Borussia Dortmund 1 Arsenal 1
Perišić 88; van Persie 42
A late volley by substitute Ivan Perišić earned Borussia Dortmund a share of the points in a game they had dominated for long stretches. Although they fully deserved a point, it was nonetheless tough luck on an Arsenal side who had defended with grit and determination after taking the lead through Robin van Persie‘s strike just before half-time. In the cold light of day, both teams will probably be satisfied to have finished with honours even.
The two sides had already previously met in the Champions League group stage. In the 2002/03 competition, Arsenal won 2-0 at Highbury before losing 2-1 in the away leg to a Dortmund side which featured Jens Lehmann in goal, with both their goals being scored by one Tomáš Rosický.
Rosický missed out on the chance to face his old side, having failed to recover sufficiently from a knee problem. Aaron Ramsey also did not travel after picking up an ankle knock against Swansea, restricting Arsène Wenger‘s already limited options in midfield. As a result loanee Yossi Benayoun was handed his first start alongside Mikel Arteta and the returning Alex Song. Wenger himself was serving the first of a two-game European touchline ban as Arsenal lined up as follows:
Sagna – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Gibbs
Song – Benayoun
Walcott – van Persie – Gervinho
Dortmund dominate, but sloppiness gifts Arsenal the lead
With both teams showing attacking formations and philosophies, the match got off to a flowing and pacy start. In the first ten minutes alone, Gervinho worked two openings but could not get a clean shot away on either occasion, while Kevin Grosskreutz and the lively Shinji Kagawa should have done better in blazing excellent opportunities off target.
Again and again during the opening period Dortmund proved adept at evading Arsenal’s high defensive line and causing major problems with their pace and directness. Wojciech Szczęsny was grateful for Bacary Sagna‘s goalline intervention after Mario Götze‘s clever ball had put Robert Lewandowski clean through. And the big Polish keeper was equally pleased that a couple of good headed chances were directed straight at him, while other attempts flew wide of the target. But on the whole the home side looked by far the more dangerous, with the combination of Götze’s passing and Kagawa’s intelligent running stretching Arsenal’s defence to breaking point.
For half an hour Arsenal’s midfield were repeatedly overrun, and as a team possession was often too easily conceded in dangerous positions. The front three were largely reduced to the role of spectators. In terms of possession in dangerous positions and attacking intent, it was very much one-way traffic.
Van Persie's clinical strike gave Arsenal an unexpected lead (image courtesy of arsenal.com)
However, there were just enough promising moments to offer the visitors a glimmer of hope. Mikel Arteta was unspectacular but efficient in possession, and Yossi Benayoun diligent in chasing back to help out his defence. And Dortmund’s high back line offered plenty of open space for both Gervinho and Walcott to run into. From one such moment just after the half hour, the visitors registered their first shot on target. Benayoun lifted an inviting ball over the top for Robin van Persie to race on to, but his angled shot on the run was touched behind by Roman Weidenfeller.
For all their threat, Dortmund had been warned. And they proved to be their own worst enemy as an error gifted Arsenal the opening goal. Van Persie seized on a sloppy, underhit pass by captain Sebastian Kehl and immediately raced forward. Theo Walcott, who had been nigh on invisible to that point, laid on a sensational defence-splitting pass for the Dutchman to strike a fierce drive from the edge of the box past Weidenfeller with his weaker right leg.
It wasn’t quite daylight robbery, but Arsenal’s half-time lead was certainly unexpected and very much against the run of play.
A spirited rearguard action falls at the last
Dortmund continued to press after half-time, but despite all their pressure Szczęsny had little to do as the visitors rolled up their sleeves and poured their energies into defending their lead – a quality which has too often been lacking from recent Arsenal sides. Alex Song in particular put in an immense performance in the second half, tracking runners, winning balls all over the field and generally disrupting the hosts’ rhythm in a way which Arsenal fans are used to seeing opposing teams do to them.
