There were few surprises in the starting lineup for me; Olympiacos are a team we’re grown accustomed to over the years as fans, but as one of the evicted teams from the Champions League, they were nothing to take lightly. Their only home loss this season was after a visit from Bayern Munich and we all know what they’re capable of (I was lucky enough to celebrate a birthday at the Emirates the night of our 5-1 drubbing…).
With Mrs. Özil expecting, there was a gap in the heart of our attack that Joe Willock assumed, as he occasionally was asked to do in the turbulent days it Emery. We also saw a return to the surprisingly-not-shit-at-right-back Sokratis, as well as Matteo Guendouzi returning to the squad after his “disagreements”. I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the gutter press would have you believe and it’s hardly a revelation that a 20 year old isn’t yet zen-like in his obedience. He still had a point to prove though, because he’s slipped down the pecking order in recent weeks, if not months. Martinelli also returned to the starting lineup as Pépé made way, and I must say it’s quite nice to have that kind of depth.
The biggest deviation was Bernd Leno. We’ve seen it under Wenger and Emery, this insistence on placating the Number Two with cup appearances and I’ve never really warmed to the idea. I get that it’s a difficult one because goalkeepers are generally injured far less frequently, so opportunities are few and far between but given what is at stake, I don’t think we can afford to be taking risks at this stage. I don’t know how much Arteta will have seen from Martinez and while we put in some good performances in the group stages, he has looked a bit suspect at times and the knockout rounds are a different kettle of fish. He’s certainly improved but I’d still personally take Leno every day of the week. Sometimes, you just have to be patient for an opening; we’ve seen it with the likes of Bellerin, with Szczesny and even Saka and Martinelli this season, as they all jumped at the chance of cementing their place in the first team. Goalkeepers are slightly different in these regards because they’ve only got one position they can play (except perhaps sweeper-keeper Neuer or a set-piece specialist like Chilavert) but I’m sure there’ll be more opportunities for Martinez before the season’s out.
I didn’t really know what to expect heading into the fixture, aside from their intimidating home record but you always have to take it with a pinch of salt with teams from such leagues because it’s fair to say that UEFA seedings are somewhat skewed. The away leg was the only fixture I was concerned about and it was important to tread carefully.
They definitely started the game on the front foot, as you’d expect and we were perhaps treading a little too carefully, as they probably should have been 1-0 up in the first 5 minutes with a close-range header. It took us some time to grow into the game, and the midfield partnership I’ve been most critical of was once again lacking in it’s basic role as a transition to attack. There’s much to like about Guendouzi but he does need to work on releasing the ball quickly, as we saw from Ceballos at the weekend. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that Olympiacos set the tone of the match almost immediately; they were going to kick the shit out of us. In fairness, we didn’t shy away and the referee (being that he wasn’t provided by PGMOL) was actually on the money when it came to dishing out cards.
Despite Joe Willock’s best efforts – and the ideal canvas to do so with such a vast pitch – his ball-carrying ability was hampered by his flaky end-product and I can’t help but think he’s still being asked to be something he’s not. There were still good aspects to his play, his quick-feet and awareness on and off the ball finding a few openings and drawing some fouls but his rawness is still apparent. The same can be said for Martinelli, who struggled to make an impact on this occasion. It was a bit of a surprise because given the in-your-face approach from the Greek side, I thought he would rise to the challenge as he’s so often done but it wasn’t his night and he was sensibly taken off on the hour mark.
It gradually descended into one of those dogged, stretched games – even in the first half – where nothing in the way of concrete chances emerged and besides a Lacazette shot that went the wrong side of the post, we didn’t look overly threatening. Thankfully, after shaking the early hesitation, we gradually assumed some semblance of control. It was nice to see us unhurried in possession, playing out from the back and at least trying to develop our play going forward.
It was also the first game in quite some time where I thought we actually looked quite solid defensively; Mustafi’s calamity-free streak continued (which goes a long way in the whole “not conceding” malarkey) so we actually got to enjoy what he is good at. He’s often been lauded for his surprisingly good ability in the air despite his more meagre stature (for a centre-back), with one header in particular that he fired from inside his own half finding its way to the opposition goalkeeper. It would appear that David Luiz has slowly proven that he was a shrewd purchase after all, with another experienced and calm performance. One of the pundits also noted how vocal he’d appeared to be, and this is something that is often lost on viewers from afar – we’ve been screaming for a proper marshaller of the back line for some time… and one of those freekicks is bound to fly into the top corner eventually. I think I’d quite like one before the end of the season, preferably against Liverpool.
The introduction of Ceballos and later Pépé brought some welcome cutting edge to our front line, and despite the former failing to find the latter with a golden opportunity, instead opting to shoot himself, they both helped in stretching the game in our favour. I don’t know if it was just an illusion but the pitch really did feel noticeably bigger, as is often the case on the continent. While the game felt “leggy” throughout, the pitch size happened to be a welcome buffer when Mustafi found Aubameyang with a 45+ yard crossfield ball. He did well to keep it in, and few would have had the pace to do so. It just so happened that one of the few others who could have done so was bombing forward on the inside and for the 9th time this season, Saka was the supplier. Few have been so welcome and so valuable and Lacazette finally showed the conviction that had otherwise been absent, finding himself between the defenders – in the right place – and he got his reward.
It was a really brilliant goal, something I didn’t know we were capable of having suffered from lethargy for so much of the season. It reminded me a lot of this incredible Liverpool team; so often you’ll see the likes of Van Dijk or Alexander-Arnold fire an inch perfect ball which is then dispatched within seconds by the likes of Salah or Mané. We were just as clinical and the duck is well and truly broken for Lacazette now.
It definitely wasn’t undeserved and it very much felt like a game that would be decided by a single goal. We’re now in the driving seat ahead of next week and two good wins – WITH TWO (2!) CLEAN SHEETS – will put us in the best possible position to address the resurgent Everton on Sunday. It’s another “6-pointer” because they’re only 2 points ahead of us and are still arguably a team in contention for the now-coveted 5th place. Ancelotti’s a very capable manager and despite the success we’ve enjoyed over Everton over the years, this is another must-win game that will see us tested.
N.B. START THROWING MONEY AT SAKA.