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Just Another Day After a Europa League Exit

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The Europa League draws took place earlier today and the Round of 16 fixtures were released as listed below

  • Istanbul Basaksehir vs FC Copenhagen
  • Olympiakos vs Wolves
  • Rangers vs Bayer Leverkusen
  • Wolfsburg vs Shakhtar Donetsk
  • Inter Milan vs Getafe
  • Sevilla vs Roma
  • Frankfurt/Red Bull Salzburg vs Basel
  • LASK vs Manchester United

If the Gunners had done what we expected from them in Thursday’s Europa League clash with Olympiakos, it would be an all English affair, with the winner of that fixture facing off against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Arsenal’s run to the Europa League final in the previous campaign saw them ease past BATE Borisov, Rennes, Napoli and Valencia before that embarrassing defeat to Chelsea in the finals in Baku. They bowed out in the semifinals two seasons ago, after a run that saw them defeat Ostersund, AC Milan and CSKA Moscow before losing to eventual winners, Atletico Madrid, and also denying Arsene Wenger his last hurrah in the club.

Looking at the projections, one expected the trend to be semifinals, finals and you know, but football just has a way of serving you that L. The defeat to Olympiakos in the Europa League still leaves a sour taste in my mouth and I can only imagine how our club captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, feels at the moment,

“I don’t even know. “It can happen but I do not know how I missed this chance.

I was tired, I had some cramps but it is not an excuse.”

The anguish wasn’t felt only by our captain. His teammates and the fans felt a kick in the gut as that turned out to be the last meaningful attack of the game. Yes, we expected to see out the Greek champions because we thought we were a superior side but in the end, teams get judged on their performances on the pitch and Arsenal wasn’t anywhere near good enough against Olympiakos in the Europa League Round of 32 clash, and have been eliminated from the competition.

Where do we go from here? We can start by providing a much improved performance against League One outfit, Portsmouth, at the famous Fratton Park stadium. I would expect Emiliano Martinez to get a run out in goal for the only competition he’d feature this season. I can imagine how it felt for Martinez, featuring in all the Europa League games only to lose his place to the more senior keeper in the knockout phases.

In defense, the likes of Rob Holding and Sokratis Papastathopoulos are due for a game and one wonders if we would catch a glimpse of the new signing from Flamengo, Pablo Mari. He played for the Under-23s in their loss to Chelsea last week and there were loads of good reports, while Hector Bellerin and Dani Ceballos watched from the sidelines. My main concern is the fitness of Skhodran Mustafi that turned out to be a vital cog in Mikel Arteta’s oiled up machine,

“I don’t know [how bad it is]. He said to me ‘I cannot play anymore’. I’m not sure if it was a cramp or a muscle injury. I am sure there will be a few of those [types of injuries] because players were exhausted, they played four times in 11 days and it was physically a very demanding game.”

Following this Europa League exit, the Portsmouth game is of heightened importance, as it offered the Gunners a chance of winning silverware this season, in a competition like the FA Cup, where Arsenal are the record holders with 13 points. We will get more information on the Portsmouth game in the coming days. Even though we don’t like the idea of it but it’s gonna take place on a Monday yet again.

Sayonara

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Arsenal 1-2 Olympiakos: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

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Match Report Post-Match Press Conference

Final Result: Arsenal 1-2 Olympiakos

Arsenal XI (subs) (4-2-3-1): Leno; Bellerin (Willock), Mustafi (Sokratis), D. Luiz, Saka; Xhaka, Ceballos (Torreira); Aubameyang, Ozil, Pepe; Lacazette (Martinelli)

Following the slender win against Olympiakos in Athens, Arsenal expected to do enough to get to the next round at home, and with no match fixture this weekend due to Manchester City’s engagement in the Carabao Cup final, Arsenal manager, Mikel Arteta, fielded what we can assume as his strongest lineup available, barring injuries. However, the game went into extra time and Olympiakos’ Youssef El Arabi hit the sucker punch that eliminated Arsenal from the competition.

Like the 1966 movie classic, I will categorize yesterday’s game against Olympiakos using the good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s get to it shall we?

The Good

 

You Can Always Rely on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the Goals

In the 25 Premier League games he has featured, Arsenal’s captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has found the net 17 teams, and when you add his three goals in other competitions, it has taken his tally to 20, 10 more goals than his closest goalscoring rival in the club, Gabriel Martinelli. Despite the fact that he has been shunted to the left wing to accommodate the ineffectual Alexandre Lacazette (more on that anon), Aubameyang scored what we hoped was going to be the match winner with only seven minutes to spare. However, Aubameyang had another glaring chance in the 123rd minute to be the hero of the night which he missed, and he has been very distraught. It reminds me of that miss against Burnley.

However, his contribution last night proved that he can be trusted upon to find the back of the net. 

