The doubts after Arsenal’s double home disappointment to Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea in the Champions League and Capital One Cup respectively have subsided – the Gunners’ impressive victory over Liverpool has seen the talk return to a title challenge, and Arsène Wenger’s side go to Dortmund ready to win a second big test in what Olivier Giroud referred to as ‘crucial November’.
It wasn’t just the way that Arsenal played against Liverpool that encourages onlookers, but the way in which they responded to the previous defeats. Other Arsenal sides have wilted in the past and lost all confidence after a couple of defeats. Not this team – they got back on the horse and wiped it from their minds. They’ve learned their lessons.
An important factor in that is continuity – the core of this team has been together for a long time, and has learned together and learned from every defeat. In the past, Arsenal teams would repeat mistakes over and over, but this team knows better. Every defeat is a reason to improve, and having a gelled squad that is comfortable with each other – especially with Arsenal’s pinball style of football – is vital.
Speaking of Arsenal’s style, despite being renowned for passing the ball, their average possession per game has dropped this year, and they sit just above mid-table in that regard. However, while before, when Arsenal lost possession, they would struggle to keep out the opposition - now they can sit back without the ball and know that they can frustrate the other team.
Previous Arsenal sides may have controlled the ball more, but this Arsenal side controls matches. They were irritated to concede a winner on the counter to Dortmund in the home game, after which Aaron Ramsey said they would be “more streetwise” in Germany, and you’d expect the Gunners to follow up on that.
This seems a much more mature Arsenal side that has the know-how to succeed at the top level. The stability of having a group play together for a couple of seasons is important to that, especially at the back – Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker have formed a mean partnership that recently kept out Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge with minimum fuss, while Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs are both playing well this season.
There’s much more of an emphasis on tight defensive shape at Arsenal these days – Arsène Wenger could be seen frantically waving on the touchline at 2-0 up vs Liverpool in order to get his team to tighten up. Shape off the ball is another area that’s helped by continuity; not only have they refined their shape over two seasons, but the attacking players are all on the same wavelength. That means Arsenal can sit back in a compact shape before attacking fluidly when they win the ball back.
It all started in Germany last season – keen to avoid their high line being exposed as it was against Tottenham a week before, Wenger and his staff advised his defence to drop deeper and play less openly at the back. It worked perfectly and they haven’t looked back since the 2-0 victory at the Allianz Arena.
Now Arsenal travel to the home of the Champions League runners-up, looking to confirm their status as one of the big boys in Europe as well as England. They may be high on confidence, but it’s hard to chalk that down to form – that form was disrupted by the back-to-back defeats, and the way they responded demonstrated that they are mature and have faith in their collective ability. Wenger’s men will be hoping to continue recovering from that minor blip by putting in a fluid but crucially intelligent performance in Dortmund.