presented the opportunity for the Uruguayan to play in his preferred central role, but Cavani’s developed a habit of squandering great big game chances during his spell in Paris.
For the most part, Cavani’s performance, here, was peculiar: where his movement was exceptional, the finishing was woeful. The Uruguayan played off the back-line’s last shoulder to receive lofted balls from midfield. Wenger’s defence were poorly organized and easily pulled out of position which proved beneficial to the hosts.
First, Verratti shrugged off Coquelin’s challenge before his reverse ball was deflected into the path of Cavani who rounded David Ospina, but guided his shot wide of the net. Cavani then made a quick diagonal dart between Bellerin and Mustafi to chest down Di Maria’s chipped pass over the top, but he failed to make contact.
Cavani broke past Koscielny twice in the final 20 minutes of the match, but the keeper was quick off his line to deny the PSG striker from point blank range. In truth, Cavani’s profligacy in the final third proved costly, and it’s difficult to determine the current issue with the striker.
The best forwards in the world execute in 1v1 situations with the keeper, and though Cavani was once capable of doing so, his current issues in front of goal is plaguing PSG’s growth during this transitional period. Many strikers can learn from the movement that flustered the Arsenal back-line, but the finishing was surely forgettable.
Wenger makes personnel changes/Substitutes
Wenger’s substitution was evidently a key facet, here, and it may have been inspired by Alexis creating Arsenal’s best chance – the Chilean dropped into a pocket of space in the left channel, but his reverse ball into Oxlade-Chamberlain resulted in a last-ditch Thiago Silva tackle. Wenger subsequently brought on Giroud for Oxlade-Chamberlain and than Granit Xhaka for Coquelin, meaning Alexis moved to the left.
Xhaka’s physical stature and ball retention helped the Gunners sustain possession in PSG’s half, whereas Giroud presented a threat to the PSG centre-backs and kept them within the box when they retreated into their deeper second half base shape. More so, the minor alterations benefitted Alexis who freely occupied pockets of space on the left before charging forward to play reverse passes to advanced runners.
Alexis’ movement into this zone, along with his ability to shrug off Krychowiak’s challenge was pivotal to his equalizer. The Chilean dispossessed Motta and ignited a break down the left shortly afterwards that should have won the match for the Gunners, but Iwobi was denied a historic match-winner.
Aurier’s constant involvement during the first 70 minutes was superb, but as the match wore on, the right-back’s reluctance to track back into position also provided space for Alexis to exploit on the counter. With the Gunners pushing for a winner, Motta equally struggled to cope with their pressing, whereas Pastore’s introduction saw the Argentine create Cavani’s final chance that Ospina palmed away.
Furthermore, Wenger’s changes shifted the balance of match in the second half and it was fitting that Ozil and Alexis were involved in the equalizer considering the initial set-up limited their influence. Alexis offered penetration and intelligent movement, which thus led to runners springing beyond the Chilean to provide service, whilst providing space to run at defenders from deep.
Although this is the group-stage round, sometimes a bit of fortune is required to gain results in Europe. Arsenal were nowhere near the best in Paris, but they displayed the resilience and fight that’s consistently been missing within Wenger’s side.
It must be said that Wenger’s decision to leave Xhaka and Giroud on the bench was odd, but he deserves credit for making the required changes to gain ascendancy. The defence still lacks familiarity, a Cazorla-Coquelin midfield is possibly to light to function as a midfield duo in Europe, whereas Giroud remains integral to Wenger’s setup. Still, this was Arsenal’s toughest match of the group and Wenger will take the point and aim to locate the correct balance throughout the XI.
Emery must be wondering how his side didn’t record maximum points following their dominant display throughout the opening 70 minutes. Ultimately matches between the best sides are defined by small margins, as the combination of Ospina’s heroics and Cavani’s poor finishing provided Arsenal a lifeline to nick a point. It appears Emery will persist with the 4-3-3 that’s been successful in recent years, but with no top class replacement available, the PSG manager must get Cavani back to his ruthless best.