Dortmund's hard-pressing approach troubles Arsenal in draw
Dortmund's profligate finishing wasted a number of fine opportunities
Arsenal employed a 4-2-3-1 with Mikel Arteta deployed deeper than expected
Dortmund's aggressive high pressing flustered Arsenal at times
Is there ever such a thing as a fair result? Borussia Dortmund will probably feel aggrieved that it didn't beat Arsenal despite a welter of chances, and yet the equalizer that ensured a 1-1 draw two minutes from time was freakish, Ivan Perisic's dipping volley flying into the top corner as Kieran Gibbs headed clear a free-kick. By that stage, Arsenal had every reason to feel aggrieved, having defended securely for 75 minutes. In that sense, if both parties felt simultaneously frustrated and relieved, 1-1 probably was the right result.
The first 11 minutes looked dreadfully ominous for Arsenal. Dortmund's hard pressing clearly rattled players short on confidence after a miserable start to the season domestically. Again and again Arsenal gave the ball away, with Laurent Koscielny and Alex Song particularly wasteful. With Dortmund's two fullbacks playing high up the pitch the Arsenal back four was repeatedly outflanked.
Arsenal was fortunate at that stage that Dortmund panicked whenever opportunities presented themselves. Kevin Grosskreutz , slipped in by a typically diagonal pass from Robert Lewandowski, sidefooted dismally high. Shinji Kagawa, running on to a ball over the top from Mats Hummels, blasted well over. The pass was wonderful, but exposed -- albeit to a lesser degree -- one of Arsenal's failings in the 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford: as the defense held a high line, nobody challenged the man on the ball, who was then able to measure a pass into the space between back four and goalkeeper.
Then came Dortmund's best chance of that spell, the lively Mario Gotze cutting in from the right, waiting for Lewandowski's diagonal run back the other way, and laying a vertical pass through for him. Lewandowski rounded Wojciech Szczesny, and slid his shot goalwards, only for Bacary Sagna, somehow, to get back and block on the line. At that point it seemed a matter not of whether Dortmund would win, but how many it would win by.
Slowly, though, Arsenal drew the sting from the game. It had initially looked as though Arsenal would match Dortmund's 4-2-3-1. As it was, Mikel Arteta played much deeper than expected, between Song and Yossi Benayoun so there was often a shield of three in front of the back four. That meant Arsenal often had seven men in its third of the field against four from Dortmund, which in turn meant that it was able to keep possession relatively comfortably once the home side's initial surge had blown itself out. It was so successful at doing that, in fact, that by halftime Arsenal had enjoyed 55 percent of possession.
Arsene Wenger's capacity as a tactician is often called into question, but here he got the plan absolutely right. A lot of the pregame talk had been of going in with two ball-winners, with Emmanuel Frimpong alongside Song at the back of the midfield. Instead, Wenger preferred to defend through possession, to frustrate Dortmund simply by keeping the ball away from them.
And Dortmund did get frustrated, its passing at times flustered. One bad pass gifted possession to Benayoun, who knocked it forward first time for Van Persie. A slightly awkward bounce meant the ball got caught in his stride and his shot was easy for Roman Weidenfeller to save. That was a warning for Dortmund, but another sloppy pass cost it four minutes before halftime.
Sebastian Kehl is 31 and, frankly, looks as though he's a different generation to his teammates. Had Nuri Sahin not been sold to Real Madrid, he almost certainly wouldn't have played (in fact, although he was captain, this was the first game he'd started this season, and he only started three last). His pass to Hummels was short, allowing Van Persie to steal in. The error was devastating; not only were Arsenal given the ball in a dangerous area, but Hummels, expecting a simple pass to be completed, was out of position for an Arsenal break. Van Persie's run behind Hummels was perfect, as was Theo Walcott's through-ball, and the striker had time to measure his finish.
Inevitably, chasing the equalizer, Dortmund had more of the ball after the break, but as Arsenal defended well, chances were relatively scarce. The left back Marcel Schmelzer, charging by Gotze on the inside, wasted a fine position after being laid in by the 19 year old, scooping something that was neither shot nor cross well over the bar. Gotze, cutting in form the left, dragged a low shot just wide, and Neven Subotic shot straight at Szczesny after a corner had rather fortuitously fallen at his feet six yards out.
Just when Arsenal was in touching distance of a win, though, Perisic struck. The harshest critic might say Gibbs should have got more distance on his clearing header, but in reality there was little wrong with it. But as the ball, spinning viciously, dropped, the Croatian struck a magnificent effort, cutting across the rotations so the ball looped and dipped well beyond Szczesny's reach. If it was meant it was stunning, but it's hard to imagine anybody could catch such a difficult ball so cleanly with any regularity.
When Arsenal reached the final in 2005-06, it was excellent in away games at keeping the ball. There were times in Dortmund when Arsenal was reminiscent of the last 16 game then against Real Madrid or the quarterfinal against Juventus. It was never as sustained or as secure as then, and at other times the passing was dreadful, but there were patches in which Arsenal was magnificently composed and that bodes very well. The concern must be that the midfield three lacks the dynamism to get forward to join the front three and so Arsenal is very reliant on Theo Walcott and Gervinho to lead breaks.
Dortmund, meanwhile, simply didn't take advantage of the chances its pressing created. Real high-tempo pressing is probably only possible for, at most, 20 minutes or so in each half. It is to an extent a gamble, because if a goal doesn't come during that spell then a side then has to deal with fatigue. Dortmund created the chances, but poor finishing and poor crossing meant that the goal didn't come; and, in the end, it was left reliant on the sort of brilliant, unpredictable goal that exists outside any sort of tactical planning.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.