Euphoria for Schalke after beating Arsenal for first win in England
LONDON -- When it was all over, Lewis Holtby was determined to get Mikel Arteta's shirt -- even though the Schalke 04 midfielder had long been substituted before the final whistle at the Emirates. The Bayer Leverkusen players who queued up to get their hands on the jersey of Lionel Messi after two heavy Champions League defeats a year ago were heavily criticized by their superiors, but Holtby didn't have to fear a similar reprimand on Tuesday night. The 22-year-old was entitled to his "souvenir of beautiful evening" after a fine performance, and in addition, he could plead special circumstances.
"Arteta was a massive player for Everton, the club that I support, so I had to have his shirt," said Holtby, the son of a British soldier and German mother.
Three points and a nice memento were not the only spoils for the Bundesliga team, however. The 2-0 win over Arsenal showed just how far Schalke has progressed in recent months. Schalke, for all its defensive rigor and cutting-edge qualities up front, had a (well-deserved) reputation for coming up short against the bigger sides over the last few weeks. After a 2-1 derby triumph at Dortmund on Saturday and the win in London, that view has lost a lot of credence though.
"We knew that we could do it, but tonight we really showed that we can do it as well," Holtby said. "You can see our different mentality. Perhaps we were a little too deep (in the past) against better teams, now we have the courage to attack them early."
In truth, it took the visitors 15 minutes to shake off some early wariness. The momentum changed completely, however, when Ibrahim Afellay nearly won a penalty with a dive. Referee Jonas Eriksson didn't fall for the Dutchman's ploy, but Schalke suddenly sensed Arsenal's vulnerability. Little by little, one fine interception from the outstanding Roman Neutstädter in central midfield, they took control of the game. If it looked like both sides were settling for a stalemate at first. The Royal Blues could count themselves unlucky that they weren't ahead by the break.
The goals, when they came, had an air of predictability about them. Arsenal's left back, André Santos, who'd been repeatedly embarrassed by the dynamism of Schalke's Peruvian winger Jefferson Fárfan, played Huntelaar onside. The Dutchman didn't miss his second chance on the night to bring the lack of killer instinct in the Londoner's attack into sharp relief in the 76th minute. Ten minutes later, Fárfan skipped past Santos again to set up Ibrahim Afellay to make it 2-0. For Arsène Wenger, serving a touchline ban in the stands, that strike must have been especially galling -- he, too, had been interested in the services of the Dutch international, who's playing for Schalke on loan from Barcelona.
Schalke coach Huub Stevens, conversely, was a very happy man. You could tell because he acted gruff, reprising his favorite role as the Bundesliga's angry old man, albeit without much conviction.
"I wasn't happy at all with the first half," he said, "we gave the ball away too much and didn't have courage."
The criticism was so over the top in light of his side's thoroughly deserved win, its first ever on English soil, that it had to be understood as an attempt to douse euphoria.
"Arsenal is still favorite to win the group," Stevens continued. There is little danger that this team, a hard-working, street-smart and immensely talented outfit, should get carried away, however. "It wasn't a perfect night because there is no such thing," Holtby said. "You can always improve."
That certainly holds true for Arsenal, too. The performance, coming so quickly after the listless 1-0 defeat at Norwich on Saturday, had a demoralizing effect on the players and the crowd. "I don't know why we're not playing better," said captain Thomas Vermaelen. The booing at the end would have been a lot worse if three quarters of the stadium hadn't already been deserted after Schalke's second goal.
It really was the worst of both worlds, as far as the hosts were concerned. Santos' ineptitude, bafflingly not rectified by his substitution, rolled out the red carpet for Schalke's attackers and unsettled a back four that had shown signs of improvement earlier on in the season. The Brazilian had almost no protection from an incoherent, passive midfield but still turned in a performance not worthy of the shirt. And at the other end, Gervinho took unpredictability to a whole new level. The Ivorian continually outfoxed himself with runs devoid of purpose and direction.
Arsenal assistant Steve Bould spoke of his team being "jaded" and "lacking confidence." But the problems go deeper. Arsenal is a lightweight in the center in the absence of Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, whose return is imminent. Up front, neither Gervinho nor Olivier Giroud look capable of providing a regular supply of goals. Lukas Podolski has been inconsistent on the left, and the team's reliance on Robin van Persie for inspiration seems to have been replaced by an equally worrying reliance on Santi Cazorla, who is becoming targeted by wily opposition managers.
Some of the few hundred Arsenal supporters still left at the final whistle applauded the Germans off the pitch. This wasn't just the famous British sense of fairness at play but an expression of nostalgia. As