Champions League

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Arsenal pounces on Fener's issues

Champions League: Recap of Arsenal's 3-0 victory Fenerbahce.
Champions League: Recap of Arsenal's 3-0 victory Fenerbahce.
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Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the football quarterly The Blizzard and writes for the Guardian, the National, Sports Illustrated, World Soccer and Cricinfo. He is the author of six books on football, including Inverting the Pyramid, which was named Football Book of the Year in both the UK and Italy. His latest book is The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper.

   
 

LONDON, ENGLAND

Arsenal went to Turkey fearing the worst, bearing the frustration of Saturday into an intimidating atmosphere against an experienced team. It left having reasserted its quality, completing an emphatic 3-0 win that all but ensures it will qualify for the Champions League group stage for a 16th consecutive season.

It was a performance and a victory to raise morale and stave off crisis for a while, but it was a game that said far more about Fenerbahce’s shortcomings than it did about Arsenal. Let Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey play and they will dismember an opponent.

Since the resignation of Aykut Kocaman at the end of last season, and the subsequent appointment of Ersun Yanal, the story was that Fenerbahce had become a more dynamic team. Whereas Aykut would analyze an opponent and try to find a way to frustrate it, Ersun set his team out to try to impose its style of football no matter who it was playing. That at least was the theory. The practice, however, was rather different.

Aston Villa had shown on Saturday had to unsettle Arsenal. Villa, like Fenerbahce, played a 4-3-3, but it was aggressive, snapping into tackles and always looking to be proactive. The midfield three did sit deep, but the pace and adventure of the front three ensured it was always a threat, with Gabriel Agbonlahor dropping deep and Fabian Delph carrying the ball to link the back seven to the front three. There was energy and intelligence and once Arsenal had begun to self-destruct -- as it seemingly inevitably will once pressure is applied -- Villa was by far the more dangerous team.

Given the reaction to Arsenal’s defeat -- boos and a general call for more spending from fans, irritation from an increasingly rattled Wenger, widespread condemnation of its transfer policy -- it might have been thought that Fenerbahce, backed by a ferocious crowd in Istanbul, would seek to pressure its opponent early and try to exploit any vulnerability or sense of insecurity. As it was, it was strangely reticent, failing to muster a shot in the first half and essentially handing the initiative to Arsenal.

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Then again, some perspective is probably required. However miserable Arsenal’s situation, Fenerbahce’s is worse. It has already been banned by UEFA after being found guilty of fixing 19 Turkish league matches and has been allowed to compete on the Champions League only because its appeal is still being heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A verdict is expected next week. Given that background, a sense of futility is perhaps understandable.

Still, it was staggering how poor Fenerbahce was on the night; its passing labored and often misplaced, its tempo bewilderingly slow. Nerves or the distraction of the CAS hearing might have played a part but it was at least in part a tactical decision to try to restrict Arsenal rather than taking the game to it. Midfielder Mehmet Topal dropped so deep at times that he was playing almost as a third centerback, a strangely negative ploy given Arsenal. playing a 4-2-3-1, was operating with a lone forward in Olivier Giroud.

Standard practice in the modern game is to employ one more central defender than the opposition plays central forwards. To play an additional player as cover means a team is likely to be overmanned elsewhere unless a team simply wants to sit deep and absorb pressure, is usually avoided. Sure enough, Arsenal was placed under no pressure at the back and its two holding midfielders, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, who had looked so uncertain as a pairing on Saturday, were allowed -- in the first half at least -- to focus almost entirely on the creative side of the game.

The Gunners rebounded from a humbling opening day loss to Aston Villa on Wednesday night (Photo: AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC/Getty Images).

Wilshere and Ramsey were able to combine in the final third six minutes into the second half, Ramsey delaying his pass cleverly to lay in Theo Walcott, whose pace against the slightly lumbering left back Michal Kadlec had been Arsenal’s main threat in a largely toothless first half. Walcott laid the ball across goal and it was a mark of Arsenal’s territorial control that it was Kieran Gibbs arriving to slam the ball over the line from close range.

The pair, gaining in confidence and essentially unchallenged as they surged forward from deep, became increasingly influential. A Wilshere surge created a chance for Waclott that was saved by Volkan Demirol and Fener's goalkeeper then denied Wilshere as he let off a shot himself. But with 62 minutes played the second came, Wilshere rolling the ball into the past of Ramsey, who accelerated diagonally across the pitch and drilled in a low shot. Defenders went to close him down but they were too late: by sitting deep they’d allowed him to pick up pace before anybody challenged him, a fatal lapse.

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It was Ramsey who created the third as well, given time to measure a finely calibrated diagonal ball for Walcott who, again, had used his pace to get behind Kadlec. The Czech defender bundled him over and Giroud knocked in the penalty. Wojciech Szczesny made two late saves to deny Emmanuel Emenike to give the Gunners a commanding aggregate lead back to Emirates Stadium next week. 

Say what you many, Arsenal’s biggest away win in five years was fully deserved, even if it said more about Fenerbahce’s failings that its own strengths.

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