Photo: Wired Photos
I'll be honest - I thought that we were going to get eviscerated in this one, despite Jurgen Klopp's pre-match comments about how they were treating this as a holiday. But, after getting blitzed for an early goal by Yaya Sanogo (!!!), the Gunners utilized a much better gameplan to see off a bizarrely passive Dortmund side.
The inclusion of the young Frenchman was the main talking point from the starting XI, and you have to admit that it paid off in spades for Arsene. The match was less than two minutes old when we won a throw-in in their half. Chambers hurled it in to Sanogo in the penalty area. He did well to hold off the ball, even with a spot of juggling in there. He found Santi Cazorla trailing the play, and the Germans opted for the primary school defensive tactic of "everyone swarm to the ball". Santi stayed calm despite five or six defenders converging on him, and played it back in to Sanogo. The angle was tough, but he took advantage of Roman Weidenfeller being slow to come off his line to nutmeg him for his first senior goal.
What a weight must be off the back of that kid today, huh?
Still, the lad is far from the finished product, as evidenced in the 9th minute when he could have put us 2-0 up. The visitors were pressed far up the field, but Aaron Ramsey shredded them with a wonderful long pass. Sanogo beat the offside trap and could have been in alone on Weidenfeller, but he opted for some reason to casually stroll forward as if on a Sunday ramble. The defense were able to come back and clear the danger, when we should have had a shot on target at bare minimum.
As for Dortmund, they just never could get going. Other than one chance that we'll get to in a second, the only other half-opportunity I can recall was one excellent cross by Lukasz Piszczek that Ciro Immobile just barely missed getting on the end of. Part of that was definitely down to the odd lack of urgency that they had, but I'd say the majority of it can be attributed to a massive change in how Arsenal set themselves up.
I wish I knew if this change was at Arsene's behest or if the players decided to up and do it themselves, but on the whole we sat a lot deeper, played off the counter and took advantage of their mistakes when that happened. Frankly, this is how we should play in EVERY GAME from now on. We looked solid, compact, and protected those squad members who may not be the best in their position (cough cough Nacho Monreal cough cough).
For their part, I think Dortmund had no idea what to do with this new-look Arsenal setup. Right around the half-hour, Cazorla clowned Immobile on the right wing with a dazzling array of dribbling skills, then put in a scorching cross that was just about dealt with by the Dortmund defense. The warning signs were there, though...another goal was coming.
How different might it have been were it not for our stand-in keeper Damian Martinez, though. The one time Arsenal fell asleep was a few minutes before the interval. Henrikh Mkhitaryan snuck in at the back post and looked certain to score. However, Martinez flashed out a leg at his near post, one of those saves that doesn't look flashy but is 5000 times more difficult to make than most of those flying-through-the-air ones. I cannot stress enough how brilliant of a save that was at a massively crucial moment.
One would surmise that Klopp tore into his charges during the halftime break - but, if he did, it didn't reflect in their play at all. They still probed forward every now and then, but Arsenal stuck to the plan and hit back hard on the counter when it was appropriate. Many of those chances came from long balls, of all things, not the least of them in the 54th minute when only the crossbar spared Dortmund's blushes. On that occasion, it was the fantastic Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who took the ball down and lashed a dipping half-volley off of the woodwork. It's a bit of a shame, as his direct running and excellent midfield play deserved a goal.
Still, it did show just how oddly passive the opposition were on the day. As the long ball came in, Matthias Ginter stood miles off him, allowing him to kill the ball out of the air and set up his shot. The rest of the defense didn't do much to close him down, either.
As great as the Ox is though, there is a vast amount of difference between failing to close him down and failing to close down Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean Assassin had a bit of a quiet game by his standards up until that point, but a guy like him only needs 1/10th of a chance to end you. Another Arsenal counter saw Cazorla in absolute acres in the middle of the park. He sent it out to the left, where Alexis lurked. The pass wasn't perfect, but again, the Dortmund defense were pensive, no one taking responsibility to shut the play down. Sanchez simply looked up, picked his shot, and lashed an unstoppable curler around Weidenfeller and into the far corner.
From there, the game petered out as Dortmund seemed to accept defeat, while Arsenal were determined to stay within themselves and not give the visitors any hint of a chance back into the match. I seriously cannot stress this enough - this was a composed, professional performance on both sides of the ball by this Arsenal team. By my reckoning, it's the first one against a team that can (theoretically) fight back all season long.
So, where does this leave us? We're through to the knockout stages of the Champions League...frankly the bare minimum given the context of this group. Finishing first is now not out of the question, though Dortmund may unleash the hounds against Anderlecht on Matchday 6 more than they did here.
More importantly though, have some hard lessons truly been learned about how this particular version of the team needs to be deployed and how they need to play. My god, I hope so. Even with the last 30 minutes of this one resembling a Serie A mismatch at times, I still found that 100000000 times more fun to watch than the last few instances of us making the same mistakes over and over again.
It's a start. Now, let's ensure it continues.
The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:
Martinez 8, Gibbs 7, Monreal 7, Mertesacker 7, Chambers 7, Arteta 7 (Flamini 7), Sanchez 8, Ramsey 7, Cazorla 9, Oxlade-Chamberlain 8 (Campbell N/A), Sanogo 8 (Podolski N/A)
Man of the Match: Sure, other guys got the goals. And, Martinez deserves a shout for how well he played on the day. But, for me it's the two-assist man, Santi Cazorla. He's been up and down this season so far, but this was his best performance in quite some time.