Arsenal’s Defensive Issues Have Not Gone Away

Online Editorial: Gunners exit Europa League against Olympiacos

Arsenal’s Defensive Issues Have Not Gone Away

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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  1. markymark

    Mar 01, 2020, 21:44 #116602

    Hibbee you can stick with Markus I often get called it. The autocorrect has a mind if it’s own

  2. hibeegunner

    Mar 01, 2020, 19:52 #116601

    Markymark Sorry again autocorrect is a pain must pay attention

  3. hibeegunner

    Mar 01, 2020, 19:50 #116600

    Markus I take in your comments and agree Leno is a good shot stopper and his distribution is poor but I think with a lot of premier keepers are poor look at Pickford today England‘s no1 he is really crap how he is number 1 I don’t know but being Scottish I can’t criticise because we have had some rubbish over the years. It seems the 2 best keepers in the premiership are Brazilian perhaps Edu can find us the next 1

  4. markymark

    Mar 01, 2020, 18:45 #116599

    Hibbee - I think we played 3/7 so it was a tough call. Leno is an excellent shop stopper but distribution is suspect. Personally I’d work around that but Pepe did a season of pain with City getting them to do what he wanted and he sacrificed the keeper to do that. I have mixed feelings as often I think just boot it and get the advantage of his shot stopping The really desperate form is with Maureen not Mikel. If he gets a win against West Ham it’ll have been a very good weekend indeed. Auto speller sucks doesn’t it!

  5. Seven Kings Gooner 1

    Mar 01, 2020, 18:25 #116598

    Surely playing out from the back is an option not a playing style. The rolled out ball from Seaman to Vieira, edge of box, dragged in opposition players, a shuffle a turn, three strides later PV was in the opponents half giving the ball to Dennis, Robert or Henry . Playing out from the back needs the right players first not a manager's philosophy. Arsenal's greatest ever goal was scored playing out from the back, Luckic to Dixon, Dixon to Smith - I think we all know the rest.

  6. hibeegunner

    Mar 01, 2020, 16:52 #116596

    Sorry meant markymark Auto spell a pain

  7. hibeegunner

    Mar 01, 2020, 16:52 #116597

    Sorry meant markymark Auto spell a pain

  8. hibeegunner

    Mar 01, 2020, 16:41 #116595

    Markus Doesn’t seem to have affected wolves today Personally I don’t think Leno is a good keeper would like to give Martinez a try as he is good in the air given his size any thoughts. Interesting that Watford 3-0 winners against the champs elect never played out from the back always a punt up field

  9. markymark

    Mar 01, 2020, 9:31 #116594

    Andrew15xv - I presume 4.5m gets handed back from what I hear . In terms of football it could be a real boost with Wolves , UTD etc playing taxing Thursday games could suit us very well as we could be just 5 points behind Chelsea . However some will say we are only 10 points from relegation

  10. Andrew15xv

    Mar 01, 2020, 9:16 #116593

    Im curious as to what a season without European football entails as I have yet to live through one. How will it effect budget, sales etc? Could we have a decent domestic season?

  11. Seven Kings Gooner 1

    Feb 29, 2020, 20:42 #116592

    Have a great evening Gooners everywhere - I hope Wrighty is on match of the day tonight.

  12. John F

    Feb 29, 2020, 19:41 #116591

    They were saying on the forum that result was 125/1. No matter what people say too many draws etc,tonight's result just shows what an incredible achievement the unbeaten season was .I do not think it will ever be equaled well done Watford.

  13. Made Up Stat

    Feb 29, 2020, 19:33 #116590

    On an upbeat note: Only one Invincibles! Better luck next century Micky Mousers!

  14. markymark

    Feb 29, 2020, 19:30 #116589

    Well nowt so strange as Football. Some of us miserable after Thursday. But reality is table position and opportunity to climb it is unaffected, as Kevin stated, pressure on tired legs is lifted. Cup opportunity on Monday and last but no least our unbeaten record remains in place !

  15. markymark

    Feb 29, 2020, 11:43 #116588

    Wardy - Le Grove makes this site appear sane at the moment . I go to Le Grove to wonder at some previous Wenger Boys who have suddenly become Emery fans after his sacking. Arsenal have some of the whackiest supporters on the planet. Some need to grow a backbone and stop turning into quivering jellies after every set back. We had an 9-10 year decline it’ll take 3-5 to put it back to where it needs to be

  16. Wardy

    Feb 29, 2020, 8:08 #116587

    Wow, I've read some crap about this club but the defeat to Olympiakos takes the biscuit. Fact, tiredness was the issue, Arteta gambled with tired legs against Everton and got away with it, so fresh legs were needed on Thursday (Guendozi, Torreira, Nketiah and Martinelli should have started). He made a mistake and will learn from it. Fact, Arteta has significantly improved this lazy, apathetic, unprofessional squad of overpaid players and we are seeing commitment and effort at last. Fluidity and attacking expression will take time so be patient. Goalkeepers are good, Defensive issues will hopefully be improved when Mari plays and Saliba arrives. Forwards are Ok but either cash in on Auba if he wants to leave (hopefully not), or Laca who doesn't deserve to start at the moment (hopefully he gets back to his best soon). The main issue is the midfield, where we need pace and more creativity, there's plenty of effort now but no zip. I'm sure Arteta will get it right if the board backs him and gives him time. The club has been rotting for years, we have to be patient and get behind the team.

