19 February 2014

Forget scoring. Flamini is key to keeping a clean sheet.

For as much emphasis as there's been on Mesut Özil facing off against his counterparts in the German national team, it's overshadowed a little bit the importance of the other off-season acquisition and his contributions to our form this season. Don't get be wrong; it would be fantastic to see Özil eviscerating the Bayern defense with pass after incisive pass, leading to goal after goal. However, it's far more likely that the outcome will depend more on our ability to withstand Bayern's impressive attack, which has generated 57 goals in 21 matches, averaging nearly three per game. Mathieu Flamini, therefore, along with a back-five that should include Szczesny, Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker, and Sagna, may play a larger role than anyone in a more-attacking role.

Drawing on our recent clashes with Liverpool as the most-recent and perhaps most-relevant comparisons, Flamini's absence from the Anfield Anomaly was just one of several telling differences as Liverpool found ways to slice us apart with through-balls and countterattacks. Of course, in the first ten minutes or so of the FA Cup match, we looked just as vulnerable until settling down into a steadier rhythm and shape. It's unlikely that Bayern's attackers will be as wasteful as Liverpool's were, but the instructive part here is Flamini's role. At Anfield, Wilshere played alongside Arteta and registered zero tackles, one interception, three fouls, and a yellow card as we were overrun. Part of this may have
Arsenal player-positions vs Liverpool  (at Anfield)
been his own lack of defensive discipline and awareness as Wilshere is too prone to neglecting his defensive role and then overcompensating with aggressive challenges. He (#10) and Arteta (8) ended up playing high up the pitch, just above midfield. Combined with the more-advanced roles that Sagna (3) and Gibbs (17) also played, this left a large gap in front of our back four, which helps to explain our struggles at Anfield.

By contrast, in the FA Cup-clash, Flamini played alongside Arteta, and he delivered four tackles, two fouls, and a yellow card. While these numbers don't tell a story dramatically different from Wilshere's, Flamini's position on the pitch does. Wilshere, more interested in pushing the ball up the pitch, might contribute a bit more to the attack, but he does so while exposing the defense on the counter. Witness his dispossession against Man U, which led to van Persie's sharply driven header. In the background of the action, Wilshere trots back even as he sees the attack, involving Rooney and van Persie, unfold. With Flamini, for as much as we might lose on the attack, we seem to gain that much more on defense. His preference for staying closer to the defense shielded them much more thoroughly, which forced Liverpool to abandon targeted through-balls and attempt longer balls
Arsenal player-positions vs. Liverpool (Emirates)
through the air, which Per and Kos were able to handle more easily, not having to outrun Sterling, Suarez, or Sturridge to get to them. Arteta (8) is essentially in the same position as he was at Anfield, hovering around midfield, but Flamini (20) has dropped quite a bit deeper than Wilshere played. This closes down the space between he and Koscielny and prevented Liverpool from exploiting that gap.

In both matches, the possession-statistics were the same: Liverpool held the ball 57% of the time. However, whereas they took 22 shots (12 on-target) at Anfield, we were able to limit to 15 (7 on target) at the Emirates. While that's not an Earth-shattering difference, it does show that we were better at denying shots in the first place and in pushing them to shoot further-out. While Flamini doesn't deserve sole-credit for the differing outcomes, his role did lend more shape and grit to a side that was sorely lacking in both areas.

Speaking ahead of the match, Wilshere had this to say:
We have spoken about the importance of staying in the game and if it’s 0-0 at home, we will still have a big chance to qualify. The away-goal is massive in this competition when it comes to these big games, and we saw that last year when we went out on away-goals. This year we have to be a bit more intelligent and stay in the game.
Those away-goals matter a great deal in the Champions League. In each of the last three seasons, we've come achingly close to advancing, especially last season when it was the away-goals that made all the difference. If we can keep the clean-sheet that Wilshere is calling for, anything can happen. I'm sad to say, then, that I hope Wilshere doesn't get to walk the talk on Wednesday; we don't need two foul-prone, fiesty defensive midfielders, each of whom could get sent off. For as much as I adore him, I prefer that he rest instead as Flamini pairs with Rosický, whose guile, drive, and awareness offer a strong balance of defense and attack as we batten down the hatches and perhaps look to score.

Right. Kick-off in a matter of hours. Let's start strong, and finish stronger.