Goals: Huntelaar (76), Afellay (85)
Arsenal lost for the first time at home against continental opposition in the Champions League since 2003 after a toothless, subdued and disjointed performance.
Arsenal lined up with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Vito Mannone again started at the goal. Vermaalen was paired with Mertesacker at the center of the defence. Carl Jenkinson started at right back, and Andre Santos continued to replace the injured Kieran Gibbs (at least in name) at left back. In central midfield, Mikel Arteta was paired with Coquelin. Podolski was on the left, and Ramsey was on the right. Cazorla was behind Gervinho who started as the central striker.
Arsenal started the game with more aggression in the midfield and dominated possession in the very early exchanges. As we have seen against Manchester City, Aaron Ramsey coming narrow from wide right position and joining Arteta and Coquelin gave Arsenal a numerical advantage in the center of the pitch. Around the 10th minute mark, Arsenal created the first chance of the game when Podolski’s low cross from the left was missed by Gervinho at the near post. The visitors, however, soon adjusted their shape with Holtby dropping back on Arteta and helping Hoger and Neustadder to prevent their center from being overrun. Schalke got their attacking game going after the first 10 minutes. When Arteta lost possession, Farfan’s through ball was chased by Afellay who got to the ball before Mannone and fell over the Italian’s challenge. It could have been a penalty, yet the Swedish referee showed a yellow card to the Dutch winger for simulation.
The crucial and recurring theme of the game was Schalke exploiting time and time again the space on Arsenal’s left hand side, with Farfan and Uchida taking turns to torture Andre Santos. It is safe to say that the only thing Farfan and Uchida did not do on Arsenal’s left flank over the 90 minutes was to grow marijuana and sell it to the frustrated crowd who would appreciate a good joint given the visible toothlessness of the home team. Schalke directed almost all their attacking effort towards the space left exposed by Andre Santos’ forward forays. Santos is a technically gifted player, yet unlike Gibbs, he clearly lacks the athleticism and pace required from a marauding left back. What made the problem worse against Schalke was that due to Podolski’s narrowness and reluctance to track back on that flank, the Japanese right back Atsuto Uchida also found space to bomb forward and overlapped Farfan. In one of many such attacks, Uchida’s cutback to Farfan put the Peruvian winger in a shooting position in the box, yet Mertesacker’s brilliant block prevented an almost certain goal.
During the first half, the midfield battle looked to be heading for a draw, as the two sides matched each other. What was worrying for Arsenal, though, was their absolute inability to create any clear cut chances. The overall look of Arsenal in attack was a frustrating combination of players playing out of position with Ramsey providing no width on wide right (as he is not a winger), Gervinho making runs to the flanks but looking too lightweight to play the centerforward position and Coquelin being a solid tackler and neat passer in the holding role but not being able to provide much penetration and forward drive from midfield (and hence basically duplicating Arteta’s role). As the first half drew to a close, Uchida again popped up on the right unattended, yet his ball into the box was blasted wide by Huntelaar when he should have scored.
In the second half, Arsenal continued to look ineffective in attack, and Schalke slowly gained the upper hand in the midfield battle as well. Early in the half, Farfan again skinned Santos on Arsenal’s left and his cutback found Howedes unmarked in the box, yet the defender smashed the ball over the bar. In the 69th minute, Gervinho summarized what was wrong with Arsenal’s attack as he found space on the left, yet his cross into the box found no Arsenal player despite Ramsey’s best efforts to get there from the opposing flank: False 9s, false right wingers, false (or rather inadequate) left backs were the order of the day for Arsenal.
As Arsenal looked increasingly toothless in attack, it was curious that Steve Bould (note: Wenger was serving the last game of his touchline ban) waited until the 75th minute to send in Giroud, taking off Gervinho, in an attempt to win the game. Yet, when Schalke scored almost immediately after Giroud’s introduction, it surprised nobody as they were well on top in the second half. Uchida’s cross from Schalke’s right was deflected towards the middle of the pitch, but two Schalke players won two headers in a row to put the ball back in the danger zone near Huntelaar. The Dutch striker would have been offside if Andre Santos was not asleep a good two yards behind Mertesacker and Vermaalen, and Huntelaar’s finish was hard and low.
To salvage a point, Steve Bould took off Jenkinson and Podolski and sent in Gnabry and Arshavin. As Arsenal pushed forward desperately for an equalizer, they got further exposed in the back and Schalke secured all three points in the 85th minute. A flowing Schalke counterattack released Farfan on the right again with Andre Santos nowhere to be seen. The Peruvian’s low cross to the back post was swept in by Afellay as Jenkinson who kept Afellay quite all game long was taken off minutes earlier. In the dying minutes, Arsenal did register their first shot on goal though when Gnabry’s curling effort was saved by the otherwise unemployed Unsteller.
Schalke completely deserved their win given their excellent display. What was surprising was that they did not take the lead until the last 15 minutes. Just like against Norwich on Saturday, Arsenal looked subdued, lacking ideas and any execution ability in attack. They also looked criminally exposed on their left. Andre Santos had a total nightmare all game long, yet the defeat was clearly far from his fault alone. It was inexplicable that Steve Bould did not attempt to find a solution to the apparent danger on Arsenal’s left as Schalke targeted this space from the 15th minute on. QPR on Saturday already looks like a very difficult game, and they don’t even have a single win in 8 league games.