Stuck in the middle: Arsenal flirt with disaster in Europa League defeat

Though Arsenal were never likely to do things the easy way, I must say I was surprised to see them play so poorly against Olympiakos last night.

It was a performance typical of a side that was too fearful of being exposed if too much emphasis was placed on the attack while also being averse to the idea of sitting too deep and inviting pressure. In short, it was muddled, disjointed performance.

It was only when we’d flirted with disaster, allowing the Greeks to steal into the lead early in the second half, that we were able to focus and gain some measure of control over the match. It was most unlike a Mikel Arteta side.

In the end, it was little more than a scare – the visitors didn’t really have enough quality or firepower to sustain their threat – but it could so easily have been a footballing catastrophe against a better side. The timidity of the performance was palpable and when you emit that sort of energy on the television screen, you can only guess at the way that transmits itself on the pitch.

As a student of Pep Guardiola, you would imagine Arteta is looking for his team to manage the game in a way that utterly nullifies the opposition. Just think of the matches we’ve played against Manchester City where they’ve been two or three goals clear by the break and then simply passed us into irrelevance in the second half, never really going beyond third gear. That is surely the model to which the manager aspires.

For all their talent in possession, though, this Arsenal side seems only to keen to be rid of the ball when the pressure is on. We saw glimpses of it against Spurs on Sunday and it was much in evidence again last night. Even with the eventual man-advantage following the red card, Arsenal tended to lump the ball long into empty space instead of using their numbers to control the space and the ball.

The panic was contagious, so much so that even the introduction of Thomas Partey and Martin Odegaard failed to really wrest control back from the visitors. In fact, Partey, as much as any other, was guilty of some poor decision making in possession.

In an ideal world, the manager would not have been forced to put Odegaard and Partey on the pitch but it was the right call for him to have done so, even if the outcome wasn’t perfect.

It’s worth acknowledging that much of the above would have been irrelevant and, indeed, may never have come to pass but for the continued profligacy of our attacking players. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won’t need reminding today of the series of glaring misses of which he was guilty and Nicolas Pepe will count himself unfortunate not to have added to his tally for the campaign. It was a true ‘eye-roll’ moment when his superbly-struck effort inside the box was kept out of the net by the unwitting head of Emile Smith Rowe.

And perhaps, when it comes down to it, our continued constipation in attack is at the root of our panic in defence. All teams miss chances and even the very best put wide when it seems easier to score. Arsenal are making something of an art form of it this season, though, and failing to make the most of our advantage in attack adds pressure on our defence.

Ultimately, we made it through to the next round and much of this pales into insignificance but this is an issue that will need to be addressed before a Greek drama turns into a real tragedy.

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