Self-immolation

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…

Mikel

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.,

Forwards

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.


Smash and Grab

Preview

There were few surprises in the starting lineup for me; Olympiacos are a team we’re grown accustomed to over the years as fans, but as one of the evicted teams from the Champions League, they were nothing to take lightly. Their only home loss this season was after a visit from Bayern Munich and we all know what they’re capable of (I was lucky enough to celebrate a birthday at the Emirates the night of our 5-1 drubbing…).

With Mrs. Özil expecting, there was a gap in the heart of our attack that Joe Willock assumed, as he occasionally was asked to do in the turbulent days it Emery. We also saw a return to the surprisingly-not-shit-at-right-back Sokratis, as well as Matteo Guendouzi returning to the squad after his “disagreements”. I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the gutter press would have you believe and it’s hardly a revelation that a 20 year old isn’t yet zen-like in his obedience. He still had a point to prove though, because he’s slipped down the pecking order in recent weeks, if not months. Martinelli also returned to the starting lineup as Pépé made way, and I must say it’s quite nice to have that kind of depth.

The biggest deviation was Bernd Leno. We’ve seen it under Wenger and Emery, this insistence on placating the Number Two with cup appearances and I’ve never really warmed to the idea. I get that it’s a difficult one because goalkeepers are generally injured far less frequently, so opportunities are few and far between but given what is at stake, I don’t think we can afford to be taking risks at this stage. I don’t know how much Arteta will have seen from Martinez and while we put in some good performances in the group stages, he has looked a bit suspect at times and the knockout rounds are a different kettle of fish. He’s certainly improved but I’d still personally take Leno every day of the week. Sometimes, you just have to be patient for an opening; we’ve seen it with the likes of Bellerin, with Szczesny and even Saka and Martinelli this season, as they all jumped at the chance of cementing their place in the first team. Goalkeepers are slightly different in these regards because they’ve only got one position they can play (except perhaps sweeper-keeper Neuer or a set-piece specialist like Chilavert) but I’m sure there’ll be more opportunities for Martinez before the season’s out.

The Match

I didn’t really know what to expect heading into the fixture, aside from their intimidating home record but you always have to take it with a pinch of salt with teams from such leagues because it’s fair to say that UEFA seedings are somewhat skewed. The away leg was the only fixture I was concerned about and it was important to tread carefully.

They definitely started the game on the front foot, as you’d expect and we were perhaps treading a little too carefully, as they probably should have been 1-0 up in the first 5 minutes with a close-range header. It took us some time to grow into the game, and the midfield partnership I’ve been most critical of was once again lacking in it’s basic role as a transition to attack. There’s much to like about Guendouzi but he does need to work on releasing the ball quickly, as we saw from Ceballos at the weekend. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that Olympiacos set the tone of the match almost immediately; they were going to kick the shit out of us. In fairness, we didn’t shy away and the referee (being that he wasn’t provided by PGMOL) was actually on the money when it came to dishing out cards.

Despite Joe Willock’s best efforts – and the ideal canvas to do so with such a vast pitch – his ball-carrying ability was hampered by his flaky end-product and I can’t help but think he’s still being asked to be something he’s not. There were still good aspects to his play, his quick-feet and awareness on and off the ball finding a few openings and drawing some fouls but his rawness is still apparent. The same can be said for Martinelli, who struggled to make an impact on this occasion. It was a bit of a surprise because given the in-your-face approach from the Greek side, I thought he would rise to the challenge as he’s so often done but it wasn’t his night and he was sensibly taken off on the hour mark.

It gradually descended into one of those dogged, stretched games – even in the first half – where nothing in the way of concrete chances emerged and besides a Lacazette shot that went the wrong side of the post, we didn’t look overly threatening. Thankfully, after shaking the early hesitation, we gradually assumed some semblance of control. It was nice to see us unhurried in possession, playing out from the back and at least trying to develop our play going forward.

