Stand-in playmaker Pandev can still make Arsenal's life difficult
Arsenal’s finest spell of football so far this season came during the opening half of the 2-0 victory over Napoli back in October. The Gunners dominated possession throughout the contest, immediately imposing their intricate, one-touch passing style on Rafael Benitez’s side, and intelligently attacked down the flanks despite the absence of natural wingers. In the reverse meeting this week, however, things should be much trickier.
At Emirates Stadium, Napoli were handicapped significantly by the absence of Gonzalo Higuain, who has proved a revelation since moving to Naples from Real Madrid over the summer. A former Arsenal transfer target, he was ruled out of the previous meeting between the sides through injury – although had previously played against Arsenal this season, in the Emirates Cup. Somewhat bizarrely, Higuain was booed by Arsenal supporters, despite the fact his transfer fell through because Arsenal weren’t willing to pay Madrid’s asking price – rather than because of a decision from the Argentine centre-forward himself.
So far this season, Higuain has been involved in a goal per game – he’s registered 10 goals and six assists in 16 starts, and has proved the perfect replacement for Edinson Cavani, who joined PSG in the summer.
His playing style at Napoli has been very different from his style at Real Madrid. Under Jose Mourinho, Higuain seemed like something of a decoy, a pivot who would hold up the ball and make clever runs to allow Angel di Maria, Mesut Ozil and, in particular, Cristiano Ronaldo space. He was also a reliable penalty box poacher, of course, often making clever runs when the ball was out wide.
However, Higuain has been particularly impressive in a different ways during his time with Napoli. Primarily, he’s proved useful with his pace in behind the defence, whether running onto through-balls or dribbling past opponents. This was particularly obvious during the 2-1 victory over Dortmund on Matchday 1, when he repeatedly exposed Dortmund’s fluid defensive system by charging in behind, scoring the opener before getting Roman Weidenfeller dismissed.
He constantly received passes in the final third, but never attempted to pass to a team-mate in a dangerous position – he was attacking solo. Arsenal will have to be extremely wary of his runs.
At the Emirates, Goran Pandev led the line, but was barely involved in the contest as Napoli struggled to work the ball into attack – he doesn’t offer Higuain’s pace in behind.
In Benitez’s first-choice side, the Macedonian is only a substitute. But the absence of Slovakian playmaker Hamsik means Pandev will instead be deployed in the number ten role behind Higuain, and while he doesn’t offer the power and drive of Hamsik, he effectively becomes a second striker when the ball is in wide positions.
With three goals and an assist in his last two matches, Pandev has proved capable of chipping in with goals from that deeper position, which is no surprise, as a natural centre-forward. He also scored a fine goal against Arsenal at the Emirates Cup in August.
Equally importantly, he’s also proved capable of playing as a number 10 in a wider sense. He’s dropped back onto the opposition holding midfielders to disrupt their passing game, and has often picked up possession in deep, central positions. Crucially, he’s also linking well with Higuain – the Argentine was the most frequent recipient of his passes, which shows Hamsik’s playmaking skills aren’t completely being missed.
The match at the Stadio San Paolo will be very different to the contest at the Emirates – with Arsenal needing only a point to progress, Arsene Wenger’s side are likely to be more cautious away from home. Their first task is simple – stop Higuain and Pandev. If those two don’t score, Arsenal should progress.