By George Ankers
Arsenal have been many things in recent years but "ultra-reliable" has not been a common descriptor. Flitting between magnificent results and meek humiliations, predicting what is to come from the Gunners has felt largely like a fool's game.
Not at home, though. Not in the Champions League. Going into Wednesday's clash against Schalke, Arsene Wenger's men boast an outstanding record of just two defeats in their last 48 home matches in continental competition – and only one in 28 since moving to the Emirates Stadium.
Indeed, both of those losses were against English opposition. You have to go back to September 17, 2003, for the last time that Arsenal were defeated on their own turf by foreign opposition. A 3-0 reverse at the hands of Inter, since you ask.
The current run stands at 16, Manchester United the most recent troops to breach Fortress Emirates in the 2009 semi-final second leg. It is a record of which any team in Europe would be boastful.
|AN ENGLISH TEAM'S HOME IS ITS CASTLE
|ARSENAL'S REMARKABLE RECORD
|GAMES SINCE 0-3 v INTER, 2003
So how has Wenger masterminded this record? What does he do differently on European nights compared to your standard Premier League weekend?
The truth is: Not a great deal. The Gunners boss is not one to throw a tactical curveball. Arsenal, by and large, stick to what they know. Even accounting for the repeated injury setbacks of 2011-12, Wenger's key personnel were mostly constant when it came to the big matches.
Instead, Arsenal's shape appears particularly important. Though short of their before-it-was-cool tiki-taka peak in the Thierry Henry years – and those years certainly contributed to this superb record - the north Londoners remain one of the most competent midfield passing outfits around. With a solid trio established in the centre of his system, Wenger makes full use of this in Europe.
In an occasion nervy more for the potential ramifications of the result than for the performance itself, the Gunners triumphed over Udinese in the third qualifying round at the start of 2011-12. It was the start of a series of impressive home results in that campaign and was driven largely by the interchangeability of Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky. The three flitted around a very similar space near the centre and ensured that a simple pass was always available.
That retention of possession combined with the wide outlets provided by their full-backs meant plenty of options at all times and it was that central strength that remained a hallmark in last season's other notable victories.
The results that define the run
|Feb 14 2009
||Arsenal 1-0 Roma
|Mar 31 2010
||Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona
|Oct 19 2010
||Arsenal 5-1 Shakhtar
|Feb 16 2011
||Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona|
|Nov 23 2011
||Arsenal 2-1 Dortmund
|Mar 12 2012
||Arsenal 3-0 AC Milan
Against Milan, in a 3-0 win that oh-so-nearly turned around an impossible deficit, the Gunners were hamstrung by an injury to Arteta, though that was soon forgotten. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stepped up to the plate with a performance that Roy Hodgson cited as the catalyst for his inclusion for England at Euro 2012. Combining with the similarly outstanding Rosicky, he continued his team's habit of bossing the centre.
So why did that work so well in Europe yet so inconsistently in the domestic game? It may have been psychological. Song, in particular, was ropey in defence despite his assists but showed up when it mattered in the Champions League. Rosicky's renaissance was typified by the win-or-bust Udinese and Milan games. Arteta, when he was fit, was the only real constant in all competitions.
In 2012-13, though, this strength has been emphasised. Arteta has dropped back into Song's old position to great effect and the introduction of Santi Cazorla has added extra quality to the midfield.
|14/1||Arsenal are 14/1 with William Hill to beat Schalke 3-1 on Wednesday
For the visit of Schalke, a similar setup should be expected with safety first being the starting point. The pattern of Arsenal's home results over this remarkable run are much as you might expect; with the exception of the 3-0 battering of a complacent Milan last season, the Gunners have tended to draw with or narrowly beat the bigger teams while often thrashing the lesser lights.
That compact organisation in midfield has contributed to a fine record of just 18 goals conceded in those 49 games. Only United in that 2009 defeat scored three at the Emirates, with Chelsea in 2004 and Barcelona in March 2010 netting twice in one game.
Meanwhile, the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk (5-1), Braga (6-0) and Porto (5-0) were taught a lesson when arriving not up to scratch in 2010. With dangermen of the calibre of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ibrahim Afellay among the ranks, Schalke will more likely fit into the "big team" category, with Arsenal on their guard.
The Germans will, no doubt, prove a test for the Gunners. But Wenger's philosophy clearly suits the slightly reduced tempo of the Champions League and he has every reason to be confident.
Some rival fans may scoffingly brand the Emirates Stadium a library - but, in Europe at least, it is a fortress. It should surprise no-one to see it intact come Wednesday evening.
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