It was also the first game in quite some time where I thought we actually looked quite solid defensively; Mustafi’s calamity-free streak continued (which goes a long way in the whole “not conceding” malarkey) so we actually got to enjoy what he is good at. He’s often been lauded for his surprisingly good ability in the air despite his more meagre stature (for a centre-back), with one header in particular that he fired from inside his own half finding its way to the opposition goalkeeper. It would appear that David Luiz has slowly proven that he was a shrewd purchase after all, with another experienced and calm performance. One of the pundits also noted how vocal he’d appeared to be, and this is something that is often lost on viewers from afar – we’ve been screaming for a proper marshaller of the back line for some time… and one of those freekicks is bound to fly into the top corner eventually. I think I’d quite like one before the end of the season, preferably against Liverpool.

The introduction of Ceballos and later Pépé brought some welcome cutting edge to our front line, and despite the former failing to find the latter with a golden opportunity, instead opting to shoot himself, they both helped in stretching the game in our favour. I don’t know if it was just an illusion but the pitch really did feel noticeably bigger, as is often the case on the continent. While the game felt “leggy” throughout, the pitch size happened to be a welcome buffer when Mustafi found Aubameyang with a 45+ yard crossfield ball. He did well to keep it in, and few would have had the pace to do so. It just so happened that one of the few others who could have done so was bombing forward on the inside and for the 9th time this season, Saka was the supplier. Few have been so welcome and so valuable and Lacazette finally showed the conviction that had otherwise been absent, finding himself between the defenders – in the right place – and he got his reward.

It was a really brilliant goal, something I didn’t know we were capable of having suffered from lethargy for so much of the season. It reminded me a lot of this incredible Liverpool team; so often you’ll see the likes of Van Dijk or Alexander-Arnold fire an inch perfect ball which is then dispatched within seconds by the likes of Salah or Mané. We were just as clinical and the duck is well and truly broken for Lacazette now.

It definitely wasn’t undeserved and it very much felt like a game that would be decided by a single goal. We’re now in the driving seat ahead of next week and two good wins – WITH TWO (2!) CLEAN SHEETS – will put us in the best possible position to address the resurgent Everton on Sunday. It’s another “6-pointer” because they’re only 2 points ahead of us and are still arguably a team in contention for the now-coveted 5th place. Ancelotti’s a very capable manager and despite the success we’ve enjoyed over Everton over the years, this is another must-win game that will see us tested.

Until then.


N.B. START THROWING MONEY AT SAKA.

Limping past Liège and the group stages

Preview

Wholesale change was to be expected ahead of Sunday’s game against City. Saving a 6-0 defeat to Liège, qualification was all but assured, but it’s always best to win the group, especially with Frankfurt hot on our heels. The most notable development is the dilemma we’re now faced with at left back with Kieran Tierney’s untimely injury, leaving Kolasinac as our sole first-team left back. I thought we might see Chambers or Mustafi shoehorned in there to give the Bosnian some rest ahead of Sunday, but Saka was brought in instead as a left wingback. I wasn’t aware until the coverage started but he’d apparently played there at youth level which I’m sure intrigued Freddie given how highly he speaks of Saka.

The game was an opportunity for any player on the fringes of the first team to give Freddie food for thought ahead of his team selection on Sunday, chief among those being Alex Lacazette. Giving him the captaincy had shades of appeasement for the increasingly frustrated Frenchman, not that there were many alternatives anyway. Despite his 3 goals in as many games, he’s been well below his best of late. In these kinds of almost meaningless Europa League games, predominantly surrounded by players considerably younger than himself, a player of his calibre (and temperament) may feel it’s beneath him but we also need him to be sharp, whatever part he might play on Sunday.


The Match

I was a bit worried when I saw the make-shift backline, David Luiz forming the filling for a Greek sandwich, with a first appearance of the season for Mavropanos. David Luiz being the considerate gent that he is, decided to shift focus away from Mavropanos by being his usually unpredictable and substandard self, attempting to score from the halfway line and generally being wasteful, bordering on dangerous in possession. That being said, the younger of the two Greeks was rusty to say the least after such an absence.

