Arsenal’s stunning start to the season so far has made them the toast of English football. Mesut Ozil has been acclaimed the best use of £45 million in Premier League history; Aaron Ramsey has been a man re-born; and it's at least two months since we read a joke about Arsenal's eight-year allergy to touching silverware.
Yet Tuesday night will be their biggest test of the season so far as they come up against last year's Champions League runners-up, Borussia Dortmund.
It's a game that headlines the list of Champions League fixtures scheduled for this week, and there will be a number of fascinating match-ups scheduled to take place right across the field.
But the game isn't likely to be decided by how many Dortmund defenders fall for the trickery and skills of Ozil, Ramsey and Olivier Giroud.
Our friends at Squawka.com explain why.
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Arteta’s numbers across the board for the season so far are well down on previous years, but it’s important to note that the 31-year-old has only recently returned from injury. Since that date he’s been battling the likes of Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini for playing time, but with the latter of that duo out for this fixture, he appears likely to play a full 90 minutes against Dortmund.
And if that is the case, look for him to be the glue that holds the Gunners together on the night.
The likes of Ramsey and Ozil might have gotten the praise for the Gunners’ success against Norwich City, but it was Arteta’s presence that allowed them to stride forward. His Individual Heat Map provides a great snapshot of how involved Arteta was as the anchor of Arsenal’s midfield, as does his Individual Passing Map also. On the night, Arteta completed 90 of his 95 attempted passes and, crucially, won 100 percent of his attempted tackles.
As we’ll see shortly, the ability to win back the ball in the middle will be very important for the Gunners against Dortmund. Arteta might be known more for his passing skills and vision, but against the attacking strength and complexity that the Germans provide, Arsenal need him to contribute heavily to the defensive effort if they’re going to maintain their perfect start to the Champions League.
While Arteta is renowned more for his creativity rather than his defensive skills, Bender is the exact opposite. The 24-year-old is a prolific tackler who has won a commanding 86% of his attempted tackles this season, and he’ll look to be a thorn in Arsenal’s desire to dominate possession and control the middle.
Bender will look to force Arteta and the Londoners into playing quicker, more expansive, passes than what they'd perhaps prefer and in doing so, invite Dortmund to force turnovers and start their explosive counter-attacks.
That’s the exact role that Bender played when up against Jacques-Alaixys Romao as Marseille played Dortmund in the Champions League earlier in the season.
Romao still got on the ball a lot and had a fairly solid night in terms of his distribution (51 from 59 passes) but he was completely ineffective. His Individual Heat Map shows that he couldn’t provide the platform for Marseille to work the ball forward, and was forced into a lot of defending and sideways movement.
Bender will be looking to force Arteta into a similar performance here: passing, but not being effective. If Bender can do that, it’s hard to see Dortmund not walking away with victory on the night.
To counter that, Arteta must be more involved defensively to stop his opponent from establishing himself (and thus Dortmund’s attack) in the Gunners’ half. While he's doing that, he also needs to provide a platform for Arsenal inside Dortmund’s own half, and in so doing give the headline-grabbing youngsters such as Ozil and Ramsey a chance to do work their magic.
Whichever of Arteta and Bender fills this role better will take a giant step towards helping their team to victory.