  17. markymark

    Feb 28, 2020, 19:41 #116586

    Psi * = ache - how the fuck did Apple spelling do that?

  18. markymark

    Feb 28, 2020, 19:40 #116585

    Bob Baylis- the knee jerk we are talking about here ( my knees no longer jerk there sort of melded together in a dull psi. ) anyway Arteta the knee jerk very very recently beat Ancelotti the dream boss for many and to me really. A drubbing by Ancelotti and it would have been a big issue . Arsenal have played a fair whack of games in a very short period including the Everton game where we were running on empty. I’m not actually too surprised that we’ve had a bum result. Even so PEA could have run it even after the defensive shenanigans. I can’t believe I’m writing this but Mustafi being carted off also didn’t help. We now have Thursday free which can’t be bad.


    Feb 28, 2020, 19:39 #116584

    My god - how we manage to go from high optimism to the depths of pessimism in 2 matches beats the hell out of me. We all know the current squad is deeply flawed & yet in only 2 months most of us can see progress & reasons to be cheerful - part 1 anyway! However the difference between a Pep/City rebuild & ours is the dynamic duo of our current financial speculator, tightwad Stanley & the unlamented King Arthur who thought he could also be Merlin the Magician - which he never was apart from his ability in convincing Stanley that he did indeed possess supernatural $ powers. To criticise Mikel so soon is ridiculous (& now the knives are even out for some of the support staff) but he will need significant financial help since the chances of picking up more than a couple of cheap "best buys" in the summer window are remote indeed.

  20. Paulward

    Feb 28, 2020, 19:05 #116583

    A significant set back and we have regressed to the bad old days defensively over the last two games. I get playing out from the back but there is a time and a place, and minute 119 is not it. Clear the ball long and drop back into your shape and you have a very good chance of seeing the game out, it’s called game management and you need players to call it as they see it...not just blindly follow a managers instructions.Having said that we were poor up front too, and I’m still far from convinced about Pepe, Nelson Martinelli and Sako look better bets in the long term

  21. ArsenalMagna

    Feb 28, 2020, 18:48 #116582

    @Bob, I understand your disappointment at Arsenal's demise under Wenger, but it hasn't been 'knee-jerk' to praise what Arteta's done. Won: 6 Drawn: 5 Lost: 2 (both unluckily as we dominated both games). He inherited a mess, yet we've seen metrics like distance covered and high intensity sprints go up. We've seen battling and determined defending for the first time in more than 10 years. He's demanded hard work publicly (something Wenger never did). He's adapted the playing style to suit individuals and motivate them better (something Wenger never did). No one has said we're definitely on an upward long-term trajectory, what we've said is that the evidence we have so far suggests we have the means to turn a corner. It's going to take Arteta a few years to expel Wenger's legacy (99% of the bad stuff we're seeing now is Wenger's legacy), but to write him off so soon is absurd. By the way, you say Arteta has no experience or gravitas, but he's worked with Pep in one of the best club sides in history, and Pep said Arteta was a definite candidate to replace him in a few years. Pep had no major experience or gravitas as a manager before taking on the role as Barca's coach - creating the greatest club side in history. Wenger had no major experience or gravitas before becoming Arsenal manager. I could go on and on...

  22. John F

    Feb 28, 2020, 18:32 #116581

    I think it might be resolved gooner ed as I am not having any problems logging in now.If people have tried 3 times and exceded log in attempts then they will have to sign in on the forum and pass answer the question {last match at highbury} then they can log in on here.

  23. gooner.ed

    Feb 28, 2020, 17:57 #116580

    Just a reminder on this from earlier in the week - I know it's a pain, but will hopefully be resolved over the weekend... PROBLEMS LOGGING IN TO COMMENT ON ARTICLES... Received this from the webmaster: "There is an issue logging into the comments section on the main site. This due to a change on the forum authentication script which has added extra security In a recent update. As a workaround if a user is already logged into the forum and they attempt to login to main site it will work. Otherwise they will get a login error." - So people, to test this, I logged into the forum, left that page open, then re-opened this one and was able to successfully log-in and comment here. Final comment from our webmaster - "I am looking into a solution." - so bear with us folks, and in the meantime, use the prescribed method!

