Arsenal, the players, Arteta, and especially the supporters will be gutted today. Whether the game left you with more issues about the team, individual players, owners, or the board – if you are like me – you will still be struggling to cope with yesterday’s result. They say fans are fickle, supporters are there through thick and thin and this result will begin to show the difference in people. It may just come to be another poor result in a season filled with frustrating poor results, but one thing is for sure – it was a crushing reminder of just how big this project is going to be for everyone.
In cups that have two legs to each round, you stake your claim at home and do what you can in the away leg to let your game at home get you through. So, when Arsenal left Greece with a 1-0 lead, an away win, and a cushion that any fan will have been content with – things felt good. At the time of Arteta’s selection, I had no problems with it. I maybe would have contended that he should have started Torreira for defensive stability and then looked to bring Ceballos on – opposite of what happened – but not enough to say Arteta “got his selection wrong”.
It was a team that on paper was strong. It had won us 3 straight games, unbeaten in the new year, and offered a lot – especially in the attack – that suggested Olympiacos would have its hands full. In hindsight, it is easy to pick apart the lineup, but no coach selects their team with the expectation that all eleven players will play that fair beneath themselves. There is a difference in a selection that leaves you thinking “he got it wrong” and one that didn’t end well, like yesterday’s and it lies in your gut reaction to initially seeing it. If you can back it up with reasons and stats, I may believe you, but anyone that looks to say the selection was wrong from the beginning feels like a lazy analyst.
With that said, we can look at the game, the performance – or lack thereof – and scrutinize the resistance to make changes until it was too late. As we know, no one performed great. Pepe may have a case to say he wasn’t bad and Aubameyang got a goal that would have papered over the cracks in his game had he not had the gut-wrenching miss in the 120+ minute from six yards away – but as a unit it was a bad performance.
From back to front we can highlight poor decision making, errors leading to goals, and poor connections leading to scoring only one goal ourselves. Leno gave away a cheap corner that led to their second goal, the defenders and team struggled yet again on defending set pieces for both goals, Luiz and Mustafi sprayed a few errant passes, Bellerin struggled to get involved and still looks a little off the pace, Saka couldn’t link up with the front to be effective in the attack, and the midfield was slow and laborious with how they moved the ball.
Ozil had one of his worst performances under Arteta, but oddly in a different way than usual. Usually his poor performances come when he goes missing, isn’t on the ball, and is ineffective. Last night he was around the ball, but nothing was coming off for him. Bad crosses, indecisive, 4/9 on long balls, 8 crosses – only a few of which gave their target a chance to do something with, and with 105 touches he struggled to do anything with.
The attacking struggles didn’t stop there. Balls into the frontline bounced off of them as the frontline struggled to hold up anything, Lacazette was manhandled in the middle by Olympiacos’ center backs and couldn’t do anything the few times he did manage to get a hold of it. The deft flicks and intricate play weren’t coming off from the start, and of Arsenal’s 19 shots, only 4 were on target.
Arteta’s first change of the evening came in the 72nd minute when he brought off Ceballos ,who struggled all night, for Torreira, followed by an 84th minute switch to bring on Joe Willock for Hector Bellerin. The switch that will draw the most scrutiny was the 105th minute switch in Extra Time to bring on Gabriel Martinelli for Lacazette. It wasn’t the switch that will bring scrutiny but how long it took Arteta to make the switch. Lacazette struggled all evening to get things going, had the least touches of either team, couldn’t hold up the ball, and left fans wondering why a change wasn’t made earlier.
In the end, we are reminded of the shortcomings of this squad. The lack of consistency, the inability at times to get out of first gear, the fact that they consistently struggle to play well for the full 90 minutes, and that they may be missing a few pieces to the puzzle with a coach that has been good but still, in all honesty, has some things to learn. That’s not an indictment of Arteta or saying his hiring was a mistake, because it wasn’t. It is simply an acknowledgment of his limited time in charge of big games that could have led to him being a little slow to alter things.
The loss last night will only increase the amount of attention that is placed on the futures of Aubameyang, Lacazette, and even Torreira who have all stated their desire to be playing in the Champions League in the near future. Stars looking to leave will complicate Arsenal’s project and the reinvestment of any funds from transfers during the summer will be critical to the timeline Arsenal are on to get back into the top 4 and compete in the Champions League.
The clearest path back this year is no longer an option leaving a late dramatic rise into the top 4 as the only chance. I don’t include the possibility of 5th place being enough if Man City’s ban is upheld because it doesn’t seem like it will be confirmed in time to effect next year’s competition. That means Arsenal are in 9th, 5 places out, and 7points behind 4th place Chelsea. It’s a long shot but the only hope fans will realistically have.
Since the new year, Arsenal fans have been in good spirits. The team played better, there were no losses to bring us backwards, and even in games that were drawn, the boost in performances left you with positives to take away from it all. But last night was the reminder that this project is far from complete. Shortcomings in the squad, more experience needed, a lack of depth that arguably resulted in playing a squad that may have felt fatigued, and a scary glimpse into how poor we can be on bad nights reminds us of how large the gap is that Arsenal have to cover. It’s going to be a long road, likely with a few bad nights along the way. Keep your heads high Arsenal fans and know that our time will come back around. We hope it is sooner than later, but it is going to take patience. Good luck