A bittersweet night to remember

Last night was largely forgettable on an Arsenal front. It’s never nice to lose at home, especially after wasting so many opportunities to really put the game beyond doubt, but there was more than enough steel and spine to get the job done. There were some surprises elsewhere in the competition, as Molde fell to Granada, seeing them proceed to the quarter finals in the their first ever Europa League outing and Manchester United narrowly edged past AC Milan in the San Siro despite playing poorly on the night.

Stock photo: source (you really want to open this link)

It seems strange to even be mentioning them two posts in a row, but they just bring it on themselves. One day they’ll learn to keep quiet and when they do, I’ll stop making things like the above but for now, all we can do is revel. Now, without further ado…

The Match

For a team that created very little in the first leg at their own ground, the task ahead of Olympiakos was enormous. Needing to score three goals on the night to have any chance of going through was going to require some actual impetus from them, with or without the customary helping hand from Arsenal.

On paper, I had my concerns. I can’t think of too many occasions where players like Ceballos and Elneny have done well on the pitch at the same time. They’re both players with qualities and drawbacks. While that’s true of most professional footballers, their drawbacks tend to be a little more noticeable when they’re given too much responsibility, or when they aren’t surrounded by quality. Neither had a bad game last night, and they both deserved to avoid the January cull but the point remains.

When they swiftly made way for Thomas Partey and Martin Ødegaard barely 5 minutes after Olympiakos took the lead, their shortcomings were made all the more obvious by the ease at which their replacements wrestled back control, particularly in the case of Ødegaard. It’s fair to say that the job asked of Ceballos last night left him outside his comfort zone and in many respects, he was doing the right things. Aubameyang failed to hit the target with a poked effort after being slipped in by the Spaniard and he also found Pépé with a through-ball as he broke in behind. At the same time, he was often wasteful in possession, poor from set pieces and was once again guilty of turning the ball over before Arsenal conceded.

You never really know what game you’re going to get from him. On his day, he can produce moments of real quality, he clearly has an eye for a pass and works tirelessly. The problem is, there seems to be as many 1-star passes in his locker as there are 5s. In his second season at the club, the ability to find consistency has always escaped him and if we’re talking about his suitability as a permanent signing, you want consistency in rotational players. It also happens to be the saving grace for Mohamed Elneny – you (nearly) always know what you’re going to get with him. From a squad-building perspective, if it’s a choice between Ceballos and his new Real Madrid counterpart, it’s a no-brainer and the latter is only just getting started.

I still have some concerns about Thomas Partey, because he’s clearly not back to his best. He was still able to go through the gears and slink past players with ease when he needed to but there’s still a sloppiness to his game that’s been more evident than many would like in recent weeks. It gave him more minutes under his belt in a controlled-enough setting but he still has some ways to go.

After both he and Arteta seemingly declared the disciplinary action as water under the bridge, there were also some expectations for Aubameyang to make a statement with his performance after missing the North London derby and its jubilations. He was at least spotted en route just after 1pm for the 5:55pm kickoff, unless there’s someone else in North London with a chrome LaFerrari.

It’s still clear that his best position is centrally, simply because he’s a numbers man: he frequently gets into good goal-scoring positions and if you find him enough times, he’s going to put them away. He’s by no means the most clinical and while the chances he missed weren’t quite as glaring as those in the first leg against Benfica, the opportunities for Arsenal to be wasteful and still get away with it are running out.

There are no easy games left in this competition. Arteta probably won’t be paying too much attention to the path to the final, but there’s a very real chance of facing Unai Emery’s Villareal in the semi final and Manchester United in the final. Slavia Prague may have been one of the kinder draws (thank you Gaël Clichy for drawing that one) but I’d really love to see Arsenal put them to bed and go into the next round bursting with confidence.

They clearly have a very good record against Czech opposition but no one is truly beneath Arsenal and at the end of the day, you can’t be too cocky when you’re languishing in 10th in the Premier League. After seeing what happened to the “horrible hotspurs” (thank you for that little soundbite, Peter Drury), these smaller European teams will no doubt be heading into the ties with a renewed confidence, because the prowess of English teams in Europe isn’t what it used to be.

Ultimately, there’s not much room for concern. It was more of the same for Arsenal and even with a heavily rotated starting lineup, there were still plenty of chances to put the game to bed; Aubameyang uncharacteristically missing a one-on-one, Smith Rowe’s back was the only thing in the way of a certain goal for Pépé, Ødegaard skied it from close range after working some space for himself and Pépé’s other effort was straight at the goalkeeper. Arteta also wasted no time in pulling his finger out of his proverbial to tighten things up when they needed to be and some players got some hard-earned rest after the weekend’s efforts. I’ve been critical of his in-game management and while the changes he made were again reactionary, he made the right call.

We also got to see a cameo from Martinelli, and he’s another one where you know what you’re going to get, with a healthy dollop of chaos. His limited chances since his revitalising performance against Chelsea have given Arteta some difficult questions that he’d probably rather not answer but I don’t think there’s any room for concern about his future. He was his usual supersonic self and even with limited minutes, he was able to make an impact. I still would have liked to have seen more from him in the past few weeks but Arteta seems to have a very particular idea of what he wants on the left, and he hasn’t been able to figure out how to make Martinelli work there yet. Looking back to the home game against United in January when he was hooked at half time is still telling, because he hadn’t done anything wrong on the ball per se, it was simply a case of not following tactical instructions and Arteta needed something different. Luckily, he’s only 19 so that’s quite alright.

The next game is another test against the season’s surprise performers. I haven’t watched West Ham much this year but I know Jesse Lingard will find a way to score against us. Arsenal would do well to respect their league position and treat it with the same kind of urgency as the North London derby.

Until then.

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