  24. John F

    Feb 28, 2020, 16:07 #116579

    After 70mins without a shot on target I thought I had fallen asleep and woken up in Wengerland .The only thing that was missing was the Zip fiddling.The future is not so bleak with the good young players we have at the club.On champions league I think it is too much an uphill task for this team.

  25. Bob Bayliss

    Feb 28, 2020, 15:58 #116578

    It is not a "knee-jerk reaction" to say that this daming perfermance and result provides evidence of the terminal decline of the club as a major force in modern football. Arteta's very appointment as coach when we needed someone with grativas and experience confirmed that. The "knee-jerk reactions" we have witnessed has been to suggest any half-decent performances such as the win over Man United provides evidence that we have somehow started to turn the corner. The club is riddled from top to bottom with poorownervirus. I am only thankful that I weaned myself away in 2009, after more than 40 years of attending just about every home match and a good number of away games.

  26. RobG

    Feb 28, 2020, 14:52 #116577

    I didn't even realise the match was on, until I picked up todays paper and saw the result and the report. It really can't be overstated that our performances in European Cup competitions - for a Club of our supposed size and influence in our League (and we are still Englands Number 3 Club) is pityful. Compare us to 'pool or Utd., They have the pedigree to believe in their chances. We seldom do. It's not just Barca' and Bayern that spank us. A dead average Monaco team and now Olympiakos can stuff us. It's not just Wenger ; or Emery ; or Arteta. There is something fundamentally wrong with the whole outlook. Until we find our Brian Clough - or another GG who can master European knockout football - that will never change. And I won't be the only one heading for another world, before seeing us lift the CL. And I'm not planning on dying for another 15 years at least. But baring a miracle, I just can't see us coming good.

  27. Exiled in Pt

    Feb 28, 2020, 13:53 #116576

    More time on the training pitch can only be a good thing in my view . We have seen the positives out weigh the negatives so far under MA . Will be interesting to see who we can actually get rid off in the summer and how much funding he has to improve the squad. Not so sure we should get to carried away with Saliba the lad is only 18 and may struggle to adapt to the pace of the PL but he does look a good prospect . I would like to see Mari play on Monday as he also looks very good in the air and composed on the deck ..

  28. GoonerRon

    Feb 28, 2020, 13:51 #116575

    Very frustrating to lose the match in such an avoidable way. The only positive if the lack of midweek games means more time on the training ground to sort out our obvious issues across the pitch. Harsh on Auba to miss that chance at the death but won’t hold him responsible - to score 20 goals by February in a team as dysfunctional as this, largely playing off the wing, is borderline miraculous.

  29. ArsenalMagna

    Feb 28, 2020, 12:00 #116574

    I've seen the usual knee-jerk reactions to this loss, people saying so and so should be sold, that 'the bounce is over'. The truth is that it's going to take Arteta years to drain the swamp Arsene created. He has done a great job instilling fight and passion in the team, tackling too. What needs to happen next is a major focus on defensive work, particularly aerially. I totally agree Kev that more time is needed on the training pitch. It completely changes the complexion of the rest of the season now, with a week to prepare for each game. It could have been six extra mid-week games which almost certainly would have impacted each subsequent weekend's performance. I was relieved personally. The players looked knackered vs Burnley and Everton, last night too. They're obviously fatigued, and it was always going to be a choice between EPL and EL - thank heavens we've got the former, which we would have had to play the first XI for anyway. Fatigue shouldn't be such an issue given our excellent squad depth, lack of players going on international duty, as well as the fact we don't have group stage games for the first team, so there's certainly an inquest that could be made re: our medical/fitness teams, the pitches at the training ground (Rio Ferdinand said they were too hard and this might explain all the injuries we'd suffered) and maybe even Arteta's approach to rotation. But we can't change that this season. Just be thankful we didn't get to the final this time, dead on our feet. We actually have a decent chance at winning a trophy and getting CL football now.

  30. Paulo75

    Feb 28, 2020, 11:01 #116573

    I wont duplicate any of the main article, all well made points. Struggle to understand how such a pivotal fixture can produce such a flat performance - not just on this occasion. We are 4 points off 5th and the possibility of CL football so that has to be the target which I suppose will be helped by less fixtures. I have to assume Arteta is mending and making do with so many of these players in the interim before a summer cull as we are so far off where we should be as a team. Many areas of the team require overhaul, hopefully Saliba has what is required in central defence, but I think we have been sorely missing a playmaker a la Fabregas / Cazorla who can be more incisive between midfield and the front line. Watching Xhaka and co stroking endless sideways passes around bores me to tears. Until proven otherwise, Pepe looking like the proverbial £72m elephant in the room.