The first half was a bit of a non-entity. Plenty of shots and half-chances but few clear-cut opportunities, with the best falling to Reiss Nelson just before half time. Despite having some good link-up play with Saka on the left hand side, I was disappointed with the amount of set pieces deliveries from Nelson which failed to beat the first man. Liège didn’t cause us too many problems and certainly weren’t playing like a team with an outside chance of qualifying for the knockout stages.


The second half was another matter entirely and we found ourselves behind almost immediately after a bizarre deflection and yet more poor defending. Bastien received the ball in the middle of our half, was able to control the ball, take a touch and still had time for a free shot. The lack of urgency on the edge of our box is still something that desperately needs addressing and deflection or not, I’d wager we’ve conceded considerably more goals from outside of the box than we usually do this season.

You can understand why Saka was reluctant to commit given the player outside of him, but there’s really no excuse for Nelson and Sokratis to be so vacant, the latter being particularly guilty with such a lazy attempt at blocking that actually compounded the problem. (Link for those that may have missed it to see what I’m talking about).

Ball-watching and absent-mindedness, as well as another hefty deflection were all key architects in Liège’s second, with Willock and Guendouzi both culpable on this occasion. At this point, it’s almost pointless to single individuals out because the list of culprits is growing every week. It’s systematic and really needs addressing. They were flat-footed and slow to react and no amount of bad luck with deflections/VAR/whatever can forgive that kind of behaviour. Fortunately for them, they’re young and won’t receive the same kind of scorn as some.

A reinvigorated Liège made life difficult as they seemed to finally cotton onto the fact that qualification wasn’t entirely out of their reach. Having been burned before, a small part of me feared the worst as it started to get a little dicey.

These fears were thankfully put to bed before long, with some real, top quality from Bukayo Saka. It was the kind of cross that makes you think “wow, I wish we had a player at Arsenal who could do that” because such quality in the final third has been dearly missing from these kinds of wide positions. For all of their qualities, the likes of Chambers, AMN and Kolasinac don’t quite have the finesse to pull off what we saw tonight and it was great to see. Lacazette was perfectly placed and applied the delivery the kind of finish it deserved. Much like Pépé’s flurried involvement against West Ham, no laurels were rested and Saka immediately took charge again for the second. Receiving the ball on the left, his first thought was to get his head up, saw the space and drove towards the edge of the box. The lay-off from Martinelli with his back to goal was perfectly weighted but Saka still had work to do as the ball was almost under his feet, but he dug out a shot into the far corner and that was that.


If not for Frankfurt’s late slip-up against Vitória, the nature of this result may have come back to haunt us had we ended up against one of the fallen Champions League contenders. While we’re no longer favourites given the quality of some of the teams who now join us (Ajax and Inter Milan most notably), we’re certainly still contenders.

I’m always caught in two minds with situations like this; on the one hand, if you’re serious about winning it, I think “well we have to beat them at some point, bring it on!” and then I remember the painful reality checks we’ve been subjected to by the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich in years gone by. That’s not to say the competition in the Europa League is equivalent (and we’re certainly not at the same standard as we were in those fixtures), but I’m still not overly concerned besides those two. If we play to our potential, we’ll surely meet one of those down the line anyway. For now, we’ve just about done our job and will at least get a kinder tie in the Round of 32.

As clean sheets continue to evade us, we’re at least unbeaten in two games, came from 2 goals down in Europe – away from home – and topped our group, with some more spirited and quality contributions from our talented crop of academy products. I’d have preferred a win going into Sunday but there we go.


I’m going to leave you with a classic Martin Keown death-stare. For those that might have missed BT Sport’s coverage, he’d been repeatedly mocked by host Jake Humphreys for being 40 minutes late to the match. 3 times was apparently too much for Martin and this was his bite-back:

I guess Martin values his punctuality.


