In some ways, it was lucky the game was moved to an afternoon slot because I’d have been struggling to stay awake otherwise – a really drab affair, even by our free-falling standards.
Contrary to one of Arsène Wenger’s favourite mantras of taking things “one game at a time”, however nice of a distraction the Europa League has been this season, Emery’s Cup Final on Saturday was always a lingering distraction itself. Our domestic malaise even managed to find its way into our European travels this time.
The venue might’ve been intimidating with the boisterous home support and less than ideal playing conditions but nothing about Vitória’s play bar them hitting the woodwork justified such an indifferent performance. They were often sloppy in possession, reckless in their challenging and still seemed the more likely to score, for all of their speculative efforts.
Not a single attempt in 15 minutes to Vitória’s 5 – home or away, the story’s the same. After Rob Holding’s effort in the 22nd, it wasn’t until the last kick of the half that we had our second. With a 36 year old keeper in the opposition goal, on a wet surface, you’d think we might’ve been a bit more eager to test him. 80 minutes it took to even register an actual shot on target – thank the footballing gods that was enough to score from – a Mustafi header from another good delivery by Pépé. I’m just glad the travelling away fans had something to cheer about. It’s a strange timeline we’re in when the best chances of the night fell to our dejected German, who actually had quite a tidy night as part of our back three. Speaking of which…
A Change in Heart (of defence)
Three at the back or five at the back, depending on how conservative a manager you think Emery is: he’s dabbled with 3 centre-backs in the past and I wondered if it was a trial run for Leicester, as the Europa League has so often been a safe space to escape our domestic woes.
I can’t say much changed – Vitória’s narrow and organised midfield were quick to stifle any play as soon as we encroached their half. The midfield pairing of Ceballos and Willock were energetic enough but as ever, we don’t quite have the nous to open teams up.
There were some glimpses of tidy link-up play, with some combinations between Pépé and Ainsley/Saka and Martinelli. Whether these players can form effective partnerships will be an important part of their development – sometimes its not a case of how good the individual is but how well they can perform in a system. We’ve seen the rebirth of players like Jordan Henderson, once famously dismissed by Sir Alex Ferguson because of his “funny gait”, going on to captain Liverpool to a Champion’s League victory (okay, it was against Sp*rs) and narrowly missing out on a domestic title.
Emery’s single biggest conundrum seems to be how exactly to set up a midfield. Today, we saw Ceballos shoehorned into a deep-lying role; he’s a neat and tidy player but much like Xhaka is not the right man here, neither is Ceballos. It left huge gaps in our midfield and we had very little in the way of transitional play – quickly moving the ball out from the back, that kind of thing. The trio of centre-backs should have given us more availability further up the pitch as one can always carry the ball from the back with the other two covering behind, but we rarely saw this deployed and the same cohesive problems persisted.
Martinelli continued his best Alexis Sanchez impression, as he careered around the pitch like a rabid bloodhound but for a change, he had a quiet afternoon in front of goal.
We seem to take great enjoyment in not learning from mistakes, as Vitória beat our offside trap not once but twice with consecutive free kicks from the left. Perhaps a Premier League side would’ve had the quality to actually punish us for what were unmarked headers. Not their day at the office either.
The Not-So-Grand Finale
After Ceballos’ hamstring went, I was interested to see if anything would change. Emery surely must have known about the issues and this was a perfect opportunity to make amends. Although it was a like for like swap in Guendouzi, the game becoming more stretched suited a player of his conditioning and he found himself in more advanced areas. In reality, not much actually changed.
I do wonder what Emery would’ve said had the game finished 0-0 – Mustafi’s goal was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and I was much more concerned with how we played than the scoreline. We almost managed to get an away clean sheet (which could well be one of the harbingers of the apocalypse at this point) but that’s the only way you can see a positive spin – not conceding for 91 mins instead of 95. I was almost a bit sad to see Rochina’s Di Canio effort not find its way into the back of the net – it was a fantastic effort and that goal is my favourite Premier League goal not scored by an Arsenal player.
The final whistle came like the sweet release of death and that was that.
Heading into Saturday without the customary European romp will surely be leaving Emery even more uneasy than usual. Despite plenty of first team absentees, the kind of performance we saw tonight is hardly going to instil confidence. I don’t even know how to feel going into it – I don’t think a win is even in the realms of possibility at this point, so should I be hopeful that it’s the final nail in the coffin? It seems alien to even consider that as a fan, but the alternative is Emery surviving because we somehow scrape a draw, then playing Southampton and seeing us play like we did this afternoon against Vitória. One way or the other, it’s going to have talking points.