Wholesale change was to be expected ahead of Sunday’s game against City. Saving a 6-0 defeat to Liège, qualification was all but assured, but it’s always best to win the group, especially with Frankfurt hot on our heels. The most notable development is the dilemma we’re now faced with at left back with Kieran Tierney’s untimely injury, leaving Kolasinac as our sole first-team left back. I thought we might see Chambers or Mustafi shoehorned in there to give the Bosnian some rest ahead of Sunday, but Saka was brought in instead as a left wingback. I wasn’t aware until the coverage started but he’d apparently played there at youth level which I’m sure intrigued Freddie given how highly he speaks of Saka.
The game was an opportunity for any player on the fringes of the first team to give Freddie food for thought ahead of his team selection on Sunday, chief among those being Alex Lacazette. Giving him the captaincy had shades of appeasement for the increasingly frustrated Frenchman, not that there were many alternatives anyway. Despite his 3 goals in as many games, he’s been well below his best of late. In these kinds of almost meaningless Europa League games, predominantly surrounded by players considerably younger than himself, a player of his calibre (and temperament) may feel it’s beneath him but we also need him to be sharp, whatever part he might play on Sunday.
I was a bit worried when I saw the make-shift backline, David Luiz forming the filling for a Greek sandwich, with a first appearance of the season for Mavropanos. David Luiz being the considerate gent that he is, decided to shift focus away from Mavropanos by being his usually unpredictable and substandard self, attempting to score from the halfway line and generally being wasteful, bordering on dangerous in possession. That being said, the younger of the two Greeks was rusty to say the least after such an absence.
The first half was a bit of a non-entity. Plenty of shots and half-chances but few clear-cut opportunities, with the best falling to Reiss Nelson just before half time. Despite having some good link-up play with Saka on the left hand side, I was disappointed with the amount of set pieces deliveries from Nelson which failed to beat the first man. Liège didn’t cause us too many problems and certainly weren’t playing like a team with an outside chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.
The second half was another matter entirely and we found ourselves behind almost immediately after a bizarre deflection and yet more poor defending. Bastien received the ball in the middle of our half, was able to control the ball, take a touch and still had time for a free shot. The lack of urgency on the edge of our box is still something that desperately needs addressing and deflection or not, I’d wager we’ve conceded considerably more goals from outside of the box than we usually do this season.
You can understand why Saka was reluctant to commit given the player outside of him, but there’s really no excuse for Nelson and Sokratis to be so vacant, the latter being particularly guilty with such a lazy attempt at blocking that actually compounded the problem. (Link for those that may have missed it to see what I’m talking about).
Ball-watching and absent-mindedness, as well as another hefty deflection were all key architects in Liège’s second, with Willock and Guendouzi both culpable on this occasion. At this point, it’s almost pointless to single individuals out because the list of culprits is growing every week. It’s systematic and really needs addressing. They were flat-footed and slow to react and no amount of bad luck with deflections/VAR/whatever can forgive that kind of behaviour. Fortunately for them, they’re young and won’t receive the same kind of scorn as some.
A reinvigorated Liège made life difficult as they seemed to finally cotton onto the fact that qualification wasn’t entirely out of their reach. Having been burned before, a small part of me feared the worst as it started to get a little dicey.
These fears were thankfully put to bed before long, with some real, top quality from Bukayo Saka. It was the kind of cross that makes you think “wow, I wish we had a player at Arsenal who could do that” because such quality in the final third has been dearly missing from these kinds of wide positions. For all of their qualities, the likes of Chambers, AMN and Kolasinac don’t quite have the finesse to pull off what we saw tonight and it was great to see. Lacazette was perfectly placed and applied the delivery the kind of finish it deserved. Much like Pépé’s flurried involvement against West Ham, no laurels were rested and Saka immediately took charge again for the second. Receiving the ball on the left, his first thought was to get his head up, saw the space and drove towards the edge of the box. The lay-off from Martinelli with his back to goal was perfectly weighted but Saka still had work to do as the ball was almost under his feet, but he dug out a shot into the far corner and that was that.
If not for Frankfurt’s late slip-up against Vitória, the nature of this result may have come back to haunt us had we ended up against one of the fallen Champions League contenders. While we’re no longer favourites given the quality of some of the teams who now join us (Ajax and Inter Milan most notably), we’re certainly still contenders.
I’m always caught in two minds with situations like this; on the one hand, if you’re serious about winning it, I think “well we have to beat them at some point, bring it on!” and then I remember the painful reality checks we’ve been subjected to by the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich in years gone by. That’s not to say the competition in the Europa League is equivalent (and we’re certainly not at the same standard as we were in those fixtures), but I’m still not overly concerned besides those two. If we play to our potential, we’ll surely meet one of those down the line anyway. For now, we’ve just about done our job and will at least get a kinder tie in the Round of 32.
As clean sheets continue to evade us, we’re at least unbeaten in two games, came from 2 goals down in Europe – away from home – and topped our group, with some more spirited and quality contributions from our talented crop of academy products. I’d have preferred a win going into Sunday but there we go.
I’m going to leave you with a classic Martin Keown death-stare. For those that might have missed BT Sport’s coverage, he’d been repeatedly mocked by host Jake Humphreys for being 40 minutes late to the match. 3 times was apparently too much for Martin and this was his bite-back:
I guess Martin values his punctuality.
Featured image courtesy of Andrew Allen