Kevin Garside: Arsenal’s revival checked by German lesson in arts Gunners must strive for
This was an evening that hummed at the outset to soundbites from Fergieland. It says much about the qualities of Borussia Dortmund that by the close the agenda was once more being set by developments in the Fatherland. Who did what, who said what in the years of empire in Manchester was rendered a historical footnote of little relevance to the thrilling narrative being spun by the übermensch of German football.
Germany represents the industry standard in excellence. Arsène Wenger is a life-long admirer. His family name is German and he grew up in a part of northern France, Alsace, that was once ruled from Berlin. If Bayern Munich are the highest expression of Teutonic football in the post tika-taka epoch, Dortmund are not far behind. And in coach Jürgen Klopp they have a figure as compelling as Wenger, if not as cerebral.
We were denied a full viewing of Herr Klopp’s magnificent head of hair last night after indiscretions at Napoli forced his imprisonment in the stands. Klopp has coped well with the loss of Mario Götze to Bayern and continues to tease the best from the outward-bound Robert Lewandowski. Seven wins in nine outings in the Bundesliga brought them to London glowing hot, only one point behind Pep Guardiola’s Munich machine.
A year on from a defeat to Schalke on this ground that seemed to offer further evidence of the need for change at the Emirates, there was fascination to see just how far this latest flowering of the Wenger aesthetic might fly against the second-best side in Germany. Funny how quickly moods swing in this game. Wenger was dismissed as an old head embracing ideas that had run their course. Where is the anti-Arsène tendency now? Like those old Soviets who burned their KGB cloaks on the bonfire of perestroika, those who would have had Wenger out quietly adjust to this nascent age of appreciation.
German influence touches Arsenal most profoundly through the graceful feet of Mezut Özil, who has hardened belief into conviction since his late August arrival. This was not his best night but fleetingly he was still a host to magic. What Wenger could not have known is the galvanising effect Özil has had on those around him. Good players have become better, more confident and ambitious for having Özil at their side.
Even Jack Wilshere is beginning to adjust positively after vacating first centre ground and then centre stage to the imperious German. His finish against Norwich, acclaimed as a goal of the season cert until Pajtim Kasami blistered the Crystal Palace net on Monday, was a restating of his own majesty at the Emirates. Wilshere is too good to play in the shadow. His challenge with Özil in the side is to find his own way to shine in the same way Andres Iniesta dovetails so effectively alongside Lionel Messi.
If there is a criticism it centres on his attachment to old English habit of confusing guts with commitment. It manifests in the mad lunge early in games when he seeks to establish hegemony. He will learn that the best way to do this is with the ball at his feet not crashing into the back of opponent’s knees. He scooped Henrikh Mkhitaryan off his feet with barely a minute on the clock. It was his first contribution to a game he lit up only in patches.
It was clear immediately that Dortmund would seek the lead role in this Anglo-Saxon tango. The away dance floor held no fears for them. Cheered by ceaseless wall of noise, Dortmund brought every bit of their swashbuckling confidence to bear in the early stages. Thrust after thrust saw Arsenal retreat deeper and deeper into their own half. Marco Reus, the man who has taken the conductor’s role following Götze’s exit, drilled a shot wide of a post. Lewandowski dragged the Arsenal defence this way and that.
The pre-eminence of Arsenal in the English league this season did not trouble the visitors one iota. Shortly before the quarter hour Mkhitaryan slapped a finishing touch on all that early promise with a shot that deflected past Wojciech Szczesny. In their yellow-and-black livery Dortmund buzzed with the efficacy of worker bees, wonderfully industrious, driven by instinct to gather around the ball in great number and propel it goalward at speed.
Arsenal have hardly known disappointment since the season’s opening fixture. It took them a while to adjust against a team that might be described as Arsenal-plus, a kind of uber-Gunners, who do what they do but with greater urgency. Wenger’s 64th birthday was anything but a party until Olivier Giroud lightened the mood with his slam dunk late in the first half. Arsenal were not poor by any means. They were simply up against a team further down the road, performing at a peak that has been years in the reaching, not months as is the case at the Emirates.
Wilshere will have been disappointed to be hooked off on the hour. But as his spoof Twitter handle tells us, Wenger knows best. The arrival of Santi Cazorla was just the injection of quick feet and mobility Arsenal needed. The contest acquired the end-to-end dynamic of the basketball court and Dortmund learned a little more what all the fuss surrounding Arsenal is about.
Just when Arsenal were at their most bold, Dortmund hit them with a lightning counter. Lewandowski, so profligate for Poland at Wembley a week ago, was a lethal weapon here, striding through the middle before firing the ball past a stunned Szczesny. The yellow-shirted section behind the goal heaved with appreciation, and the heavens dumped a cargo of soft rainfall that might have swung in from the Rhur Valley.
Arsenal could have no complaints. There is no shame coming second best to this lot. Arsenal are in the early stages of something that might yet turn out to be special. In this game of small margins they now know how much harder they have to work to take the next step.
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