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Gunner Thoughts

Cautious Side Sees Saka Provide Another Golden Moment

Mikel’s cautious tactics are rewarded with another clean sheet, another win, and another golden moment from Bakayo Saka. Read about this and other important notes from yesterday’s first leg in Greece.

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Check out the Match Report here.

A night in Greece where the air was rife with Arsenal’s cautious approach paid off for Mikel Arteta and the Gunners. It was far from a flawless night but an effective one. There were shaky stretches to begin both halves, but in the end, Arsenal got their goal, another assist for Bakayo Saka to add to his tally, and 2 in 2 for both Lacazette (2 goals in 2 games) and Arsenal (2 wins in 2 games). It’s a precious win away from home and one that puts Arsenal in a good position to advance to the next round after their second leg back in London.

This may not have been the exact recipe that was Mikel Arteta was hoping for, but given the clearly cautious tactics, the end result will always justify the means. They were tactics that were vindicated by the fact that Olympiacos proved to be everything they were built up to be. They were a side that is leading the Super Greece League with a +41 GD, a team that hasn’t lost since November (v. Tottenham), and a club with an atmosphere around the stadium that could rival or beat most clubs that Arsenal face in the Premier league. Add to that the fact that Arsenal have been poor away from home, historically, and that players like Ozil, Torreria, and Bellerin were unavailable – a person could hardly be surprised at the approach.

Before the match, the lineups were announced with a few changes from the weekend. Ozil, Ceballos, Pepe, and Bellerin were replaced by Willock, Guendouzi, Martinelli, and Sokratis. As surprising as Sokratis coming into the side to play the as right back was, we saw Mikel also decide to play his number one keeper, Leno – a decision that I have no problem with given the importance of this Europa League competition. Martinez may feel a little slighted, since he has played all the previous Europa League fixtures, but if the game demands your best line up then your best keeper should be included.

This switch paid off early, as Arsenal struggled at the start and were let off the hook by a few wasted, Olympiacos chances and a very nice save from Leno. Looking back, Olympiacos will feel like they should have had an early lead that would have caused this game to play out very differently. However, because Arsenal remained level, they were able to continue to play cautiously with their two defensive midfielders, Guendouzi and Xhaka, to offer cover for the back line without feeling the need to throw numbers into the attack to get level.

After the shaky first ten to fifteen minutes, Arsenal slowly gained footing through possession and began to create a few opportunities. No one could argue that Arsenal were the fast-paced, high-flying team we saw at the weekend, but given the differences in opposition and atmosphere, the “Newcastle tactics” could have created some real problems. Instead, they opted for a more measured approach. One with patience, a bit of grit, and that David Luiz called “a mature game” to the media after the match. It was clear Arsenal didn’t want to concede and would look to patiently defend when they needed to – knowing this was building a foundation for the second leg back at the Emirates.

When a team plays with a style that keeps 4 to 6 players disciplined defensively, it requires a level of offensive efficiency. Although he would go on to score the game-winning goal, which we will talk about in a bit, Lacazette was definitely the culprit early on with a few golden chances missed.

With it 0 – 0 at the half, Arsenal would look to be a little more daring in the second half. Cautiously daring, but a step up from the first half. You could see them wanting to facilitate Arteta’s style of looking to play in the opposition’s half of the field, while maintaining the maturity that these tactics demanded. “They have to enjoy defending as well” Arteta said after the game, and with the scoreline staying level at zero, a draw would have sufficed.

In the 58’, Ceballos would come on for Martinelli who struggled to get anything going on the evening (6 passes and under 20 touches). Ceballos would move into the midfield and Willock would move to the wing after an okay night in the number 10 role saw him attempt to push the ball forward with the space he was given, but falter in the final third trying to pick out the incisive final ball.

In the 74’, Arteta would get a little more offensively daring and bring on Pepe for Joe Willock. Pepe took up the right wing, bringing a rather quiet Aubameyang back to the left side where he has played for Arteta. After a streaky yet composed game, Arsenal managed to create something out of almost nothing. Mustafi played a cross-field ball that Aubameyang did an incredible job handling. The ball was long and took a difficult skip of the wet turf and somehow Auba managed to wrangle it in, in the corner. From there, a fantastic run from Saka into the box saw him create another golden moment to add to his breakout season. With a pass that gets more impressive the more they break it down, Saka led Lacazette into space in the six-yard box for an easy game-winning tap in. 1-0 to the Gunners.

If anyone wants to argue that Arsenal were fortunate in the opening minutes not to have gone down early, they could also argue the Gunners misfortune in the final minutes. On a clear counterattack, Arsenal found themselves with space and numbers only to have Lacazette’s shot saved for a corner. Could he have done better with the shot? Should he have made one extra pass to Pepe? It could be argued all day, but it left fans feeling like they should have easily been up by two and sealed the game. To add to the misfortune, the ensuing corner saw Sokratis put a header off the crossbar and a rebounded header from Mustafi went wide.

In the end, it worked out. Could have been better, could have been worse. Arteta came in with the tactics he wanted, the team clearly understood them and their role within the game plan, and they go out of Greece with a win, an away goal, and a cushion to come back to London with – one of the best, plausible outcomes for a game at Olympiacos.

After the game, Arteta spoke about the team’s character saying:

“Absolutely. It is tough to come to a stadium like this, away in Europe, and get a win and there were a few lessons in the game for us, and some great things for our development as a team… I was telling them that they have to enjoy defending as well, it is a big part of the game and like tonight, if you give simple balls away, you better run back and get that ball back as quick as possible. They played with a big heart, I saw a lot of big effort and instead of splitting it joins together really quickly.”

Next up, Everton and Carlo Ancelotti.

Things of Note:
  • Willock allotted a lot more time and space by teams than Ozil ever receives. Early on, Olympiacos seemed content to deal with him once he was one the ball rather than following his movements out wide to keep him accounted for the way that team deal with Mesut Ozil. He lacked a final ball showcasing the fact that Arsenal have few options outside of Mesut for that #10 role – like him or not.
  • Aubameyang was extremely quiet on the right wing, similar to Martinelli when he played the right wing. Whether it is because they lack the natural wingers skills that Pepe has to be dangerous from a position that is asked to keep their heels on the chalk line or because it is an unnatural position, it felt like a waste to have our most gifted scorer so removed from the play. His major contribution in the game came later, once he had switched back to the left wing. He has been able to score frequently enough from the left to paper over some of the discontent with him not being the central striker, but in games when he is ineffective and Lacazette struggles, you definitely question the usage of Aubameyang.
  • Lacazette got the goal, it was the game winning goal, but was not nearly as efficient as you would like him to be. 2 goals in 2 games looks great on the surface, and it is great to see him on the scoresheet again, but missing the chance in the first half set up by Gabriel and arguably wasting the chance toward the end of the game on a 5v2 break could raise further questions about his role moving forward.
  • The defense kept another clean sheet. 12 matches with Arteta as manager has led to only 8 goals conceded, 6 clean sheets, and 0.66 goals per game. An astounding turnaround from where they were under Unai Emery. We are forced to offer them a lot of midfield protection which has cost Arsenal some attacking prowess but is clearly a necessary evil. Great to see Luiz and even Mustafi finding regular success as a center back.
  • Mikel managed a great game with a good plan to get his first European win in his first match as a manager. Impressive to get this win away from home, with a clean sheet and continue the fact that Arsenal have not lost away from home since November.

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