A Champions League quarter final in London, but a season of parallels between two former European champions.
There has been a parallel nature to Arsenal and VfL Wolfsburg this season, both have new managers and as such have had to go through routine teething problems around shape and the utilisation of personnel. Both are top of their respect leagues but with the current champion snapping at their heels and more than once this season, both have looked highly questionable.
After their loss to Barcelona, Arsenal boss, Jonas Eidevall spoke about not being able to “coach momentum” and it was indeed something the Gunners were low on after a thumping loss at the hands of Chelsea in the FA Cup final. The loss, not necessarily the catalyst to their skid as much as the first signs of it was the early warning for Arsenal, but like a car that had already hit a patch of black ice, there was little anyone at the wheel could do.
It wasn’t as if Wolfsburg didn’t have their own run of errors, goals rather papering over the cracks as summer turned to Autumn in Lower Saxony. But those issues seem largely behind the She Wolves now, the team having embraced as fluid style that brings out both the attack and defensive best of Tommy Stroot’s team. For Arsenal, there is more rigidity, or at least, less flow than their previous manager attempted to find – hence why clear Montemurro players have not enjoyed as much time on the pitch.
So, when the draw was made for the quarter-finals, this match stuck out as one of the ones to watch – although by the time the fourth of the first-legs kicked-off in North London, all the clashes had been scintillating in their own way. Even rolling into the match day with Wolfsburg having played twice in the previous week, including a less than comfortable win against SC Sand, the game seemed poised on the edge of a coin.
When Beth Mead raced through and put her shot just wide less than 40 seconds in the match, you’d be forgiven for thinking Arsenal were about to have things all their own way. It was in fact Wolfsburg who showed both, the better attacking instincts as well as defensive nous. Tabea Waßmuth’s glanced header 20 minutes into the match gave the visitors the advantage that Arsenal couldn’t work out how to wrestle away from them. The Wolfsburg defence played every minute as if it was the very last knockings of stoppage time in a cup final, their dogged determination not allowing the Gunners through. For their part, Arsenal were sloppy in front of their own fans, each player on the pitch playing as if they were in a slightly different time zone to all the others.
In truth, there were few gilt-edged chances for either, the woodwork came to Arsenal’s rescue twice within a minute after Vivianne Miedema had arrived just too late to connect with a shot across Almuth Schult’s goal. Often the two teams cancelled each other out, Wolfsburg’s resilience came into question as the effort they’d exerted over the week began to tell but the connections continued to look wonky for Arsenal. Both sides opted for snap-shots, the visitors better at trying to build as a team but there were few heart-racing moments of pure quality. Their strengths parallel, their weaknesses parallel.
Maybe not exactly on the same blades of grass as Waßmuth when she scored, Lotte Wubben-Moy capitalised on the same slack defending that her side had shown in the first half in the same box, to allow the opening goal. Tobin Heath’s late low free kick one that pinged around in the area before rolling free for Wubben-Moy to bring under control and lash home. It was a late reprieve for the hosts and arguably no more than they deserved for their efforts, and of course, how else would the teams keep their parallel parity without an equaliser.
The second leg is kindly, finely poised, although English teams – and not just Chelsea – have historically struggled with European matches in Germany. In 14 trips to Germany in the Champions League, including when it was the UEFA Cup, English teams have only one once and that was ten years ago (although that team was Arsenal).