Arsenal 2-1 Dortmund: Dortmund press excellently but van Persie scores another double

November 23, 2011

The starting line-ups

A fast-paced, technical game ended with Arsenal securing their qualification to the second round.

Arsene Wenger named an unchanged XI from the team that triumphed over Norwich at the weekend.

Jurgen Klopp also made no changes to the side which won 1-0 at Bayern Munich on Saturday.

This was a very enjoyable, even match – Dortmund actually had more attempts (and attempts on target) than Arsenal, but Robin van Persie was yet again the difference.


Dortmund pressed very well against Bayern, and did so to an even greater extent here. Their first half game was reminiscent of Barcelona’s astonishing spell of pressure at the start of the 2-2 draw at the Emirates back in 2009/10, albeit less extreme. They stayed compact, moved forward as a unit and forced the Arsenal players into hurried passes, really testing their first touch under pressure. Some players, like Mikel Arteta, were more than comfortable – others, like Gervinho, were troubled by the close attention.

Because of the pressing, Arsenal took a long time to assert themselves on the game. Although the statistics will show that they enjoyed good possession in the opening minutes, much of this involved the back four playing the ball to each other.

Arsenal midfield

The interesting thing about Dortmund’s positioning when pressing involved Shinji Kagawa – fielded high up as, in effect, a second striker rather than a number ten. Whilst Robert Lewandowski played up against Per Mertesacker, Kagawa looked to close down Thomas Vermaelen (or stop his passing), which showed how brave Dortmund were being. Often, in this situation, a manager will instruct the second striker to drop onto the opposition’s holding midfielder – in Liverpool’s win over Chelsea, for example, Craig Bellamy started the game getting goalside of Jon Obi Mikel.

This meant that Arsenal had, in theory, a numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch. They struggled to make this count in the opening minutes – the midfielders weren’t working hard enough to get into positions to receive the ball, but when Aaron Ramsey started coming deeper, Sven Bender and Sebastien Kehl generally looked to close down he and Arteta, and Song got more time on the ball, having been caught in possession in the first few minutes.

Arsenal could barely play the ball forward from the defence in the opening 15 minutes


Song used his freedom to become Arsenal’s key player. He steadied the ship and stayed much more in position than usual – rarely looking to get ahead of Arteta and Ramsey, as he’s done in recent weeks. It was strange that he created the first goal from a run forward – it was entirely out of keeping with the rest of his performance, as outlined below – it was the only pass he played in the final third. He was excellent defensively, however, completing all five of his attempted tackles and making seven interceptions – in both cases, the most of any player on the pitch.

Song only played one pass in the final third - the assist


Dortmund pressed more than Arsenal, consequently played a higher line, and therefore were a little vulnerable to pace in behind. Gervinho couldn’t quite time his runs correctly, but Theo Walcott was prominent and his good relationship with van Persie continues to create openings.

The difference in winning the ball - Arsenal dropped into their own half, Dortmund pressed higher up

But it was because of Dortmund’s excellent cohesive pressing that Arsenal weren’t as likely to score by knocking it over the top as against the high line of Chelsea, for example. Arteta and Ramsey rarely had time to turn to play a through ball, whilst Song did often pick up the ball facing the right way, but wasn’t ambitious with his passing.

Injuries and substitutions

Dortmund lost both Mario Gotze and Sven Bender to early injuries – like-for-like replacements were introduced, but Dortmund clearly lost a great deal of quality. After those setbacks, they never pressed quite as well, and considering that was the major part of their gameplan, it was a huge blow. Klopp had deliberately selected the side that worked so well as a unit at the weekend, now the unit was broken up very early on.

It also meant that Klopp only had one more substitution for the second half – he used it bravely, bringing on Lucas Barrios to play upfront with Lewandowski, moving Kagawa right and Kevin Grosskreutz into the middle alongside Moritz Leitner, who had replaced Bender.

The change was effectively the same kind of substitution Paul Lambert (a former Dortmund player, coincidentally) made at the weekend against Arsenal – midfielder off, striker on, and a move to a clear 4-4-2. But it had the same effect – namely that Arsenal enjoyed more time on the ball in midfield, found gaps, and dominated possession more. It was a move Klopp had to make, but might have contributed to Dortmund’s disappointing second half.

Amongst all this, the three goals were almost separate from the tactical battle. One was from Song’s only dart forward, another was from a set-piece, another was the consolation through Kagawa – so late that even Klopp looked at his watch and shook his head.


Dortmund were impressive but ultimately underwhelming in the final third, Arsenal looked nervous early on but had the ruthlessness upfront when van Persie got two good chances.

We didn’t really learn anything new about the two sides – but Arsenal will consider it a good night’s work and have qualified with a game to spare, the only English side to do so.

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