Foreword and Foreshadowing
Arteta said after the game that we “paid the price for missed chances”.
For me, that just doesn’t sit right and it feels like a very cheap summation to a very disappointing evening, of which is steeped in damages that extend well beyond this match. One of two unlikely doors into next season’s Champion’s League has been slammed shut and the other hangs on a knife’s edge.
Most crushing of all was the realisation that this felt like the beginning of the end for Aubameyang’s Arsenal chapter. I’m barely going to bother addressing the miss in the dying stages of the game – we shouldn’t have been in a situation where we needed a goal in the 120th minute after taking an away goal advantage, while fielding a full strength team at home. Anyone doing so needs to give their head a serious wobble.
Instead, I feel like we should enjoy him while we can because as it stands, I wouldn’t begrudge him leaving to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing for Real Madrid and he’s certainly a player of their calibre. More to the point, he’s too good for us and we could do with the cash. I don’t mean to be callous because I think Aubameyang has been an absolutely fantastic signing; he immediately silenced those who questioned his “attitude problem”, he proved he can score in the Premier League just as he’s done everywhere else he’s played and he’s even carried us on his back for a good chunk of the season. That’s 20 goals in all competitions for him this season – despite the largely patchy service and insistence on not making him the focal point of our attack. The only saving grace from last night was that stupendously timely bicycle kick, which was another slice of perfection from our main man. He’s bailed us out before but it wasn’t enough on this occasion.
I’d really hate to be wrong but this man doesn’t deserve to be slumming it in the Europa League at the peak of his career, not even making it through the first knockout stage while being expected to track back and put balls into the box. It’s just painful when you see what he can do with the right service. It’s one thing when the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona give you an uninvited colonoscopy but it’s not what you expect from Olympiacos.
The Reluctant Match Report
Everything goes out the window when you look at the circumstances of our deserved exit last night. I don’t know why we decided to start the game in neutral, never mind 1st gear but it took an awfully long time to even start taking the game seriously. It might have adopted the same kind of openness we saw in Piraeus but our air of unwillingness or inability was apparent.
It took until the 76th minute to even register a shot on target and for much of the game, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy at how eerily similar it felt to watching us under Emery. Zero penetration through the middle, over-emphasis on developing our play on the wings and absolutely no coherence in the final third. Throw in some brainless defending and the recipe is near-enough the same. We might have had 19 shots and the lion’s share of the possession but it counts for nothing when you barely trouble the opposition keeper and besides Pépé’s shot, he barely had to make a save. While the end product was largely lacking, the Ivorian was one of the few at least trying to take the bull by the horns and make something happen amidst a sea of ineptitude.
I should have known something was afoot when, until his untimely (and probably costly) exit, Mustafi was comfortably our best player on the pitch (like Tyson Fury making his ring entrance on a throne comfy). He really was everywhere we needed him to be, he put his body on the line on more than one occasion and it was another entry in a series of quite solid performances ever since he got David Luiz sent off against Chelsea. Make of that what you will but I at least wanted to praise a man for turning a corner when I’ve slated him as much as I have done. For what it’s worth, he somehow manages to pull off the platinum blonde as well (it’s dark times when I have to resort to talking about a player’s hair – that’s how much I don’t want to relive the intricacies of last night).
The complacency that we saw at the start was just as evident after scoring; a time we were often so vulnerable to under Emery. Aubameyang’s goal led us to believe that penalties were out of the question; our death sentence came in assuming Olympiacos would simply roll over and die.
That decisive away goal came as a result of an unchecked cross, with David Luiz and Sokratis both fast asleep as El-Arabi slipped between them. It’s a difficult game to come into for Sokratis but therein lies the problem with this squad; we have the illusion of depth but when it comes down to it, many of these players are not up to the task. Maybe that’s why Mustafi was so desperate to stay on.. he’s finally become self-aware. Lest we forget, all of this was made possible by the generosity of Bernd Leno, who, rather than blasting the ball to kingdom come, decided to invite those plucky Athenians in for a taste. Obviously, he’s another player on a very short list of those who have gone above and beyond this season but it was such a kick in the teeth to see. It really summed up the kind of lackadaisical approach we’d seen for most of the game.
Rather than bore you with the finer details of what exactly went wrong, I’ve elected to highlight just some of the circumstances which unfolded.
- Home advantage and away goal advantage, with a full-strength team
- Luiz’ culpability in both Olympiacos goals (like letting the only 6’6″ man on the pitch ghost into our six-yard box)
- Set piece frailty
- Uninspired, lifeless offensive performance relying on Auba’s brilliance to break the deadlock
- Mustafi’s untimely exit after a Man of the Match performance
- Leno trying to be Neuer
- Auba, of all people, failing to hit the target from 6 yards
- Another away goal European exit
In some ways, the heartbreak from conceding so late may have been the difference between Aubameyang hitting the target and not. We’ll never know but I think it’s a safe assumption to make that seeing such a capitulation would be a distraction. His career aspirations have been well-documented and as the clock ticks on his career, nights like tonight really are make or break. No amount of sweet nothings in his ear from Lacazette at the 105 minute mark will make up for the crushing nature of last night’s defeat.
Speaking of which…
I really thought Mikel got it badly wrong last night. Not in his starting lineup but in his in-game management, because it really is baffling to me that Lacazette was still on the pitch deep into extra time.
Yes, he’s found himself back amongst the goals. Yes, he’s still probably a long way off being confident again. But that’s what substitutes are for. When someone is playing badly, or is off the pace, or is ineffective – you make a change. We have one of the hottest teenage prospects in Europe frothing at the mouth at the prospect of playing, so why not use him in a game that was crying out for change? The other two substitutions also failed to make an impact and while that also points to said illusion of depth, leaving the ineffective Lacazette on for so long was criminal.,
We face Portsmouth at Fratton Park on Monday. It’s one of the liveliest venues in the country and they will absolutely be up for it. Arteta will be well aware of this, but his team selection would do very well to also appreciate that it won’t be a walk in the park.
Beyond that, we face West Ham in the league, which we are now all-or-nothing on. There’s nowhere to hide, there’s a huge ask and I’m just not sure if we have the personnel for it. Olympiacos dealt a hammer-blow, but we were the ones who handed them the sodding hammer.