24 February 2015

Arsenal-AS Monaco tactical preview

In six matches, just one goal conceded in the Champions League group-stage—five clean-sheets. A stretch of nine Ligue 1 matches without conceding a goal, and a league-leading 19 goals conceded while keeping 13 clean-sheets in 25 matches. Truly, it seems like Arsenal are going to struggle to get past AS Monaco, a side that rarely, if ever, gives up a goal. And yet, for all of their stalwart-ness on defense, we're overlooking a deficiency at the other end—Monaco scored only four goals in the Champions League group-stage (only two clubs scored fewer, and they finished bottom of their groups) and have managed just 26 goals in those 25 Ligue 1 matches. This might be the most-stubborn defense we've faced in a while, but it's also the most-stupefied offense we'll see in some time.

Graphic courtesy of GuaranteeTickets
What that likely means for Wednesday is a dour, dull affair in which we struggle to break down Monaco's set-up. Against more-powerful sides like PSG and Lyon, they've adopted a 4-5-1 formation in order to crowd the box and dare opponents to shoot from distance. Most often, though, they seem to switch between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, but there doesn't seem to be any strong pattern to why they switch to these formations. In any case, we know that it may be difficult to score against this squad. What's more, given their anemic output, Monaco are almost certain to play for a draw in the first leg and hope for a chance to get a 1-0 in the second.

Then again, if there's any apparent weakness in Monaco's defense, it's through-balls. They allow their Ligue 1 opponents to complete 69.6% of through-balls, second-worst in the league; in the penalty area, that figure rises to 75%. Savor that for a moment. If you're having trouble with it, picture the likes of Welbeck, Alexis, and Walcott sprinting into space behind the defense to collect perfectly weighted passes from the likes of Cazorla and Özil. If Monaco doesn't allow space behind their back-four, packing seven or eight defenders into the box, well, it does seem as if we can still create some chances anyway. For as high-flying as they've been in the Champions League and Ligue 1, it doesn't seem as if they've faced an attack that can bring to bear such passing-accuracy as Arsenal does. That's not to say that we'll carve them open six ways from Sunday, but I do think that we'll find a few ways through.

Taking a closer look at the squad, we'll face off yet again against Dimitar Berbatov, who at 34 leads the club with six goals, and it's worth a quick reminder that he's done well against us in the past, at least well enough to keep an eye on. Elsewhere, manager Leonardo Jardim has a few selection-woes to sort, with first-choice defensive midfielder Jérémy Toulalan suspended, joining the injured Tiemoué Bakayoko (another DM), Andrea Raggi (CB), and Ricardo Carvalho (CB). The potential absence of defnder Layvin Kurzawa might force Jardim to deploy a defensive midfield of Geoffrey Kondogbia and João Moutinho, with 18-year old starlet Almamy Touré potentially making his first-ever start for Monaco at left-back.

Setting aside the trees to consider the forest, it would appear as if Monaco's defense will go in shorn of a few options. If Touré does start, I'd imagine that we'll target him relentlessly and mercilessly. Whether it's Walcott, Welbeck, or Alexis on that right wing, or some awesom-amoeba-esque amalgation of them and others, I suspect that we'll have more than a few chances to (a) dent this squad's reputation for stinginess, (b) avenge our Emirates Cup loss (Falcao scored the winner before leaving for Man U), and (c) convince Arsène that he's better off here than he ever was there, in case there were any lingering doubts. I'm sure it will be a sentimental reunion but one what Arsène would be happy to look past in search of larger goals.

Without slighting AS Monaco, this draw does represent our best chance in years to advance to the Champions League quarter-finals since 2010. After all, in the intervening four years, we've come up against some of Europe's biggest and best only to come up short. This time through, it does look as if we have the upper hand, even if it's Monaco who won their group.

Long story short, we have a golden chance to advance to those quarter-finals, after which it's anyone's guess who we'd draw and how we'd fare. Before we start placing bets on the the quarter-final draw, though, let's make sure we get there.