And the massed defending did not come at the total expense of a goal threat. Either side of the hour mark, Walcott hurriedly scooped a shot well over when he had time to compose himself, and then Gervinho broke free up the middle but as he stumbled and broke free of a tackle he couldn’t get the ball under control quickly enough, allowing Weidenfeller to charge off his line and block.
Szczęsny preserved a point with a crucial late save (image courtesy of arsenal.com)
Though rarely desperate, Arsenal’s rearguard action became increasingly fraught as the game entered its final ten minutes. Neven Subotić wasted a great opportunity at a scramble after a corner, poking an effort straight at Szczęsny. But just as it looked like time would run out on the Germans, with just two minutes remaining a free kick was headed clear straight to Ivan Perišić, whose first-time volley from outside the area arrowed its way into the top corner. The goal extended Arsenal’s run of away games in the Champions League without a clean sheet to 17.
Dortmund nearly stole all three points at the death, as first Szczęsny raced off his line to deny Lewandowski and then Laurent Koscielny put in a vital block against substitute Mohamed Zidan. On the balance of play, Dortmund could argue that they were worth more than a point. However, Arsenal equally deserved to get something out of the game for van Persie’s clinical finish and their stalwart efforts in defence. With Marseille winning at 1-0 at Olympiakos a draw was not the ideal result for either team, but both will take encouragement from an unbeaten start to their European campaigns. 1-1 was a perfectly good result.
Post-match reaction and analysis
With Wenger’s touchline ban extending to post-match conferences, assistant manager Pat Rice faced the press after the game. He said:
We battled really hard and we knew it would be a hard, hard game. To be able to defend well is a high-quality skill and that is something all of our players did this evening. I shouldn’t think many teams will come to Dortmund and beat them and we were very, very close to doing that.
Despite being forced on to the back foot for much of the 90 minutes, there are a lot of positives to take out of this performance. Arsenal teams over the years have shown plenty of flair in matches they have failed to win, but here exhibited real grit and substance in a game in which they were dominated but managed to avoid defeat (and indeed so nearly win). Szczęsny exudes confidence which in turn boosts the defenders in front of him. He commanded his box well and continues to excel in one-on-one situations. In front of him, the back four manned the barricades redoubtably, although Koscielny did have some problems with his distribution, an issue often exacerbated by Kieran Gibbs‘ poor positioning. The left back had an awful game – he contributed little in attack, was often caught too far forward creating inviting spaces for Kagawa in particular to operate in and generally exhibited both poor passing and positional sense.
The midfield particularly struggled in the first half-hour, but seemed to gel as the game progressed. Arteta was efficient rather than expansive, but was excellent at retaining possession and moving the ball on to others. Benayoun worked his socks off defensively, while constantly trying to form a bridge between defence and attack. And Song was a dominant figure, particularly in the second half where he kept his cool and always seemed to be exactly where he was needed.
Van Persie took his chance superbly, and although he did not see much of the ball linked up play well. Gervinho was a constant threat with his unpredictability, although he did tend to cut inside into traffic too often rather than attempting to beat his defender on the outside. Walcott did contribute a lovely assist for the goal, but this was otherwise one of those frustrating nights where he could not get into the game, and too often immediately gave the ball away on those occasions when he did. For all his undoubted strengths – pace, a good goal-scoring rate from the wing and the ability to put in decent deliveries (albeit inconsistently) – the flaws in his game remain all too apparent: a lack of trickery to beat defenders, a tendency to drift out of games and he is still all too easy to brush off the ball.
But this game was more than the sum of individual performances. A still under-strength, still unfamiliar side pulled together as a unit and worked for each other for 90 minutes, and although they were denied the win at the very end, this was not down to the collective failure of character we witnessed at home to Liverpool or at Newcastle last season, or even at Old Trafford 2½ weeks ago. It was just one of those things – just one of those goals you can only admire and praise through gritted teeth. For once Arsenal prioritised substance over style, and that is certainly a step in the right direction.
Man of the match: Alex Song