Arsenal arrived in Napoli knowing they had to leave with nothing more than a 2 goal deficit. That is not the best recipe for a winning performance, we have seen it in the past. Not just by us but by many other teams.
The simple fact is that when the CL Group draw was made many of us were contemplating whether it would be better to exit in totality or join that other mob on Spursday.
The fact we went into this match in such a strong position is testament to the form of the team this year.
Arsene sent an experienced side on to the pitch, this was probably one of the oldest average age squads we have seen take the field in red and white for quite a long time, only Jenkinson and Szczesny under 25. The game plan was simple soak up pressure, get the ball up to the three of Cazorla, Ozil and Rosicky and try and keep the ball for as long as possible.
To a certain extent the first half was very comfortable, we were rarely threatened and Szczesny was not forced into serious action, the centre of defence was calm and assured with Mertesacker and Koscielny seeming to build on their growing confidence together, if Mertesacker didn’t win first ball then Koscielny swept round with consumate ease. We even managed to have an effort or two of our own, Giroud denied after some lovely build up play.
But in the main this was a game of containment, Napoli were quick to pressure us with the ball, giving away a number of small fouls which the experienced heads were winning to take pressure off us.
At half time I was quite content, whilst we hadn’t created much we had not conceded many chances and a point looked assured. I was pretty sure Napoli could not keep up the intensity of their press for the next forty five minutes.
How wrong could I be? Napoli seemed to come out energised perhaps by knowing the scoreline in France and that even a 1 goal win would see them progress, they came out firing and we found it harder to keep the ball and harder to shift our defensive line up the pitch.
There were a few reasons for this:
a) Typical Italian Centre Half play preventing Giroud from bringing down the high ball.
b) More hurried long ball clearances in the second half rather than finding feet as we had done in the first half, meaning the quality of ball up the pitch was poor an coming straight back at us. This was because we were lacking options in front of the back 4, several times Mertesacker, Jenkinson, Gibbs and Koscielny were faced with three yellow shirts in front of them and no movement to find an angle from Arteta or Flamini. This got worse after Arteta’s dismissal.
c) Not shifting the line up the pitch, when we were in possession, this is maybe where Arteta’s weakness as a defensive midfielder highlights Flamini’s strength. Flamini was imploring his teammates to move forward with him to press Napoli higher up the pitch, with Arteta refusing to budge from a position ten yards in front of the centre halfs there were large gaps for Napoli to play in and leaving us defending our eighteen yard box.
Back to the game, Napoli got their breakthrough with 70 minutes on the clock, Higuain fed too easily inside the box and allowed to turn and shoot in one motion and he found the bottom corner.
Arteta effectively took away any chance of an equaliser by earning himself a second yellow card, admittedly Callejon earned a row of 10′s for the triple summersault tucked salko that followed marginal contact, but I would expect Arteta to know better, I sometimes suspect he thinks the captains armband exempts him from soft yellow cards.
Meanwhile Szczesny was doing his best to waste time at every opportunity, despite Arsene’s protestations from the sideline for him to “Play”. I was glad I saw Arsene doing that because it tells us who was responsible for the mentality shown on the pitch. More work to be done by Arsene on instilling the philosophy.
Most surprising that down to ten men and a goal down Napoli didn’t go for the jugular, they had one guaranteed way to progress, win by three, but they played it around at the back content to win 1-0 and hope Marseille could hold out.
As news filtered through that Dortmund were ahead Napoli pressed as hard as they could and found a second goal with a minute of injury time to play, Jenkinson allowing a pass round his body and Mertesacker outpaced in behind, Szczesny advancing on a bouncing ball all conspired to give Napoli the slimmest of hopes.
Thankfully the referee feeling guilty for his part in the last twenty minutes called a halt to the game within seconds of the restart.
Through to the knockout stages…again, but second in the group, at the end of the day you have to beat good teams to win this competition, if we think we can win the tournament, an easy tie in the first knockout makes no difference, if we think we can’t win it surely better to be done and dusted early?
More important is the trip to Manchester on Saturday lunchtime, rest those legs and figure out how we are going to set about them. I predict a few changes across the midfield and perhaps a run out for Theo.
Written by Gooner in Exile