Sometimes, football can be wonderfully simple. Last night, Arsenal were faced with a simple task of keeping their season alive by staying in a competition. 90 minutes to win, against a team with a “formidable” home record who hadn’t lost a game since November 2019. Unfazed by the prospect of facing their dear, high-collared Basque-Transylvanian in the next leg, or what may lie beyond.
The tone was well and truly set before the first whistle was even blown, with a predictable kind of standoff. There’s not much use getting into the finer details of that, but it’s safe to say that every player out there had more than usual to play for.
Arteta was steadfast behind his new discovery and besides Smith Rowe coming in for Martinelli, the things that made them tick against Sheffield were left well alone. Pépé was still brought back over to the left wing to accommodate Saka on the right, who then left a Smith Rowe-sized nook. There’s an emerging beauty in this, because besides the centre figure in all of this, it doesn’t seem to bother them in the slightest where they’re actually played. At this point, Saka’s played in virtually every position on the pitch, Pépé is comfortable on either wing and Smith Rowe is human polyfilla.
As time goes by, it would be all too easy to forget that it wasn’t as straightforward as the half time scoreline suggested. Until Smith Rowe’s goal was ruled out, I was thinking “we’ve actually got a game on our hands”. Their ‘keeper had remembered how to pass and they were almost slick on the ball at times, and it was easy to see why they’ve won the Czech First League for the last 3 seasons.
There were glimpses of what was to come. Players slipping their marker, even in their own half as Chambers did, Pépé looking keen to hit them early (not that he had to wait long anyway). It wasn’t a meekness from Arsenal but rather a case of finding their feet and not taking anything for granted. On my second viewing of the first half, knowing what was to come and the cut-throat manner in which they did it, I realised it was really just patience because they had the same kind of zip and tempo as they’d shown against Sheffield United. Given the comparative strength of reigning champions in one league and a team well and truly anchored to the depths of another, I half-wondered if Arteta’s preparation for this game was simply showing them the first leg on repeat. Slavia were poor in the first leg and Arsenal’s waste and lethargy gave them a free pass.
I still didn’t expect a disallowed goal to open the floodgates, especially in that manner, but therein lies the power of some “fear factor”. In flashing that shot past the ‘keeper, Saka and players like him make you think twice the next time they’re running at you, because they were saved by a technicality rather than their own merits. Having an offside decided by a toe’s length is never fun, especially when you have to wait for 2 minutes in the dark while they deliberate but I like to think about what Slavia were going through in that time. The crowd nervously jeered the decision and celebrated as if they’d scored themselves but the players just looked relieved.
There was so much to like about the first when it did actually come, though. Not only was it the most important, for the win conditions of the tie and belief, but it was technically and tactically superb. After Pépé’s jinxing run and cross was dealt with, Arsenal won the ball back on the edge of Slavia’s box. Immediately played across to Chambers, he slams it into Lacazette’s feet who takes the sting out completely to lay off Smith Rowe. This was already looking good from a technical standpoint, but the concentration of quality in such few touches between Smith Rowe and Pépé is what makes this.
After Smith Rowe’s point-blank shot was blocked, he takes out three Slavia players. With 3 touches. The first to nutmeg one, the second a deft touch to evade a challenge and the third through the legs of another defender. It was still hardly on a plate for Pépé, because he was forced to quickly get his body across to ride the challenge. There was also no real opening to shoot first time because the ‘keeper was out just as fast, standing his ground and Pépé needed to set himself but the finish was effortless. I thought his strength and finish was good in the first leg and this was a cut above. And who doesn’t love an ear-pointing celebration to a stunned crowd?
From there, it was a piece of cake. Less than 2 minutes after Smith Rowe’s goal was ruled out, Arsenal were legitimately in front. Within 9 minutes, the tie was over. The second was down to more fluid, technical quality. Playing the ball into feet and moving quickly, with Smith Rowe peeling off Saka’s shoulder to anticipate the third ball, which came in from Chambers over the top. Even if the penalty wasn’t given, Arsenal had flooded the box anyway and probably would have found another but Lacazette stepped up to do his usual.
The third was just as technical and devastating. Starting with a header into feet from Xhaka, Smith Rowe was available (as always) for a one-touch layoff to Partey. No additional touches from him, straight into Chambers who shimmies past one player before feeding Saka. Once he had the ball at his feet, it was trademark Saka and they gave him too much space so he could pick his spot. I don’t know what made him go near post, whether it was a move from the ‘keeper or watching his far-post effort denied earlier but it left everyone else dumbfounded and that was that.
From there, it all got a bit boring. After being starved of goals for much of the season, I wanted blood but it wasn’t to be. In some ways, we played like City once they went 1-0 up against Arsenal. Control, back down into second gear, no stress. And that, presumably, is what Arteta wants on a regular basis.
Four changes at half time from Slavia and presumably some kind of bollocking put a redundant tourniquet on the tie, and I did wonder if Arteta might have done something similar because there were some meaty challenges flying in on some players that we really couldn’t afford to lose. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
There was still some pressure to resist after the break but there wasn’t a single player that put a foot wrong. Partey was immense in midfield and led the way in the metrics he usually dominates, the backline was resolute and Slavia weren’t even able to manage a shot on target on their home turf. The level of control and concentration never dipped and the scoreline was a perfect reflection of that.
Lacazette’s second was the icing on the cake and a nice throwback to the player that first arrived at Arsenal. Granted, that time isn’t too long ago but it’s nice to be reminded that he still has that in his locker and I’d forgotten how much I miss his “angry” finishing. Even in the pits of this season, seeing him asked to do things that didn’t look natural or be something that he wasn’t, he’s through the other side looking sharp and the first leg miss already seems like a distant memory (almost). With Aubameyang’s malaria contraction, the timing of Lacazette’s purple patch couldn’t be better because he’s sorely needed to make this system work, If anything, it’s a shame Arteta didn’t arrive at this point sooner but playing without “recognised” fullbacks is perhaps the key.
This is where the fun begins, and I’m not talking about the Fulham game. The prospect of facing Unai still fills me with dread. The idea of Unai in the minds of Arsenal fans is rightly tainted, but he’s back where he’s comfortable, doing the same kind of things that put him on the map. Arteta has shown some real nous already in tackling the big occasions head on but this is a different kettle of fish entirely. While I suspect the days of the never-ending-overlap-into-horseshoe-lather-rinse-repeat are behind Unai’s Villarreal, I still worry about what the maniac has in his locker. His Europa League record speaks for itself and he knows this Arsenal team better than all but Arteta, and will no doubt be watching Arsenal’s performance in the knockout stages from dawn ’til dusk.
The tie itself is so heavily laden in unpleasantry. Arsenal depend on this Europa League thing working out until the very end, and Unai just so happens to be the most accomplished Europa League manager out there. It would be humiliating to bow out against him after his dismissal, and the thought of that doesn’t bear thinking about but my main concerns are simple: I think it’s going to be difficult. The language is no longer against him and he’s clearly wasted no time in getting back to what he does best. Villarreal are also a much better side than any team we’ve faced thus far in the competition, and there won’t be the same room for complacency and average-ness that we’ve sporadically seen against Benfica, Olympiakos and Slavia. For Arteta, it’s a chance to claim another scalp in world football and an important defence of his credentials. The scriptwriters appear to be back in action with this one.