Featured image courtesy of Andrew Allen

Apathetic Arsenal

Preview

Even in the darkest years of Wenger, a disappointing loss, or run of fixtures would never spill over into the next fixture. I would always have some slither of hope; on some occasions there was an air of inevitability to results, (the struggles against other big teams, European knockout stages, to name a few) but on their day, they could still pull it out of the bag. They say it’s the hope that kills you and that was a perfect summation towards the end of Le Prof’s tenure.

That feeling has genuinely vanished at this point. Not only has Saturday’s performance and result left a halitosis-equivalent aftertaste, I don’t feel at all rejuvenated ahead of tonight’s game. It feels like another ordeal we have to sit through and endure. As if the spark of European football wasn’t already watered down enough as we languish away in the Europa League, I don’t see any real positive outcome. A win would perhaps paper over the cracks and buy Emery another week in the eyes of the board, which means we have to sit through another league game. A draw or a loss means nothing in the context of our Europa League progression and it seems unlikely that the board would see a pointless cup fixture as the final straw.

We don’t know what’s been said this week behind closed doors, but David Ornstein’s revelation and choice of words might be the start of a changing tide; we can only hope “as things stand” really is as precarious as it sounds.


I don’t particularly care for Emery’s tone ahead of tonight’s game either; his plea for unity is likely falling on deaf ears at this point:

“My wish is tomorrow that the supporters and every supporter helps the team because we need them.”

Unai Emery, self-eulogy

By all accounts, our support has been patient and commendable this season. The overwhelming consensus at the start of the season was one of optimism in lieu of our active transfer dealings and the expectation that we would really crack on under Emery after a patchy (putting it kindly) first season. The away support has been flawlessly incorrigible as ever and although we have seen a breakdown at home in recent weeks, this is a symptom of our form rather than a cause and Emery would do well to appreciate the difference. As it stands, he will only alienate them further with nonsensical statements like this. Fans are fickle and reactionary; they don’t set the tone, they just respond to it. I know from experience at the Emirates that we’re a nervous bunch but the absolute best remedy is to get their act together on the pitch and the rest will follow. At the end of the day, fans pay good money to be entertained and hauling yourself to a midweek game after work, bracing the weather and unpredictable public transport, only to sit through more of the same dross won’t earn you any favours.


The Match

Exodus is a strong word (and I’m not talking about the entire Frankfurt contingent being absent) but there was a staggering number of fans missing. It’s the sort of turnout you get at reserve games.


Pushing David Luiz into a more advanced role felt like Emery playing one of his last, desperate hands as manager. Luiz struggled in the early stages and despite the knock he received, was still careless in possession on more than one occasion prior. If only Emery had an established, fit, holding midfielder at his disposal who could’ve deputised…

The injury eventually caused him to make way for Guendouzi but it was hardly a like for like swap. I was interested to see how we’d play with the David Luiz experiment but it wasn’t to be and we were subjected to the usual high-octane performance we’ve come to expect from the teenager.

Frankfurt have also been poor domestically and the manner in which they defended set pieces pointed to a team there for the taking but with the exception of the odd half-chance from set pieces, we still struggled to create meaningful chances. The Arsenal front three had Frankfurt’s back-line dead to rights for pace but the lack of creativity behind made them suffer, as tidy and adventurous as Joe Willock was in possession. For all of his qualities, he doesn’t quite fit the bill (yet) for such a position, despite Emery’s insistence on playing him there.

That being said, the best chances came from Saka and himself and although they’ve still got that rawness, there’s so much to like about them and they play with the kind of confidence you see in comfortably established players. The former’s contribution for the opener was crucial (if a little fortunate in missing the ball for Aubameyang), following some good wingplay from Martinelli. The first half was a bit of a non-entity but I’ll always enjoy a goal.


After a bright start, we assigned our first “opposition goal quota” of the evening to Kamada. It was a good turn and better finish but as is so often the case, we give the opposition all of the time in the world and that is what you get.

