Oh, well. Let’s look on the bright side. The Thursday-Sunday cycle, which we might have had to endure for another six times this season, is over, so we might see a bit more Saturday football between now and mid-May. The other plus is that surely Mikel Arteta will not be under any illusions about the quality of his current squad’s ability to defend going forward. Even Pep Guardiola had to suffer this in his first season at Manchester City, and personnel changes were made – although at the Etihad, they had a more substantial budget to do that than in North London, albeit used against the rules as far as the authorities are concerned.
That Arteta fielded his strongest possible line-up yesterday evening told us all we needed to know about his view of the game’s importance. I believe there was genuine optimism that winning a third European trophy for the club was very possible (and after the last two campaigns, justified). Yes, the play in the first half was a bit laboured, but Arsenal were in the box seat in the tie and were surely under instructions not to take risks. It was a policy that didn’t work as the visitors scored a precious away goal after 52 minutes.
It was another example of the team’s inability to deal with set pieces, as was seen when they played Everton last weekend. Then, their strikers got them out of jail. Last night, they were up against a better defence than Carlo Ancelotti’s team. The Olympiacos scorer was their six feet six inch centre back Cisse. A corner was floated into the penalty area and he had a free run to the edge of the six yard box where no-one challenged him for the header. David Luiz, who in theory was covering this zone if you consider zonal marking was the plan, stood and watched. On the edge of the area, Aubameyang was marking two players, one of them Cisse. Mesut Ozil was marking space in front and in theory could have helped out his team-mate, but of course, we know that isn’t going to happen. Later when Torreira came on, even though he was shorter, he at least tried to grapple with a larger player to make life difficult. Next season, William Saliba arrives from St Etienne– reputedly a beast in the box. How Arsenal need him. David Luiz is a good ball-playing defender, but when you get down to the basics, he didn’t pick up too much from playing alongside John Terry. It was a poor and avoidable goal to concede, park football stuff. Make life difficult for the big men at a corner.
Arsenal did dominate in terms of territory and possession, but the Greek side’s tactic was always going to be occasional forays forward and hope to nick something. Defensively, they were very organized, and limited direct chances on their goal. This shouldn't be a huge surprise, their national team won the Euros back in 2004 playing this way. It works for them.
Their fans had a huge allocation, presumably okayed with the police as a consequence of a lack of trouble on their previous visits, and made plenty of noise. The home sections were nowhere near as full, but a decent number turned up to the support Arteta’s men. It was unfortunate that, surely due to travel issues, a number streamed for the exit at the end of the 90 minutes. They missed some real drama, but at least did not suffer the trauma of the dying minutes, a rollercoaster of emotions.
Extra time allows a fourth sub, so after the introductions of Torreira and Willock for Ceballos and Bellerin in normal time, we saw Sokratis replace the injured Mustafi shortly before the extra time interval, and Martinelli come on for Lacazette moments later.
With seven minutes left, and a penalty shoot-out looming, an Ozil cross came off a combination of Martinelli and his marker and allowed Aubameyang just enough space to hit a sumptuous overhead kick into the net. Cue delirium. The celebrations amongst the players were intense, and it was good to see how much it mattered. What followed was a heartbreaker. Martinelli broke forward and wasted a chance that could have sealed things but subsequently Arsenal had control of the ball in their own half. Granit Xhaka played a perfectly reasonable pass to Bernd Leno, but he made a hash of it and put the ball out for a corner. Now Leno had pulled off a fantastic save with the score at 1-0 in normal time, but this really wasn’t good. He put his team under pressure when there was no need. The Olympiacos keeper came up, and initially the corner was dealt with. However, the ball came back in, David Luiz decided not to head it out for another corner, wrongly assuming there was no danger behind him. Bad decision. El Arabi met it to slide it pass Leno. Many of the home support gave up and left at that point.
However, Arsenal only needed to equalize to make it 3-2 on aggregate, and ensure that away goals were an irrelevance. A gilt edged chance came as the ball fell to Aubameyang in the box, and with the whole goal to aim at, he put it just wide. As Arteta said after the game “details”. Key moments when players did not get it right. I’ll not be harsh on Aubameyang – yes, he should have scored, but the team should never have been in a position where he had to. They shot themselves in the foot by conceding two avoidable goals, the second one from a corner gifted to them by Leno’s inability to do the right thing with the ball.
But this is Arteta / Guardiola football. Get used to it. The keeper’s first thought has to be to retain possession. This is what Leno did, rather than hoofing it to a less dangerous part of the pitch. It isn’t going to change. Arteta might change his keeper in time to get someone who is better at playing the ball out, but the philosophy will remain. Possession is king, and will be the prescribed method over a percentage punt unless there really is no choice. The keeper simply made a hash of it, with ultimately fatal consequences for this season’s interest in Europe. Even so, the team should have been able to deal with the corner, but David Luiz had a far worse match than the keeper.
So, no choice but to focus on the attempt to scramble up the league, with four highly winnable fixtures until after Easter and the visit of Leicester. Arteta will also have hopes of being in the last eight of the FA Cup. The upside of the… Arsexit (sorry), is that at least a potential six midweek fixtures and three trips abroad before the end of the domestic season are now avoided, giving his squad greater recovery time and more opportunity for Arteta to work on ‘details’ on the training pitch. The bottom line is that the quality is lacking in certain areas. Sometimes, this is a consequence of injury, such as Hector Bellerin’s struggles to recapture his form of old. Sometimes, it’s simply buying players who can’t do certain things – Luiz is a footballing defender rather than a body-on-the-line type (which in fairness Shkodran Mustafi has shown he can be). The manager’s role is to get the best out of his players, but who knows whether the marking for the first Olympiacos corner was down to the head coach or the players. You’d have liked to think there was enough experience on the pitch to realize Aubameyang had two big men on the edge of the area and needed help.
The Europa League was not going to be an easy competition to win. Last season was a great chance, but the players lost heart in the final once the first goal went in. The mentality was not right. This year, I’d argue that Inter, managed by Conte, are going to be very difficult to beat, and I’ll probably put a bet on them after I’ve written this. If there is to be a winner from the Premier League, I’d fancy Wolves more than Manchester United. Arsenal’s exit could be a blessing in disguise, only time will tell. What will not change in the near future though is the team’s lack of ability to deal with balls being crossed into their box. Four goals have been conceded this way in the last two matches. Opposition teams will target this weakness, starting with Portsmouth on Monday night and Arteta has to find a solution.
Additionally, there is the psychological blow of the defeat and its nature. This has proven fatal for Arsenal players going way back – arguably as far back as 2004. They don’t seem to be able to ‘get back on the horse’ easily after a good run comes to an end. This, as much as anything, is a test of Arteta’s abilities. He has to lift his players. We know the spirit is there – we saw it against Chelsea, against Everton, and they almost turned disaster into triumph last night. That spirit can take a club a long way and it’s vital that the new head coach taps into it now and we see a response, starting on Monday evening at Fratton Park.
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