I’m all kinds of speechless. If it were not for the club’s record signing producing two moments of absolute perfection, this would’ve taken a very different direction. Many things need to be said about the rest of the game but I’m delighted that there’s now no room for doubt that Pépé is off the mark. His performances have been steadily growing in recent weeks – he was hard done by to have been replaced against Sheffield – and now he’s well and truly announced himself. Emery’s reaction when Pépé swept that ball home in the 92nd minute was quite a sight. I don’t know the Spanish for “thank fuck for that” but that’s what sprang to mind when I saw the look on his face.
Last night’s performance served as another entry in the Jekyll and Hyde routine we’ve adopted this season. Usually this competition has been a cathartic experience – an escape from the kind of dross we’re often subjected to in the league – but besides an actual fist pump and shouting “YES” for Pépé’s second, I was quiet all night, besides the odd eye-roll and stifled bit of nondescript abuse under my breath.
Anyway, I had to get that out of the way before moving onto the actual game. Such a bizarre night. According to @Orbinho, it was the first time since records began in 1992 in the League (and 2006 in other competitions) that we’d scored two free kicks in a game and he shares the accolade with Herr Ronaldo, Suárez, Bale and Neymar for achieving it in a Europa League or Champions League game. No pressure.
Keen to belay the criticism following the abject reception of yet another muddled midfield against Sheffield, Emery’s trust in Project Youth was a welcome sight (and perhaps a cry for help) heading into the game last night. Any hope was quickly dashed in the 8th minute when Vitória made their way into our box with relative ease for the 3rd time. Given the changes, it really does suggest that our problems are more systematic than down to the individual. As ever, the overriding question is: why does Emery’s Arsenal invite so much pressure? Whether by design or otherwise, it’s an unerring feature of the team. It was an interesting setting given the amount of changes Emery made; with the exception of Joe Willock, the starting lineup was changed completely. What did not change, was our capacity to make unforced errors, constantly invite said pressure and offer very little in way of attack.
Rather interestingly, it was both Tierney and Bellerin – often lauded as our eventual saviours to all our problems – who were both brilliantly deceived by Adams’ deft Cruyff turn. A well-taken goal but I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. For those in doubt – our problems really do run deeper than us simply not having our first choice fullbacks fit. Who would’ve have guessed?
Willock was lucky to not be responsible for Vitória extending their lead after a careless pass, but where he was lucky, Maitland-Niles’ was not. Both were subsequently replaced at halftime for their similarly young, ever so slightly more experienced counterparts. In fairness to Maitland-Niles, such an absence from (by his own admission) his preferred position would have played a part in some of his naivety but the finish from Duarte afforded him no such sympathy. I do feel he has a future with us in the midfield; his composure, work rate and defensive ability is still plain to see. His opportunities may be limited for the time being, though.
For a team of Vitória’s calibre, a team that had not scored in their last two games, to find it so easy to attack last year’s finalists was nothing short of astounding. 37% of possession at half time with 3 shots out of 10 on target to our 8 and 1. A story we’ve heard before. We were lucky to only concede twice.
More of the same came after the break in spite of the changes to our midfield, it seems to be a recurring feature of this team that personnel changes (with the exception of one or two gems) have little effect on the kind of chances we create. It only took 25 minutes for a scattered symphony to cry out “We’ve got Özil, Mesut Özil…” to ring around the ground. Just the two deaf ears it fell on.
Amidst the doom and gloom, there was plenty of promise shown by both Martinelli and Emile Smith-Rowe. The latter made a great return to the team and on another day, once he’s back in full swing, he perhaps may have had a brace after squandering two great chances. The Brazillian had no such issues though, and with his first real sniff of goal had already added another to his Arsenal account. Having led from the front, with even more tenacity than Alexandre Lacazette who is often playing like a bat out of hell, I was glad to see his efforts rewarded. He’s still raw and lacking in composure at times but the boy definitely knows where the goal is. Whether he can make the leap into translating these kinds of performances into League goals will be the next challenge.
Bellerín was quoted after the game as saying “sometimes you need individual magic” – the worry is this seems to be our preferred method of attack under Emery. It’s no surprise given the array of talent he has at his disposal but I’m still baffled every time we play at the sheer lack of playstyle going forward. It’s truly alien to me, both as as Arsenal fan and a football fan. Vitória recently lost to a semi-professional team in a domestic cup, have lost every game of the group stages thus far and still.. somehow.. managed to play us off the park – our own park – for large parts of the game. Every time they went forward, they played with purpose, cohesion, pace and on another day, they could have had 4 or 5. I really don’t like the feeling of “getting away with it” that more than a few of Emery’s victories come attached with.
This result was another damning continuation in this side’s struggle to create meaningful chances. Pépé’s introduction was a welcome change and we saw more of the quality he brings to this team besides his goals, as we came close with several of his deliveries from set pieces and the wing. I still can’t help but wonder what the man could do in a better system, though. He has such an arsenal of trickery at his disposal and yet we rarely see him able to make use of this in the final third where he flourished for Lille last season. With any luck, this will at least give him some real confidence to take forward against Crystal Palace. Until then…