Naturally, we conceded again only 9 minutes later in similar fashion. I joke about having a quota, but there’s a reason we average almost 2 goals conceded a game this season. Kamada has already shown his quality so why everyone was asleep for the second ball is beyond me. If there’s one thing this team thrives on, it’s capitulation; perhaps a worrying byproduct of Baku.

Is that down to individuals not doing their job? Is it by design that no one can see the danger? It really is absolute schoolboy stuff and Martinez was understandably livid.

For all of the faults of this team, there’s a kindness to them that’s commendable – we have an uncanny ability to make bad teams look good. After going ahead, Frankfurt suddenly remembered how to play football and became a lot more organised at the back. You can point to injuries limiting Emery’s ability to change the game as he’d like but we’ve seen it all before. More to the point, he wouldn’t need to change anything if the situation wasn’t so dire in the first place. Such was our kindness, we offered little in the way of a fight to try and get something from the game but it’s hardly surprising that our confidence is at rock-bottom. The most fight I saw was Xhaka’s incredulous reaction at being penalised for a nothing-challenge, his grounds for dissent running deeper than just that moment.

For all of that fight, it didn’t stop Xhaka from fraternising after the game, seemingly unfazed by another disasterclass. At this point, it seems that he’s completely checked out. It made for stark contrast to Tierney and Chambers as they walked off the pitch, visibly frustrated as they seemed to hash out their issues.


Just as I was at the start of the night, I go into the next game feeling empty. I have no confidence that the right decision will be made, because it should’ve been made already. Likewise, I have no confidence that we’ll put in a good performance at the weekend. If I’m feeling like that, I dread to think what the players must be going through.

We can only wait and see what happens but I’m not going to lose sleep trying to second-guess the minds of the powers that be in North London. They’d do well to take note of Martin Keown’s impassioned and borderline venomous post-match tirade. Everyone really is at their wit’s end.


Arsenal 1:1 Vitória – A Wet Blanket

A wet blanket: to dampen the enthusiasm or enjoyment of a person, place or thing.


In some ways, it was lucky the game was moved to an afternoon slot because I’d have been struggling to stay awake otherwise – a really drab affair, even by our free-falling standards.

Contrary to one of Arsène Wenger’s favourite mantras of taking things “one game at a time”, however nice of a distraction the Europa League has been this season, Emery’s Cup Final on Saturday was always a lingering distraction itself. Our domestic malaise even managed to find its way into our European travels this time.

The venue might’ve been intimidating with the boisterous home support and less than ideal playing conditions but nothing about Vitória’s play bar them hitting the woodwork justified such an indifferent performance. They were often sloppy in possession, reckless in their challenging and still seemed the more likely to score, for all of their speculative efforts.

Not a single attempt in 15 minutes to Vitória’s 5 – home or away, the story’s the same. After Rob Holding’s effort in the 22nd, it wasn’t until the last kick of the half that we had our second. With a 36 year old keeper in the opposition goal, on a wet surface, you’d think we might’ve been a bit more eager to test him. 80 minutes it took to even register an actual shot on target – thank the footballing gods that was enough to score from – a Mustafi header from another good delivery by Pépé. I’m just glad the travelling away fans had something to cheer about. It’s a strange timeline we’re in when the best chances of the night fell to our dejected German, who actually had quite a tidy night as part of our back three. Speaking of which…

A Change in Heart (of defence)

Three at the back or five at the back, depending on how conservative a manager you think Emery is: he’s dabbled with 3 centre-backs in the past and I wondered if it was a trial run for Leicester, as the Europa League has so often been a safe space to escape our domestic woes.

I can’t say much changed – Vitória’s narrow and organised midfield were quick to stifle any play as soon as we encroached their half. The midfield pairing of Ceballos and Willock were energetic enough but as ever, we don’t quite have the nous to open teams up.

