There was an assumption that the Europa League round of 32 tie would be something of a walkover for Arsenal. They’d beaten Bate Borisov 10-2 on aggregate less than 18 months ago, so it was a reasonable assumption. Add in the fact that the Belorussian team had not played a competitive match for two months, and that their league does not start again until the end of March, and the dice were certainly loaded in the Gunners’ favour. You want more? Bate started the 37 year old Alexandr Hleb (remember him?) in midfield.
Any mitigation for Arsenal’s poor performance? The stadium might have looked very futuristic from the outside, but the playing surface was like something from the 1970s. There were evidently bobbles everywhere and at times it was hard for the players to keep their footing. This was presumably a consequence of the winter weather in Belorussia. Anything else? It was cold? Hmmmm.
In fairness, Arsenal did start well and really should have been at least a goal up before the interval, such was the number of decent chances they created. The starting line-up showed Unai Emery’s intent. Let’s try and wrap this up in the first leg, presumably with the plan of rotating next Thursday so as to save some of the first choice players for the Southampton game at the weekend. Granted, Aubameyang was on the bench, but that was due to his recovering from illness. Mesut Ozil reputedly did not travel because he had not trained as much as Aubameyang since his own illness, even if he posted a picture of him looking fully involved in the open training session the day before the game.
Arsenal’s failure to score saw them punished, typically with the half-time whistle beckoning, as Bate took the lead from a set piece. Kolasinac was beaten to the ball by Dragun from a wide free-kick and Petr Cech stood no chance of stopping the header. Remarkably, Arsenal’s last five matches in this competition had seen them keep clean sheets, and another one last night would have established a record. How ironic that would have been.
In the second half, Bate allowed Arsenal to have the ball, only rarely foraying forward. Emery’s team created less than they did in the opening 45 minutes, only finding the net once, but Lacazette being flagged offside. Aubameyang, Torreira and Suarez were put on in place of Maitland-Niles, Xhaka and Kolasinac, but it didn’t make Emery’s side any more potent.
To make matters worse, Lacazette received a straight red card for an elbow and will miss the next game, and in the event of Arsenal qualifying for the round of 16, presumably one or two more. It was a deflating evening and certainly raises questions about why there was so much optimism about the Gunners’ chances in this competition. However, at least they have the opportunity to turn it around in a week’s time. It was interesting to see yesterday morning that the return game had actually sold out to silver and red members, meaning season ticket holders can put their own tickets on ticket exchange. With the game kicking off at 5.55pm, there will be a large number of season ticket holders who do not attend. Yet with the game now actually having more importance than seemed likely, perhaps the crowd will not be as low as previously suspected.
The danger of course is that, with no away goal, Arsenal will have to score three if Bate do get one. That they managed to beat them 6-0 the last time they were at the Emirates gives cause for optimism, but Emery’s men will have to be a lot more clinical than last night. They should have enough to go through, but that second half was concerning. It typified a lot of displays of late, in which the team have struggled to create opportunities. Even if they were conceding cheap goals, in the period of the unbeaten 22 match run that ended in December, the attack was compensating by finding the net with regularity. In recent matches, they have run out of steam. Is it that Ozil does not play any more? Have other sides simply worked out how to stop them? It’s a problem that needs solving because the defence looks unlikely to improve in the short term.
So not a great day at the office and a long trip home for the travelling away support. With no match this weekend, they have to wait for the return leg next Thursday to get last night’s disappointment out of the system. You would have to believe that if Ozil does not start, he is unlikely to figure in Emery’s plans again, and there is a feeling that his not travelling to the first leg means that decision has been made already. One thing that is certain though. Creatively, this team is in need of something to get out of this lull.
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