Ox the key
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's runs from midfield are key to getting the best out of Mesut Ozil while Arsenal should not worry about bossing the ball against Bayern Munich, according to Matt Stanger...
By Matthew Stanger
Last Updated: 19/02/14 9:43am
"We must control possession," said Arsene Wenger before Arsenal's trip to Anfield on 8th February. With the Gunners averaging 57 per cent of the ball against Liverpool, the manager's objective was achieved. It is just a pity that the hosts ran out 5-1 winners.
This has been a noticeable trend for Arsenal both this season and in previous years. Possession has often not been an issue in the biggest matches, highlighted by the Gunners averaging 57% in the 0-0 draws against Manchester United and Chelsea and the away defeats to United, Liverpool and Manchester City. The problem is that they have been guilty of 'sterile domination' in these fixtures - bossing the ball but failing to find a cutting edge in the final third.
This was certainly the case against United on 12th February, when Arsenal responded to their thrashing at Liverpool with nothing more than a whimper. The Gunners were by far the more adventurous side at the Emirates but, despite dominating possession, they endured a frustrating evening. Nerves were not to blame, as Wenger suggested at full-time, but instead a lack of the impetus required to make the most of Mesut Ozil's guile. The playmaker gave one of his better performances in recent weeks but his impact was stifled by a motionless Olivier Giroud and the absence of runners from midfield.
The return of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Liverpool in the FA Cup helped to remedy this problem and it is imperative to include the midfielder against Bayern Munich. Two years ago, the 20-year-old showed no fear as he led the Arsenal charge at home to AC Milan and it is the same vital attribute - his ability to drive forward and pressurise defences - that renders his involvement on Wednesday a necessity.
In the absence of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain is the player who allows Arsenal to pick their moments and counter-attack with the ruthlessness of Sunday's winning goal against Liverpool. He has been involved in each of the Gunners' last five strikes - scoring a brace against Crystal Palace, winning the penalty at Anfield, and scoring and assisting at home to Liverpool - with his performance on Sunday reinforcing his current importance.
There is a frequent suggestion that Arsenal freeze in their toughest tests but the recurring problems are both tactical and mental, the biggest of which is allowing opponents to set the tone of matches. This saw Borussia Dortmund roping a dope in their 1-0 win at the Emirates (achieved with 43% possession), while Chelsea sat deep and counter-attacked in their 2-0 League Cup win, and in the 0-0 draw in the league - when they had almost twice as many shots with only 39% possession.
We have seen that Arsenal also know how to manage big moments in big games, however, instead of succumbing to the temptation of sterile domination. The 2-0 win at Bayern last season was earned with just 45% possession (compared to 58% in the 3-1 defeat at the Emirates) emphasising that there are different ways to control a match. One is to ensure a quick start - similar to the first 15 minutes that gained a 2-0 win over Napoli but the Gunners have held a half-time lead in just one of their last 11 Premier League fixtures.
A confident opening period, counter-attacking and being decisive when opportunities arise will all be key to Arsenal's hopes against Bayern. "The truth is you can attack for too long," Herbert Chapman once said. "We try to make it rapid and direct." Wenger will need to do the same on Wednesday and encourage his team to avoid falling into the trap of having all of the ball but none of the chances. With Oxlade-Chamberlain sharpening Ozil's blade, they stand a much better chance of success.
Arsenal v Bayern Munich is on Sky Sports 1HD on Wednesday from 7pm