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…