Another Defensive Masterclass From Skhodran Mustafi

In the turn of the new year, Skhodran Mustafi has been a different beast and has continued to show massive improvement under Arteta, leaving Sokratis out of the team. Yesterday, Mustafi was at his best, making valuable clearances, blocks and interceptions, further endearing himself to the hearts of the fans. Sadly, he picked up a knock and had to be substituted for Sokratis. I’m pretty sure his absense played a role in the match winner as the defense wasn’t the same without him.  

I must really credit the German for his renaissance especially when he was shown the exit door and it seemed like we didn’t want anything to do with him following his high profile gaffes and blunders, but he has really improved and I hope this good form continues.

The Youngsters and their Hunger to Impress

Fate has smiled on Bukayo Saka this season as injuries to Kieran Tierney and more recently, Sead Kolasinac have allowed him to continue his footballing education as a left back and his creative juices have been flowing regularly as he currently tops the club’s assist charts with 10. He almost added another assist when he found Lacazette with a lovely drilled effort but he failed to time his run appropriately, thereby falling into the offside trap but in the extra time, he smashed in another sumptuous cross that went behind the predatory Gabriel Martinelli.

Speaking of Martinelli, I am quite bewildered how he lost his place in the team despite showing a lot of promise and scoring some vital goals but instead of retaining his place ahead of Lacazette, which will also allow Aubameyang play in the middle, he went further down the pecking order behind Eddie Nketiah. 

The performances of Saka and Martinelli have been haert warming and they will need consistent game time to continue to hone that brooding talent.

 

The Bad

Alexandre Lacazette’s Atrocious Form

Everyone associated with Arsenal football club, and at least, those that watch the games we have played are all in unison with one fundamental fact – Alexandre Lacazette is in the worst form of his Arsenal career. His decision making is poor, his shooting is erratic, he takes too many touches in the box before pulling the trigger and his off the ball movement hasn’t been impressive.

Most critically, he has found goals had to come by with just nine goals in 27 games.

It’s not like Lacazette selects himself every week despite the fact that he has been playing poorly, but this reminds me of the Granit Xhaka situation early in the season where he was in a terrible run of form but Unai Emery kept playing him every week, until things turned sour against Crystal Palace in October. I am hopeful it doesn’t get to that scenario with Lacazette but his form is a major concern for the club and it seems that there’s no signs of real improvement.

The Enigma Known as Nicolas Pepe

The jury is still out for our 72 million pound man but watching him this season, I can clearly infer that he’s a footballer that can offer you the best of both extremes from the amazing to the frustrating. In the same game, Pepe made me pull out some strands of hair from my beard and also had a moment where the Olympiakos goalie had to make a smart save to stop his goalbound shot. 

In all this we can confirm that Pepe is heavily inconsistent and Arsenal fans will have to come to terms with this fact. Yes, one should expect more from a record signing but when the player’s head is hardly in the right place most of the time, it makes you wonder. Just watch how he would probably score and assist against West Ham next week, like he did in the corresponding fixture but in a night when we needed him to step up his game, he failed woefully.

Mikel Arteta’s Lack of Tactical Ruthlessness

We can all attest to the fact that Mikel Arteta has been a very positive influence since he joined the club with most of the players coming to the media to share how life has been peachy and creamy with the new gaffer. We, the fans, have also seen how the football has massively improved from the shitefest we witnessed under Unai Emery and the club is going in the right direction with Arteta at the helm.

For starters, we have confirmed that the 4-2-3-1 tactical setup is here to stay and quite frankly, we have gotten some decent and encouraging rsults using that formation. However, there are some personnel changes that we expected Arteta to make, especially with the way the game was progressing but he failed to handle it. Even if we have been terribly disappointed seeing Aubameyang play on the left wing consistently, Lacazette had no business spending up to 105 minutes on the pitch, as his struggles in front of goal continued. I also struggled to see the value Joe Willock offered us and like Lacazette, he’s another player that has been in a poor vein of form. 

After the game, Arteta stated that the team wasn’t ruthless and was punished. If only he looked at the mirror.

 

The Ugly

The Team’s Lackadaisical Performance

I remember that first half against Leeds United at the Emirates where the team was so poor in the first half but managed to have enough in the tank to see out the SkyBet Championship outfit. Maybe the lads felt that the away win at Athens was a enough to see them through to the next round and all they needed to do was just show up at the Emirates but their visitors challenged them and had some chances to kill the game off, which they eventually did.

From the concentrations issues David Luiz showcased to Hector Bellerin clearly out of depth, the Arsenal rearguard looked out of sorts, without adequate protection from Ceballos and Xhaka. Lucas Torreira’s introduction shored things up but the Gunners were still vulnerable on the break as they sought to kill off the contest. Pepe was terribly frustrating in attack, Lacazette was woeful yet again and Aubameyang looked wasted on the left flank.

It’s shameful to see that they couldn’t hold on for seven more minutes against a side that was ready to defend as if their lives depended on it. But even after the disappointment of conceding late, Arsenal had a chance to put the game beyond doubt and the man you’d want on the end of such a chance was Aubameyang, but sadly, he fluffed his lines and that was it.