There were some glimpses of tidy link-up play, with some combinations between Pépé and Ainsley/Saka and Martinelli. Whether these players can form effective partnerships will be an important part of their development – sometimes its not a case of how good the individual is but how well they can perform in a system. We’ve seen the rebirth of players like Jordan Henderson, once famously dismissed by Sir Alex Ferguson because of his “funny gait”, going on to captain Liverpool to a Champion’s League victory (okay, it was against Sp*rs) and narrowly missing out on a domestic title.
Emery’s single biggest conundrum seems to be how exactly to set up a midfield. Today, we saw Ceballos shoehorned into a deep-lying role; he’s a neat and tidy player but much like Xhaka is not the right man here, neither is Ceballos. It left huge gaps in our midfield and we had very little in the way of transitional play – quickly moving the ball out from the back, that kind of thing. The trio of centre-backs should have given us more availability further up the pitch as one can always carry the ball from the back with the other two covering behind, but we rarely saw this deployed and the same cohesive problems persisted.

Martinelli continued his best Alexis Sanchez impression, as he careered around the pitch like a rabid bloodhound but for a change, he had a quiet afternoon in front of goal.

We seem to take great enjoyment in not learning from mistakes, as Vitória beat our offside trap not once but twice with consecutive free kicks from the left. Perhaps a Premier League side would’ve had the quality to actually punish us for what were unmarked headers. Not their day at the office either.

The Not-So-Grand Finale

After Ceballos’ hamstring went, I was interested to see if anything would change. Emery surely must have known about the issues and this was a perfect opportunity to make amends. Although it was a like for like swap in Guendouzi, the game becoming more stretched suited a player of his conditioning and he found himself in more advanced areas. In reality, not much actually changed.

I do wonder what Emery would’ve said had the game finished 0-0 – Mustafi’s goal was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and I was much more concerned with how we played than the scoreline. We almost managed to get an away clean sheet (which could well be one of the harbingers of the apocalypse at this point) but that’s the only way you can see a positive spin – not conceding for 91 mins instead of 95. I was almost a bit sad to see Rochina’s Di Canio effort not find its way into the back of the net – it was a fantastic effort and that goal is my favourite Premier League goal not scored by an Arsenal player.

The final whistle came like the sweet release of death and that was that.

What’s Next

Heading into Saturday without the customary European romp will surely be leaving Emery even more uneasy than usual. Despite plenty of first team absentees, the kind of performance we saw tonight is hardly going to instil confidence. I don’t even know how to feel going into it – I don’t think a win is even in the realms of possibility at this point, so should I be hopeful that it’s the final nail in the coffin? It seems alien to even consider that as a fan, but the alternative is Emery surviving because we somehow scrape a draw, then playing Southampton and seeing us play like we did this afternoon against Vitória. One way or the other, it’s going to have talking points.

Until then.

Arsenal’s Jekyll and Hyde Routine Continues

I’m all kinds of speechless. If it were not for the club’s record signing producing two moments of absolute perfection, this would’ve taken a very different direction. Many things need to be said about the rest of the game but I’m delighted that there’s now no room for doubt that Pépé is off the mark. His performances have been steadily growing in recent weeks – he was hard done by to have been replaced against Sheffield – and now he’s well and truly announced himself. Emery’s reaction when Pépé swept that ball home in the 92nd minute was quite a sight. I don’t know the Spanish for “thank fuck for that” but that’s what sprang to mind when I saw the look on his face.

Last night’s performance served as another entry in the Jekyll and Hyde routine we’ve adopted this season. Usually this competition has been a cathartic experience – an escape from the kind of dross we’re often subjected to in the league – but besides an actual fist pump and shouting “YES” for Pépé’s second, I was quiet all night, besides the odd eye-roll and stifled bit of nondescript abuse under my breath.

Anyway, I had to get that out of the way before moving onto the actual game. Such a bizarre night. According to @Orbinho, it was the first time since records began in 1992 in the League (and 2006 in other competitions) that we’d scored two free kicks in a game and he shares the accolade with Herr Ronaldo, Suárez, Bale and Neymar for achieving it in a Europa League or Champions League game. No pressure.


