After a string of impressive performances, Arsenal came down to Earth on Tuesday when the Gunners fell to Borussia Dortmund at the Emirates Stadium in Champions League group play. It was a result that meant Arsenal were in a three-way race with the pesky Bundesliga club as well as with Napoli, and served as a harsh reminder that securing a spot in the knockout stage was not going to be a stroll through the park.
Arsene Wenger’s side will get the opportunity to take their frustrations out on hapless Crystal Palace on Saturday in a Premier League match that is a “must win” considering the fixtures that follow. In Champions League, Arsenal travel to Germany on Nov. 6 to face Dortmund at Westfalenstadion, where the Black And Yellows have dominated competition this season by winning every Bundesliga and Champions League match by a total margin of 18-3.
Upcoming English opponents aren’t exactly pushovers, either. Following Crystal Palace is a Capital One Cup match at the Emirates against London rival Chelsea, in a fixture that carries curious importance. Wenger has been under pressure to win silverware, but winning the League Cup is not exactly going to silence many critics who believe that Arsenal are incapable of replicating their success from a decade earlier. But a win over the Blues would delight the Arsenal faithful, which likely means Wenger will take the game seriously by starting many of his more skilled players.
Bookending the Dortmund match is a home fixture against Liverpool on Nov. 2, and a trip to Old Trafford on Nov. 10 to face Manchester United.
In other words, Arsenal have their work cut out for them in the next few weeks.
To some extent, Wenger’s side should feel that the season really starts now. Upcoming opponents are considerably tougher than the likes of Fenerbahce, Fulham, and Stoke City from earlier this season when the Gunners were winning without breaking a sweat.
To make matters worse, Arsenal will be without the services of Theo Walcott for at least the next two matches. It was revealed this week that the star winger suffered a setback in his recovery from abdominal surgery, and will be out for at least 10 more days.
The good news is that Arsenal are still at the top of the table, and remain in serious contention for the knockout phase of Champions League. It appears to be a daunting task for Arsenal to both advance in the talent-rich Group F, and to stay on top of the Premier League table, which currently features five other talent-rich clubs contending for the title. However, Arsenal are one of the few elite clubs that don’t rely on a collection of newcomers and a new manager to figure out how to get through a rough patch. The squad not only has plenty of Premier League experience, but every player has played in European competition, as well.
While other managers have to deal with the headache of balancing the roster when a rash of injuries occurs, Wenger has basically made a career out of it. At the moment, there are four key players who are inactive due to injury (Walcott, Lukas Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Abou Diaby), and Arsenal are still in first place. Without Podolski, Walcott, and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wenger has been forced to use players out of position along the wings, and somehow it has worked out for the Gunners.
Arsenal also aren’t distracted by speculation of players exiting for more promising clubs, as was the case in previous years. The current squad appears happy to be where they are, and have shown more confidence and enthusiasm than in previous seasons.
The pressure will likely fall on the shoulders of the midfield. Mesut Ozil is arguably the most talented player in the Premier League, and the playmaker has joined a squad that relies heavily on this talent. At Real Madrid, Ozil was burdened by concerns that another star would take playing time away from him. He also wasn’t expected to carry the team, with high-profile forward Cristiano Ronaldo up front, and Luka Modric challenging for a starting role. At Arsenal, the 25-year-old is the lone superstar, and is called upon to create scoring opportunities for 90 minutes a game. Despite being a newcomer at the Emirates, he has already had a major impact, and is clearly the most important player on the squad. The fortunes of Arsenal might hinge on how Ozil performs in key matches.
“Ozil is the man who makes the difference in the final third,” Cesc Fabregas recently told the Daily Mail. “He will find so much space in the Premier League and he’s a player who with space kills you. His final pass is brilliant.”
If Ozil is the most crucial player to the Gunners’ success, the second most important is the man he replaced in central midfield: Santi Cazorla. Coming off an ankle injury, Cazorla was back in action against Dortmund and came within inches of scoring with a shot from distance that bounced off the woodwork. The 28-year-old will play a wing role with Ozil in the middle, and is capable of thriving on either the left or right side. Cazorla’s fitness following his injury, as well as his ability to adapt to his new role, are probably vital to Arsenal’s plans, as Wenger may have to immediately thrust him into the starting 11. With players missing in attack, Cazorla may have to prove his versatility by excelling at the needed position, which most likely will be on the left side. With substitutions, Cazorla could have to shift positions during a game, and his ability to transition might be a difference maker in the coming weeks.
Jack Wilshere believes he is fully fit for Saturday’s match after hurting his right foot, but Wenger is cautious to not overplay the 21-year-old given his injury history. After his breakout season in 2010-2011, there has been perpetual optimism that Wilshere is the man to guide Arsenal into the future. Should Wilshere stay healthy, there will be added focus on him to live up to the lofty expectations. Wilshere is a gifted player with tremendous dribbling ability, but he may still need to prove himself against top competition. There may not be a better time for Wilshere to step up than now. If he’s 100 percent, expect Wilshere to play a major role in the coming weeks.
After the Crystal Palace match comes the big test. Following a hot start, Wenger’s side must prove they are not a fluke, and advance out of Group C, and hold off the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool. Should Arsenal continue to build on their momentum, and outlast this rather difficult stretch of matches, the Gunners can perhaps add reinforcements in January with roughly £30 million to spend on the transfer market.
Will Arsenal supporters’ eyes roll with a look of “here we go again,” or have Arsenal effectively turned the corner after years of disappointment?
An IB Times staff reporter contributed to this report.