As we draw ever closer to the commencement of our Champions League campaign, it feels right to asses where we are in terms of progressing within the competition. Our recent history in the competition doesn’t make for easy reading; elimination in the last 6 seasons at the round of 16. In simple terms it’s not been good enough, but the question is; what have we done to ensure progress further along the line is realistic rather than a pipe dream? There have been extenuating circumstances in some of our last 16 exits, however there have been far more results that have been of our own making, and that’s what needs to be addressed. In European leagues, fixtures are moved to accommodate optimal preparation time for ‘their’ teams giving them the best chances to achieve positive results in Europe. For example, this coming weekend PSG had their fixture moved to Friday evening, whereas in the Premier League we have no such accommodation. Maybe it is due to change as social media takes more and more influence in the sporting world, however the money seems to be the reason that the English Premier League doesn’t actually give a monkeys. A discussion for another day I guess.
With regards to our Champions League progress last season alone, we truly did leave ourselves overly exposed and open to stinging criticism due to gross negligence in our approach to the games. Game one saw us travel away to Zagreb and put in a really insipid performance. Now this can happen to the best of teams as they are caught cold, however an absolutely shocking sending off for Olivier Giroud set the tone for the campaign. The players just thought that simply turning up against a team who hadn’t won a Champions League game in 12 attempts. They had just won a single point in their last 12 games. So you would think that us having a bad day would lead to simply a draw, however we began in complete ‘shoot-yourself-in-the-foot’ style and paid for it later on. This one was firmly on the players. The second game provided an opportunity to right the wrongs of Zagreb at The Emirates, yet inferior team selection proved to be the downfall here. Now this is not to say that the players on show weren’t good enough to beat Olimpiacos, however fielding a slightly weakened side reeked of complacency once more. The message given to the players by the manager in an unspoken way was “we’ll be fine lads, just go out there and we’ll be fine”. If the players’ approach vs Zagreb was lethargic the manager equalizsed with a weakened team selection. We lost 3-2 as you know and it left us needing favours. How on earth then did we go ahead and fathom to beat Bayern 2-0 at home? Yes we rode our luck, yes it could easily have gone the other way but the effort, the determination and the planning seemed to be in place. The rest of the games panned out as expected with Bayern exacting revenge and us winning well against Zagreb and Olimpiacos in the return fixtures, however it left us in 2nd place and facing the prospect of Barcelona once again. We could well have won the first two games and still finished second, but the point tally would have seen us top the group going into the Bayern away game and a more conservative approach may have been adopted. Who knows what could have happened then, but failure to start well cost us in the long run. This season must be different…
We begin our campaign against PSG and that I feel is a good thing as we will need to field our best XI in order to have a chance. There should be no resting of players, however one thing that we could well have in our favour, for the first quarter of the season at least, is an unpredictable lineup. We’ve known our best XI for the last 2/3 years and it invariably picked itself before games, especially big games. We knew who our go to men were, we knew how we would set up. Our players may have even become a little bored of it all not to mention teams having more time to prepare exactly as to how to play against us. This season seems a little different. We have options. Our midfield and forward options are two fold and quite different in their approaches, which will in turn make it more difficult for teams to prepare against us. Having the versatility in midfield to play a combination of Xhaka, Cazorla & Ozil (keep ball) or Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil (high energy) or Xhaka, Coquelin & Elnenny, with Ramsey & Ozil wide (YOU SHALL NOT PASS) leaves us with bags of options dependent on the opposition. With our front man we can either go with Giroud as a target man, Perez as the counter attack man and Alexis as the false 9. There are a multitude of options and variations that will enable us to surprise the opposition a little more than usual. I genuinely believe that this alone will make a huge difference to not only our approach into games but the players’ attitude going into them. They will want to play every game, they will want to play in the big games and to do that whoever is selected for a Premier League, Champions League or FA Cup tie will need to use it as an opportunity to cement their place. We are no longer reliant on a defined XI, we are finally looking into a season that depth in quality is truly present.
What remains to be seen is how the manager will approach this competition. I’m quite excited and intrigued as to both our selection and our approach this season, as usually I await any away Champions League games with trepidation and cautiousness. We are always (with the odd exception) terrible away from home in Europe and for once I feel like we might just not be. It’s all conjecture right now of course and come Tuesday at 19.45 we really will find out what this new found squad is capable of. Having just about seen off an average Southampton side with a rotational side leaves us in a really good position. A draw at the weekend would have exposed the manager and team to criticism and questions that just aren’t needed before a big Champions League tie. We now go into the game where we’ve rested the likes of Granit Xhaka & Alexis to a degree they can be fresher for tougher opposition. The gamble paid off and could well make the difference on game day one.
Score prediction: PSG 1-1 Arsenal
Mitesh Lakhani (@MiteshLakhani1)