So Unai Emery threw a curved ball with his team selection to start against Vitoria Guimaraes as the formation returned to three at the back. Not only that, we saw three players that started last Saturday remain in the starting eleven – Sokratis, Tierney and Ceballos. The former due to the extra central defender required, and Tierney presumably because Emery wanted to look at him in the new formation, for which one could argue the team would get the best out of him. One imagines that Ceballos may not start against Leicester by mere dent of the fact that he’s started the last two games. On that level, it’s possible Kolasinac might replace Tierney on Saturday. The latter was apparently withdrawn from the Scotland squad by Arsenal due to an “ongoing issue”, which the club want to work on during the international break, so his presence in the Gunners’ starting eleven would have raised a few eyebrows north of the border.
After all the controversy about Granit Xhaka, and none of the remaining figures in the captaincy group starting, Rob Holding wore the armband. A figure many felt should have been named club captain back in the summer, for the lack of an obvious alternative candidate. Granted, the reality that he wasn’t fit to play back then might have influenced Emery’s decision. I mean, we’ve had enough of injured captains over the years. That one of the remaining four captains, Hector Bellerin on the bench meant that Ainsley Maitland-Niles (and his neck chain) started at right wing-back.
If the change in formation was presumably a response to the leaky nature of Arsenal’s defence, it certainly didn’t work out too well, in terms of the number of attempts on goal. They got away with it for most of the game, but before half-time Martinez saw one shot hit his post and had to pull out an excellent save to prevent Vitoria going ahead. At the other end the away side barely threatened. The best thing you could say about the opening half was that somehow, the scores were level at the end of it.
The game was moved to 3.50 on a Wednesday afternoon due to fears of traffic congestion were it to be played on the scheduled Thursday, with Braga having a home game v Besiktas, 15 miles away on the same evening. Looking at the crowd for Arsenal’s game, you wouldn’t have said it would be a problem, but perhaps the kick off time and the deluge of rain dissuaded some would-be Vitoria supporting attendees. Or maybe Arsenal are not the draw they once were. It was a dog of a day, and as the rain got heavier after the interval, the conditions were far from ideal for flowing football.
Emery made three changes over the course of the second half, Guendouzi for Ceballos, Lacazette for Saka and finally Torreira for Willock (which suggests that Guendouzi and Torreira will start in midfield on Saturday, and if there are five at the back, a front three will see Ozil, Aubameyang plus one). After the interval, Vitoria ran out of steam a bit and Arsenal had greater control of the game, not that this actually led to any real increase in chances. It really felt like a nothing kind of game, and I felt sympathy for the travelling fans, who might have viewed this fixture as a good little mini-break, although at least they had a roof over them.
But cometh the moment, cometh an unlikely hero, and from a Pepe free-kick, Shkodran Mustafi headed his team ahead, with ten minutes remaining. Job done, right? Hey, this is Arsenal we are talking here. They made it as far as the 90th minute, but in injury time, suffered an equalizer. Sound familiar? Rob Holding was beaten by his man and unable to prevent him getting a cross in. A goal followed and the match finished 1-1, although Vitoria did come close to winning it twice after scoring.
On one level, it’s insignificant. This was the shadow team, and Arsenal will qualify from the group. And yet it felt symptomatic. A lack of cutting edge going forward and far too many opportunities for the opposition. It’s not promising for Leicester on Saturday, a game which should determine Unai Emery’s future, but I’d be surprised if he is going anywhere unless Arsenal concede five or more. The powers that be believe he will get it right. To the rest of us that feels like blind faith. Arsenal have suffered gradual decline since they moved stadium 13 years ago. This feels like just another stage in the process.
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