For Arsenal to go behind.. after that first half of football.. to Rapid Vienna.. after finally being burned trying to play out from the back.. all while our maniacal pariah typed away with glee from the comfort of his own home had all the makings of a European nightmare.
Now I, along with most others in this gig could have told you that playing a front three with both Lacazette and Nketiah was going to run into problems and we’re far from experts. I’m not sure where the inspiration from that one came from or how Arteta envisaged it playing out but it’s something I hope to never see again. The decision also came to the detriment of Bukayo Saka, who had a night to forget. Eddie was an easy scapegoat and looked lost and forlorn in unfamiliar territory, and it wasn’t until he departed on the hour mark that I began to feel assuaged.
I don’t think much needs to be said about Rapid’s goal either. In some ways, I’m amazed it took this long and we can at least be thankful it didn’t happen in a game that matters. Leno will still do well to put the flustered demeanour that followed to bed though, because the last thing you want in a goalkeeper is for them to compound one mistake into many. It at least gave Areta the impetus to do something about it and although the likes of Bellerin and Aubameyang could have done with a rest, having an immediate impact with goals and assists isn’t going to hurt them.
It wasn’t the only imbalance that hampered our performance in the first hour; having a central midfield duo of Partey and Elneny – the latter being an incredibly budget version of the former – left us with the familiar limitations we’ve grown accustomed to this season. The former more than made up for his counter-part, with an obscene full debut that barely broke a sweat, but it was no less than I’d expected for someone of his renown playing against Europa League opposition:
That’s not to say Elneny’s defence-splitting pass for Bellerín went unnoticed, but one pass isn’t quite enough to gloss over the glaring deficiencies in his game. We can also thank David Luiz for finally relinquishing the reins of free kick duty and it turns out he’s quite handy in the air. Long may that continue.
In the Egyptian’s defence, the stark difference between our first team and our Europa League fodder made life difficult until the changes. For all of Cedric’s crossing ability, he offers little else going forward (both in the match and at the club) and part of Elneny’s limited efficacy until that point is easily tied to the lack of movement and intent in the final third. The same can be said in his counterpart on the opposite wing in Sead Kolasinac, but I’ve run out of ways to profile him.
It’s also fair to say Rapid’s regimented approach didn’t help matters and it was clearly designed to stifle but in an eerily similar manner to Emery’s Arsenal, there needs to be a Plan B because this is going to keep happening. With the exception of a few of our “spark” players in Saka and Pépé trying to run at people, there’s the same lack of incision and cutting-edge where it matters.
When you’re playing against players who are on-loan from Barnsley, you should be putting them to the sword, but we can’t seem to escape the handbrake. I don’t know how many years people have been crying out for a functional defence but I don’t think anyone would have thought it would come at the price of attractive football. It’s not that we don’t still play attractive football, but it comes in flashes rather than being a staple of the team. My fear is that what started out as making us harder to beat is now in danger of becoming “scared to lose”, which was Emery’s most damning tenet.
I still have more faith in Arteta than that; a former Arsenal player and student of Guardiola and Wenger isn’t going to fall far from the tree and there’s still work to be done in terms of personnel but I just want to see more adventure going forward. No one really takes risks besides our standout performers and it’s all very predictable. While it’s early days, I do still fear by not addressing this in the transfer window, it’s going to keep rearing it’s ugly head until Arteta decides to deviate.
There is a saving grace in all this, because two players who can afford others the space to express themselves have hit the ground running.
I’ve already heaped praise on Gabriel in nearly every game this season but until he achieves the almost-saintly reverence of someone like Van Dijk, I’m not going to stop.
I keep waiting for a shaky moment but besides the odd misplaced pass, his transition to the team – and wider demands of the Premier League – have been seamless. Throw in an omnipresent machine like Partey and you’ve got that breathing space. There’s obviously a balance and I’m not suggesting we take our stabilisers off and start having a go at land speed records but there’s room to grow thanks to these two.
Our next test is the most interesting game of the season so far, because it’s a chance to test our mettle against a team who I feel we’re actually in competition with. The fight for the Top Four seems to be as competitive as ever and it’s games like this which end up being the difference.
Reports today suggest Jamie Vardy’s fitness still hangs in the balance, which means he’s obviously going to be starting. I always worry about a Luiz disasterclass with wily and clinical players like Vardy but with Partey now established, a start for him would be welcome.