Arsenal’s hard fought victory over Crystal Palace in last Saturday’s eventful encounter ushers in the start of a period that will see the Gunners play roughly once every three days from now till the beginning of April.
Considering Arsenal’s recent misfortune of being drawn against heavyweights such as Bayern Munich and Barcelona at this stage of the competition, this year’s draw seems relatively benign. The Gunners are thus expected in most quarters to comfortably slalom past the challenge posed by the Monegasques. If there is one thing the Gunners’ should have learned from their very recent history, it is that nothing can be taken for granted in this competition.
If Arsenal are to come away from Wednesday’s first leg of this tie with a positive result, they will have to completely banish any thoughts of this being an easy tie and be fully concentrated on putting in their maximum right from the off.
The past few weeks have seen Mesut Özil quietly stage a return to the kind of form that made him one of the most sought after players in Europe and engendered such excitement when Arsène Wenger succeeded in persuading him to sign for the club.
If there is one player who will be absolutely critical to the Gunners’ ambitions of further advancing in this competition from this and possibly subsequent stages of this competition, then it has to be the German world cup winner.
Apart from the fact that Özil averages more successful passes than most offensive players in Europe, it is his efficiency, particularly in the final third that truly stands out. A cursory look at some of Mesut Özil’s impressive stats will show that he compares with the best in Europe in terms of cold-blooded effectiveness.
For instance, when looking at Premier League players in the current season, only David Silva has had more touches in the opposition half and more successful passes in the final third. Furthermore, if you pit Özil against other players of a similar ilk, then Özil compares favourably against the likes of David Silva, Eden Hazard and Santi Cazorla. Özil averages 44 passes in the Champions League this year compared with Eden Hazard(48.2), Santi Cazorla(51) and David Silva(58.3), which is more or less within the same range. Özil appears, however to be more efficient with his passing as his completion rate of 90.9% is better than every single one of Eden Hazard(81.7%), David Silva(88.4%) and Santi Cazorla(83.5%).
It is in his chance creation and his passing in the final third that one truly begins to appreciate Ozil’s effectiveness. Last season, Özil was single-handedly responsible for creating 18.7% of Arsenal’s chances throughout the season. It wasn’t just a one season aberration, either. In the five year period starting from 2009, no other player in Europe has created as many chances as Özil. In the Champions League this season, Özil has created 3 chances per game, which is more than the 2.3 each created by David Silva and Eden Hazard, or the 1.4 per game created by Santi Cazorla.
Monaco will undoubtedly come to the Emirates with a game plan of attempting to stifle the Gunners, and possibly of attempting to score the odd away goal. It is for this reason that Arsenal has the dual challenge of trying to ensure that they do not concede at home, and more importantly that they create enough chances going forward to put the game and possibly the tie to bed in the first leg. Özil will undoubtedly be central to this effort although he will also depend on the tireless running of Alexis Sánchez and Danny Welbeck upfront, as well as the clever movement of Olivier Giroud, in and around the box.
Of the utmost importance for the Gunners, will be remaining patient and focused especially if they are unable to score an early goal. Under Coach Leonardo Jardim, who took over this season, Monaco have developed one of the stingiest defences in the French Championnat. In the Champions League, Monaco’s defensive record speaks for itself; they were the only team to qualify for the second round without conceding a single goal in the group stages.
Monaco will also pose a threat on the counter as they possess quick wingers capable of giving the Arsenal fullbacks a torrid time. Of their wide players, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco will probably provide the stiffest challenge as his pace and trickery will give Monaco an outlet on the break and he could provide a serious test for Nacho Monreal, particularly if the Arsenal fullback’s performance against Wilfried Zaha at the weekend is anything to go by.
It all adds up to a solid challenge for the Gunners, but one which they are well equipped to surmount. Any slips in attitude or concentration should seriously be guarded against however, in order to prevent this, the Gunners’ best chance of progressing beyond the early stages of Europe’s elite competition in several years, from becoming the damp squib it undoubtedly has the potential to turn into.
(All statistics obtained from Whoscored.com)