Bernd Leno’s Gaffe

If we are being honest, Bernd Leno was a spectator for most of the game and did what was required of him when the opportunities arose but he will not cover himself in glory in the role he played which ultimately led to his team’s exit from the competition. He is an excellent shot stopper on his day but he’s capable of doing something eccentric like his blunder against Chelsea last month.

He picked the wrong game to exhibit this unneccesary trait and one would wonder why Emi Martinez was not allowed to continue his stint as the Cup keeper. I guess, that’s all on the boss, Arteta.

 

There goes our chance of qualifying for Europe via the Europa League. I guess all eggs are going to be laid on the Premier League top four qualification basket.

Sayonara

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Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Pepe

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Unai Emery, his tactics, substitutions, and his football in general has come under major criticism following the series of unconvincing displays from the team which was compounded by the shambolic outing in Bramall Lane on Monday night. The Gunners had a golden opportunity to cement third place in the League against a newly-promoted side but the manager put up a side that wasn’t just good enough.

With the Premier League out of way till the weekend at least, there was the business of the Europa League and as you’d expect, Emery made wholesale changes with only Joe Willock retaining his place in the team. Emi Martinez continued his role as the Cup keeper, captain Hector Bellerin led the defense that had Rob Holding, Kieran Tierney and Skhodran Mustafi. Many Arsenal fans are in the strong opinion that at least three of the four defenders that featured yesterday are ready for Premier League football, but I guess the manager is working with the team physicians on when he’d get the go ahead to feature them in the elite competition.

In midfield, Lucas Torreira played alongside Willock in the double fulcrum and I expected a certain Mesut Ozil to play ahead of them but to my surprise, it was Emile Smith-Rowe. Not that I’m not tired about this whole Ozil – Emery debacle but I can’t fathom why the German schemer can’t even get a game in a minor competition like the Europa League. It’s even more bewildering when you consider the fact that Emery publicly stated that he would feature soon as he’s ‘training well’. In attack, our cup predator, Gabriel Martinelli, had to settle for a spot in the left flank, as the returning Alexandre Lacazette needed a game ahead of the Crystal Palace clash. Ainsley Maitland-Niles completed the attacking trio.

The Gunners were shaky from the start but it was surprising to see the visitors score the opening goal of the game after their right winger skinned Tierney and provided a cut back to Marcus Edwards, that had all the time in the world to pick his spot before slotting the ball under Martinez legs to put the away side ahead. Victoria Guimaraes came into the game bottom of the pile, so to see them get ahead the group’s top side was a little cause for concern. The Gunners pushed and probed for an equalizer and got it when Tierney swung in a beauty of a cross that was nodded home by Martinelli. Scoring five goals in your debut season as an 18-year-old clearly shows that you are a reliable deputy in attack and it makes me happy because the Carabao Cup and Europa League will give the lad the platform he needs to flourish, as he waits for a real run up in the Premier League.

Arsenal has always had this habit of capitulating on their own and the visitors grabbed a second after some sloppy play from Maitland-Niles in midfield that left the team exposed to the counter. The initial strike beat Martinez and clipped the post but Duarte was on hand to blast home the rebound, giving the Arsenal goalie no chance. As you’d expect from Emery losing a game to a lower opposition at half time, he made two changes after the break bringing on Dani Ceballos and Matteo Guendouzi for the ineffectual Willock and Maitland-Niles. Their introductions brought the wind on the Gunners sails and they kept barraging the Victoria Guimaraes defense in search of an equalizer.

With 15 minutes left on the clock, Emery took out Lacazette for the club’s record signing, Nicolas Pepe. The jury has been out for the young Ivorian following his 72m quid move from LOSC Lille Metropole and with only one goal to his name (gifted by the lovable Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang), many fans remained hopeful that he would show the quality that made the Gunners spend all that mullah for his services. Five minutes into Pepe’s introduction, the Gunners had an indirect free kick from quite some distance leaving the Ivorian winger with two plausible options – cross it to the danger area or go for goal. He choose the latter and the net was bulging, sending the Emirates into raptures. His celebration was quite muted and he just wanted to go on with his business.

2-2 with minutes to spare, the Gunners needed someone to take the game by the scruff of its neck and our Guendouzi stepped up, making a Jack Wilshere-esque lung bursting run into the heart of the Victoria Guimaraes defense and as expected, he was scythed down by a defender at the edge of the box. Thoughts of the similar run in the Aston Villa game came to my head and we had Aubameyang to finish it off and win the tie for the Gunners but this time, Pepe made his intentions clear that he wanted to take the free kick and boy was that some finish! Swung with his magic wand of a left foot to the top corner winning the game for his side. Like the previous goal, his celebration was muted but his teammates were all over him, providing some encouragement to the lad, as his sheet quality won the game for his side.

What I can take from Pepe’s celebrations is that he was very relieved to see that he was delivering some output as there has been a lot of pressure on the lad as you’d expect for a club record signing. But we can look to the Crystal Palace game with some optimism knowing that we have Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe available for selection with the intent of causing real damage but last night was about our 72m man.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Pepe.

Sayonara.

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