Big matches demand big performances.
When the chips are down and it’s now or never, every team turns to their stars and asks them to rise to the occasion. When Arsenal had their backs against the walls, their season under threat, key players in their side stepped up, and it’s not all that surprising to see who they were upon reflection.
Aubameyang scored two goals in true Aubameyang fashion. He even nearly notched a third with that lovely dink over the keeper, but had it called back. He did it his way: low touch, ghosted around a bit, but made the little peel offs and runs that matter, and got himself into scoring positions. When you’re the club’s highest paid player, and golden boot winner, these performances have to come with the territory.
No occasion seems too large for Kieran Tierney who showed every bit of fight that Arsenal have often lacked in their squad. What else would you expect? 5-time Scottish Champion and 3-time Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup winner with Celtic. FA Cup and Community Shield winner with Arsenal. Champions League participant. He’s not unfamiliar to the atmosphere that comes with major matches.
Thomas Partey, a Europa League winner and Champions League participant with Atletico Madrid, came in and brought an injection of quality and composure. Possibly the only “surprise” is how pressure resistant Bukayo Saka proved to be in the final 30 minutes of the match, and yet he has been surpassing every bar set and excelling in every situation thrown at him; it no longer feels like a shock when he steps up and comes good.
However, looking at Arsenal’s team as a whole, how many would you feel confident about being able to perform similarly? How many have even been in enough major matches to have the opportunity to do so? The FA Cup was a positive, but many of these players have not been put in these big match situations often.
There’s Granit Xhaka who’s within a play level that remains relatively consistent, Luiz, maybe Leno, but many within the Arsenal squad have little or no experience. Smith Rowe, Ødegaard, Ceballos, Gabriel, Mari, Martinelli. Significant minutes or not, very few of these players have had minutes in European knockout stages, major events, or with their backs against the wall.
Mikel Arteta is no different. Even if you are #ArtetaIn as I am, it’s impossible to deny the limited managerial experience that Mikel Arteta brings. It’s a fact.
Against Benfica, major performances from his stars bailed him out in many ways in my opinion. I don’t believe he responded to the adversity Arsenal faced in the first leg well enough in terms of tactical tweaks and game plan. He continues to struggle to get Arsenal to up their tempo, margins are still quite tight, even when Arsenal dominate the ball — some credit to Benfica of course — but he too has to learn how to prepare for and manage these major matches. To bring something special to the table.
I know that every season comes with matches where your back is against the wall to keep your season going, but to couple them with the Europa League is a major opportunity to give many of these inexperienced, growing figures the opportunity to get “big game experience”.
Getting results and progressing — undoubtedly the top priority and what matters most, yet watching how these players rise up and respond to the call will shed light on what Arsenal are working with in their rebuild. Arteta has spoken a lot about changing the identity and mentality around the club. A lot of people don’t like his methods. They say they don’t see the results and believe it’s leading to nothing but ostracized players; these are the matches that show early signs of growth. The fruits of his labor.
As Arsenal prepare for Leicester City tomorrow, then have a week of rest before Burnley, they certainly will be keeping one eye fixated beyond, and getting a taste of revenge for last season’s knockout at the hands of Olympiacos on Emirates turf.
These are the types of game these kids need early in their careers. These are the opportunities these young professionals can’t get enough of. Win or lose, fail or succeed, you hope down the line they all become ‘big game players’. Let’s see what they can do.