HANGZHOU, CHINA - JULY 16: Theo Walcott of Arsenal in action during the pre-season friendly match between Hangzhou Greentown and Arsenal at Yiwu Meihu Stadium on July 16, 2011 in Hangzhou, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Arsenal and Udinese face off in the first leg of their Champions League playoff tie at the Emirates Stadium Tuesday. Though Arsenal are financial giants while Udinese are a small provincial club, their current similarities are massive.
Though Arsenal FC play in one of the biggest cities in the world while Udinese Calcio play in a geographical and cultural region with under one million people, they are presently very similar clubs. Arsenal has a state of the art stadium and a large budget, things which Udinese does not have, but both teams have been more or less forced into selling key players this summer. When the teams square off in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League playoff tie on Tuesday, both will be looking to unproven youngsters to step up and become stars in the absence of now departed world class talent.
Arsenal are certainly the favorites on Tuesday and probably the favorites to take the entire tie, but it remains to be seen exactly how hurt they have been by the departure of Cesc Fabregas. Based on their performance against Newcastle in the opening week of the English Premier League season, the answer to that question is 'a lot' when they do not have Jack Wilshere in the lineup.
The progression of Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were almost certainly a key part of why Arsene Wenger felt the time was right to sell his captain and best player, but the former player will be unavailable with an injury. Also unavailable will be Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie, who are suspended. Though, Nasri might be a Manchester City player by kickoff of the match anyway.
These injuries, along with the questionable fitness of Tomas Rosicky, will limit Wenger's choices in midfield and could ultimately lead to a team that is lacking in flair (at least by Arsenal's standards) and the killer instinct required to finish off a game. It's actually very easy to envision a game that is extremely similar to Saturday's 0-0 draw against Newcastle United, in which the Magpies' midfield frustrated a Gunners side that was superior and should have been able to find a goal before Gervinho was sent off.
Udinese face similar problems, though they seem to have done a good job of replacing their talent with frugal signings, something Wenger is yet to do for his side. Alexis Sanchez, Gokhan Inler and Cristian Zapata are all gone, but all of them have been replaced in some way, shape or form. With under one million people residing in Friuli and less than 100,000 residing in Udine, the club doesn't have the type of support required to raise the money to buy world class replacements for the players that they lost. Their scouting network is excellent, however, and they should be able to minimize the drop-off in quality in their squad.
Danilo was brought in from Palmeiras to replace Zapata and Thierry Doubai was brought in from BSC Young Boys to replace Inler, but Alexis Sanchez is a fairly irreplaceable player for a club like Udinese. Barreto has joined from Bari, while Diego Fabbrini has come in from Empoli. Along with Swiss international Almen Abdi, who should see more playing time this year, and Floro Flores, who is a true striker, they will collectively try to fill the hole that was left by Sanchez.
Manager Francesco Guido looks likely to stick to his system that is based around a three-man back line and a three man center of midfield. Based on the opposition and personnel in the team, it can look like any of a 3-5-2, 3-5-1-1, 5-3-2 or 5-3-1-1. In any event, the basic principles are the same and the setup creates a very bad matchup for any team who attempts to play in a 4-4-2 formation against them.
Unfortunately for Udinese, Arsenal do not traditionally play a 4-4-2 formation. The fact that Wilshere and van Persie are injured makes it infinitely less likely that Wenger will opt for such a formation. Injuries more or less set his center of midfield and center forward for him, so his choices are out wide, where two of Theo Walcott, Gervinho, Andrei Arshavin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will have to start. Smart money is on the first two, especially after Arshavin was wholly ineffective against Newcastle at the weekend.
From a pure formation standpoint, this is a good matchup for Arsenal. However, Udinese are a very solid team who have undone just as many teams playing 4-2-3-1 as they have been undone by. In theory, Gervinho and Walcott should be able to pull the back three out of position, creating space for Marouane Chamakh, the likely starter at striker, and the central midfielders who should be making late runs into the box. In practice, that is not always the case. Arsenal's setup and advantage in possession should have turned into clear cut scoring chances against Newcastle and it didn't. Arshavin and Rosicky were average and Gervinho's red card made things extremely difficult on his team. The game is never is easy on the pitch as it is on paper.
Arsenal can and should win at home on Tuesday evening, but they're hardly locked into a place in the UEFA Champions League group stages. The Gunners will not just be getting a simple 180 minutes against an inferior team who lays down and dies.
Projected Arsenal Lineup (4-2-3-1): Szczęsny; Gibbs, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Sagna; Song, Ramsey; Gervinho, Rosicky, Walcott; Chamakh
Projected Udinese Lineup (3-5-1-1): Handanovič; Neuton, Coda, Benatia; Pasquale, Asomoah, Doubai, Pinzi; Abdi; De Natale
Arsenal vs. Udinese kicks off at 2:45 pm ET, 7:45 pm BST. It can be seen on Fox Soccer Channel in the USA.