A measured Arsenal display in last night’s quarter-final second leg in Italy was as professional a performance as I have seen from the Gunners in a long time.
Unai Emery billed it as ‘50-50’ in the build-up to the match and a great deal was made of San Paolo Stadium and its intense, intimidating atmosphere – leaving me with genuine concerns of a first-half blitz from the hosts that would likely overwhelm a notoriously flimsy Gunners’ defence.
As it transpired, it was more speculation than substance as Napoli, while threatening, didn’t produce the kind of performance to give Emery’s men nightmares. It wasn’t comfortable (it was never likely to be) but Arsenal had a degree of defensive control over the match that was well balanced with attacking ambition.
The only real bone I have to pick with Emery and the team is the continued tendency they have to leave our wing backs exposed. Ainsley Maitland-Niles seemed to bear the brunt of Napoli’s attacks and most of their best work came from his side of the pitch, with Henrikh Mhikitaryan nowhere to be seen when support was needed.
It has been something of a recurring theme for teams to double up in our wide areas, safe in the knowledge that support is slow to arrive.
Sometimes we get away with it – as we did last night – other times we don’t. If the team is to improve over the long term, it’s something that will have to be ironed out.
That aside, however, you have to take your hat off. Back-to-back wins away from home, with clean sheets to boot. We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. We are in a strong position in the Premier League and can look forward to a semi-final against Valencia in the Europa League. That’s some achievement and considerably better off than many of us had hoped when Emery started his reign with back-to-back defeats in the league.
When the draw was made, Napoli looked to be a fiercely difficult opponent – in the same league as our conquerors of last season, Athletico Madrid. Over the two legs, though, the Gunners were worthy winners, having produced two excellent displays of attacking intensity, and defensive control and concentration.
Credit also to Emery and his staff, whose tactical nous and flexibility have made us a leopard capable of changing its spots while retaining its teeth. It was a facet to our game that was absent under Arsene Wenger – who was steadfast in his belief in a pure way of playing the game – and represents a switch to a much more modern, effective style of football.
We have some momentum behind us now and opportunities to achieve big things on two fronts. If we can take six points from our next two Premier League matches, against Crystal Palace (H) and Wolves (A), we will go into our semi-final in Valencia in excellent shape in what is an eminently winnable tie.
Most important of all, though, is finding a way to replicate and, indeed, improve what we managed in Napoli and at Watford. While they were not vintage performances, they were effective and that sort of pragmatism, coupled with our flair and excellence at home, will make us better.