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.