Keen to belay the criticism following the abject reception of yet another muddled midfield against Sheffield, Emery’s trust in Project Youth was a welcome sight (and perhaps a cry for help) heading into the game last night. Any hope was quickly dashed in the 8th minute when Vitória made their way into our box with relative ease for the 3rd time. Given the changes, it really does suggest that our problems are more systematic than down to the individual. As ever, the overriding question is: why does Emery’s Arsenal invite so much pressure? Whether by design or otherwise, it’s an unerring feature of the team. It was an interesting setting given the amount of changes Emery made; with the exception of Joe Willock, the starting lineup was changed completely. What did not change, was our capacity to make unforced errors, constantly invite said pressure and offer very little in way of attack.

Rather interestingly, it was both Tierney and Bellerin – often lauded as our eventual saviours to all our problems – who were both brilliantly deceived by Adams’ deft Cruyff turn. A well-taken goal but I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. For those in doubt – our problems really do run deeper than us simply not having our first choice fullbacks fit. Who would’ve have guessed?

Willock was lucky to not be responsible for Vitória extending their lead after a careless pass, but where he was lucky, Maitland-Niles’ was not. Both were subsequently replaced at halftime for their similarly young, ever so slightly more experienced counterparts. In fairness to Maitland-Niles, such an absence from (by his own admission) his preferred position would have played a part in some of his naivety but the finish from Duarte afforded him no such sympathy. I do feel he has a future with us in the midfield; his composure, work rate and defensive ability is still plain to see. His opportunities may be limited for the time being, though.

For a team of Vitória’s calibre, a team that had not scored in their last two games, to find it so easy to attack last year’s finalists was nothing short of astounding. 37% of possession at half time with 3 shots out of 10 on target to our 8 and 1. A story we’ve heard before. We were lucky to only concede twice.

More of the same came after the break in spite of the changes to our midfield, it seems to be a recurring feature of this team that personnel changes (with the exception of one or two gems) have little effect on the kind of chances we create. It only took 25 minutes for a scattered symphony to cry out “We’ve got Özil, Mesut Özil…” to ring around the ground. Just the two deaf ears it fell on.


Amidst the doom and gloom, there was plenty of promise shown by both Martinelli and Emile Smith-Rowe. The latter made a great return to the team and on another day, once he’s back in full swing, he perhaps may have had a brace after squandering two great chances. The Brazillian had no such issues though, and with his first real sniff of goal had already added another to his Arsenal account. Having led from the front, with even more tenacity than Alexandre Lacazette who is often playing like a bat out of hell, I was glad to see his efforts rewarded. He’s still raw and lacking in composure at times but the boy definitely knows where the goal is. Whether he can make the leap into translating these kinds of performances into League goals will be the next challenge.


Bellerín was quoted after the game as saying “sometimes you need individual magic” – the worry is this seems to be our preferred method of attack under Emery. It’s no surprise given the array of talent he has at his disposal but I’m still baffled every time we play at the sheer lack of playstyle going forward. It’s truly alien to me, both as as Arsenal fan and a football fan. Vitória recently lost to a semi-professional team in a domestic cup, have lost every game of the group stages thus far and still.. somehow.. managed to play us off the park – our own park – for large parts of the game. Every time they went forward, they played with purpose, cohesion, pace and on another day, they could have had 4 or 5. I really don’t like the feeling of “getting away with it” that more than a few of Emery’s victories come attached with.

This result was another damning continuation in this side’s struggle to create meaningful chances. Pépé’s introduction was a welcome change and we saw more of the quality he brings to this team besides his goals, as we came close with several of his deliveries from set pieces and the wing. I still can’t help but wonder what the man could do in a better system, though. He has such an arsenal of trickery at his disposal and yet we rarely see him able to make use of this in the final third where he flourished for Lille last season. With any luck, this will at least give him some real confidence to take forward against Crystal Palace. Until then…