Arsenal vs Slavia Prague: We were promised balls, we were given bollocks

Last night’s Europa League quarter-final was a chance for this Arsenal side to react, to “show some balls” as the manager put it, following an abject display against Liverpool.

In the end, what we were served up was more of the same: profligacy, timidity, and stupidity.

No reasonable fan can deny that, through sheer volume of chances, we should have been three goals ahead before Nicolas Pepe produced an excellent finish to break the deadlock in the 86th minute. But, having toiled long and hard to earn even that meagre breakthrough, we threw it away in a manner it seems only this side is capable of.

Error after error, brain fart after brain fart have seen a promising post-Christmas run turn into an inconsistent, incomprehensible mess which has swung between sublime and ridiculous. The Slavia Prague debacle last night was no different and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

Although I’m not as big a critic as some of the manager’s team selection, I can’t argue that it helped in any way. Whether it was what the manager intended or not, it ended up being overly cautious and slow. I understand it’s not easy to play through a side that is man-marking in midfield but there simply wasn’t enough ‘oomph’ in the way we played, particularly in the first half.

For all that, Bukayo Saka should have scored early on when through one-on-one and Rob Holding was unlucky to see his headed effort tipped over the bar by the Slavia keeper.

I expected more urgency in the second half and that’s what we saw, albeit still bereft of the sort of zip and endeavour we’re used to seeing when at our best.

Alex Lacazette produced the miss of the night when clean through on goal before spurning a difficult chances at the back post minutes later. Willian was also unlucky to see his free-kick hit a post shortly after the break and Thomas Partey should have at least hit the target when teed up on the edge of the box.

Having apparently seen enough, Mikel Arteta sent on Gabriel Martinelli, Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe, and Mohamed Elneny. The impact was immediate and the intensity and urgency were raised a few levels. Martinelli fired over from the edge of the area and Auba failed to direct a deft finish on target with the goal at his mercy.

Frustrations were finally eased when Auba pinched the ball off the Slavia centre back to roll into Pepe, who held off his man superbly before dinking over the stranded goalkeeper. It was a lovely finish and a perfect illustration of the Ivorian at his best.

Having worked so hard to make the breakthrough, it was of course inevitable that we should then conspire to throw it away with some rank stupidity at the back. Cedric, Gabriel, and Martinelli all had opportunities clear long upfield before the ball eventually deflected its way fortuitously to a Slavia player who blasted at goal from close range. Bernd Leno made an excellent save to keep it out but, from the resulting corner, the ball squirmed off Pepe’s thigh and up perfectly into the path of an onrushing defender to head home from three yards.

The collective howl of pain was heard through every street in this area of Highbury. A good night was transformed into a lamentable shambles in the 94th minute, with barely 30 seconds left to play.

It’s easy to say after the event that we should have fielded this player or that player from the start or we should have set up in a particular way but, in truth, all we really needed to do was take the chances presented to us. It’s not even as if they were especially difficult or low-percentage chances, both Saka and Lacazette had only the goalkeeper to beat and both men failed badly in the key moment.

In the end, it is Arteta who will shoulder the lion’s share of blame for the way in which we laboured for an hour against, let’s face it, average opposition but, for me, there is only so much he can do. It is unreasonable to expect us to steamroller every opponent for 90 minutes. That doesn’t happen in Europe anymore and the people who measure Arsenal purely on whether we score three goals in every half are idiots. Just as in the Premier League, teams are smarter and better – even apparent minnows.

However, we were promised much more from a side that was embarrassed by Liverpool and we didn’t get it. What we got for the majority of the match was just enough and, as we have been so many times this season, we were punished for our wastefulness.

We have gotten away with it on several occasions, most notably in Europe this season, but the chickens will eventually come home to roost. Although this tie is not dead by any means, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see a few feathers on the horizon.

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