The elephant in the room…
Normally, winning 3-1 away in the first leg of a Europa League knockout match – to the team that you were eliminated by last year – should be cause for some celebration. You might even lull yourself into a dizzying excitement before the second leg, with one foot firmly placed in the quarter finals and the prospect of rubbing shoulders with other titans of Europe and Spurs.
Oh no, no, no. That scoreline doesn’t even begin to encapsulate what the wider Arsenal collective were once again forced to endure before two moments of real quality rescued another tie. Of course we were desperate to recreate Saturday’s trauma. Of course it would be the same player who knocked Arsenal out last year and of course it would be off the back of a period of total dominance and control.
I say “boring, boring Arsenal” because it’s about time they changed the record. The running gag has run aground, the clown car is full and Arsenal fans have no more hair to pull out. The whopping, great elephant in the room has to be addressed before anything else because I don’t know how it’s possible to still be having this conversation.
Before I go any further, I want everyone to cast their minds back over the last 3 matches. Against Leicester, Jamie Vardy almost scored from an errant Leno pass. Against Burnley, I questioned Leno’s judgement in passing to Xhaka, and took some flak for splitting the blame across the pair of them. On this occasion, there was plenty of ire towards Ceballos, who had just been substituted for Thomas Partey and had barely touched the ball.
Now in this conundrum, there are four viable options for Leno. Playing it out wide, to the unmarked players in space would be preferable. There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with going long and resetting. There’s even secret option number 3 which is to turn around and deliberately kick the ball out of play as if someone was injured. Don’t play it into the man with four players around him, two of which will be directly intersected by said pass – because they’re going to close him down quickly. Even without Ceballos’ clumsy, mishit pass, the window for that box pass to be successful was miniscule because of the weight of Leno’s pass and proximity to El-Arabi.
Arteta took responsibility for the mistake against Burnley because he demands the players play like this. Leno is a top goalkeeper who routinely extinguishes defensive calamities and is, as far as I’m aware, an autonomous being during matches – free to make up his own mind. There’s no stellar Argentinian breathing down his neck anymore, trying to steal his mantle. It’s another completely avoidable situation where the buck stops with Leno. The warning signs were even there from this game, let alone the rest of the season when both Luiz and Ødegaard almost played Olympiakos in themselves. If the team looks nervy, just keep it simple because better teams are going to punish those kinds of mistakes.
Playing devil’s advocate for a second, you can also blame Xhaka and Ceballos for making themselves available to ask for the ball in dangerous areas. It comes with the territory that central players are under greater pressure and it’s a necessary evil for Arteta’s system to work, but the ability to strike a balance is what continues to escape the team and it continues to unravel when left to on-the-spot judgement calls.
I’ve bandied the term “systemic” around too many times to count, but until this team gets a grip, they aren’t going anywhere.
In a continuation of recent form, Arsenal started strongly. Unhindered by recent disappointments, it was full steam ahead with eyes firmly set on European glory. Martin Ødegaard should have put them ahead with barely two minutes on the clock, as both Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerín were having a field day overloading on their respective flanks. Aubameyang also saw his well-placed header miraculously saved off the bar after a delicious clipped cross from Bellerín. Olympiakos were also nowhere to be seen and save for a few gifted passes as I mentioned, they looked as ripe for the taking as Benfica.
The early dominance petered out with nothing to show for it and after two direct free kicks were fired straight down the gullet of José Sá, an opportunity fell to Ødegaard to do the same. I didn’t realise in real-time but Partey did brilliantly to snuff out Olympiakos’ escape route by not only intercepting the ball, but passing to Ødegaard in the process with only a single touch. From there, I didn’t expect the shot to flash in, but after those two somewhat uncharacteristic freekicks from range, I wondered if they’d done their research and saw this as a vulnerability. Either that or they were all just “feeling it” on the day.
For the most part, there was no real cause for complaint. Prior to the Olympiakos equaliser, they had only managed a single, tame effort on target and you’d be fooled into thinking Arsenal were the home side such was the level of control. Positively cruising. They even managed to get into half time with the lead intact so Arteta could give them a shake-down and remind them to stop doing that thing they keep doing.
It’s hilarious at this point to look back at our run of games since the win against Chelsea and think about all of the things Arteta has got right. They really have improved in starting games on the front foot and while there’s still plenty of room for improvement, they are scoring more goals during periods of control. The problem that remains which spoiled my enjoyment last night before the inevitable even happened, was the nagging feeling that we would once again be ruing missed opportunities because we can never rule out the possibility for self-immolation. Anyway, that’s quite enough doom and gloom devoted to that particular incident and what transpired makes for a much more enjoyable recollection.
I was disappointed that Pépé was once again left out of the starting lineup. I was even more disappointed that he didn’t come on in the aftermath of their equaliser, because Arsenal suffered from the usual “calamity hangover” where they suddenly forget how to play football and the opposition comes alive. Willian had been tidy enough on the ball but with Tierney making mincemeat of Lala, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce the Ivorian. Thankfully, that particular change never happened and Willian was still on the pitch in the 79th minute to deliver a ball into deep, with the seldom-seen, successful short corner.
The header was nothing short of towering. Gabriel had real work to do in adjusting his run and even when he rose above Arsenal’s favourite transfer target, he still had to redirect the ball back across goal. The power he still managed to produce was incredible and thankfully Aubameyang didn’t get in his way, because he also flattened M’Vila. That was his third goal already in an Arsenal shirt and he continues to shine as our most promising centre-back.
The triple change made shortly after were a step in the right direction, with one exception. A sizeable chunk of the fanbase, myself included, was surprised to see one Mohamed Elneny step out but once again, I’m eating my words in questioning Arteta’s substitutions à la Willian against Benfica because the man went out there and put daylight between the two teams, like the parting of the Red Sea. The goal was pure eye candy and watching the ball helplessly swerve away from a goalkeeper’s outstretched hands never gets old. According to Arteta, he’s been “trying so hard to improve his shooting range” in training and that warms my soul because his celebration showed every ounce of that desire to improve and he’s really bailed us out on this one.
I did take issue with one particular comment from Arteta, in his praise for Willian.
“I think he was really good again tonight. I wanted to give him some continuity because he deserves it.”
I still worry about what kind of message this sends, because besides the assist, it was nothing more than a tidy performance from Willian. I appreciate that he is the player that Arteta wanted, that he and the team is invested in but if he wants to talk about deserving continuity, I can’t for the life of me understand what Pépé’s done to once again be struggling for minutes but maybe Arteta’s team selection on Sunday will tell the full story. Anyway, the job is half done and there’s a long overdue chicken cull on the horizon now.