Arsenal miss their chance (again)
Liverpool aside it’s difficult to think of an Arsenal game in 2021 where they haven’t passed up a huge opportunity to score.
If you want go as far back as to the 0-0 draw with Manchester United at the end of January Willian and Nicolas Pepe spurned huge opportunities to claim all three points. Against Wolves Bukayo Saka missed a couple, while Martin Odegaard could easily have rescued a point in the defeat to Aston Villa.
Those are the ones that spring to mind immediately but a little bit of research will surely reveal countless other times the season where the Gunners will be wondering what might have been.
Tonight it was Alexandre Lacazette who was the guilty party scooping a one-on-one onto the bar despite having all the time in the world and poking an effort wide on the stretch from inside the six yard box.
Saka could and should have also put his team in front in the first half but the England international spurned wide when in on goal.
The breakthrough did eventually come from Nicolas Pepe five minutes from time but with the amount of clear cut chances Arsenal had on the night, they should have been well ahead.
It’s not as if the quality of their performance merited a more sizeable lead going into stoppage time of the match, but elite teams a ruthless enough capitalise on any opportunity they are given no matter how they have been playing.
Speaking after the game Mikel Arteta was once again left to rue his side’s inefficiency in front of goal.
“Very disappointing because I think we made it much more with the big chances that we created,” said the Spaniard.
“We should have scored more goals, for sure, and once we had the result, we conceded a corner after not managing well the situation and conceding from there, which is a big blow.
“In Europe you’re not going to have 10 chances against a top opponent. When you have those big chances, you have to put them in the net.
“You want to give yourself the best chance to go through in the competition. Today we haven’t done that”
Arteta is right in his assessment of his side’s display. In a sport as low scoring as football taking chances when they arrive is absolutely crucial.
Of course the Gunners can’t be expected to put every one away, but they will have to up their conversion rate if they are to have any chance of progressing to the levels they are capable, of.
Arteta’s plan fails
Ahead of the game Mikel Arteta made the huge call to drop his captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for one of Arsenal’s biggest games of the season.
The Gabon forward has been in poor form recently but it was still one to raise eyebrows. Willian was also given the nod on the left ahead of Gabriel Martinelli in another bold decision that seemed a strange one to outsiders.
Speaking ahead of the match though, the Gunners boss revealed it was all part of his grand plan for the 90 minutes ahead.
“We had to pick the right team to try to start the game the best possible way and as well have the options to change the game because Europe gives you the possibility to make five subs and that’s a big thing and we want to use our full squad in the best possible way,” he said.
60 minutes in though and it seemed the choice wasn’t working.
Arsenal had struggled to really lay a glove on Slavia who had had to very little to keep the game at 0-0, with Lacazette and Willian in particular offering very little in terms of attacking impetus.
The game seemed to be crying out for a change, and with Arteta’s pre-match declaration it seemed a matter of time before that would be the case.
And yet Arteta chose to delay the change. Another five minutes went by, then ten and it seemed there was no switch incoming.
It wasn’t until the 73rd minute when Martinelli was finally introduced, while Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe had to wait until the 78th to be allowed to enter the fray.
The game instantly changed for the better from an Arsenal perspective as the Gunners finally began to show the urgency and directness that a game of this magnitude merited.
When Pepe calmly put them ahead five minutes from time it seemed as though Arteta’s master plan had worked.
Football though, as we’ve already discussed, is a game of fine margins and when Tomas Holes flicked in a stoppage time away goal for the Czech champions it was no surprise that the Spaniard had to face questions on why he hadn’t made the changes sooner in his post-match press conference.
“Well we made them when we believed it was the right time to do it, and when they changed their set up and we believed we could hurt them and not earlier,” he said in response.
“Whether should have done it before then, who knows?”
It could be argued that Arteta was slightly let down by the game management of his players in achieving the objectives he had set out with before the game.
As the full time whistle blew Granit Xhaka was heard shouting “just f***ing clear the ball man” at the Portuguese full back before exchanging strong words with Rob Holding as Arsenal’s frustrations at their inability to see the game out threatened to boil over.
But ultimately the task of game management falls at the feet of the manager and perhaps if Arteta had made the changes earlier the Gunners wouldn’t have been in a position where they needed to defend a one goal lead going into the final minute of the match.
The Spaniard is a young manager still, but the failure to be proactive enough to act when plan A clearly wasn’t working cost him on the night. It’s a lesson from which he will have to learn quickly.
Aubameyang shows why he’s not the next Ozil
Earlier in the week parallels were drawn between Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil as the Gabon forward’s form continued to falter this season.
The argument in favour of that perception was not at all helped by the fact that come kick off Arsenal’s most influential and highest paid player found himself on the bench for one of the Gunners biggest games of the season.
Like the German was guilty of doing at times, it would have been easy for Aubameyang to have sulked at the decision. His performance after coming on however, will have gone a long way to putting the comparisons to bed.
From the moment he stepped on the pitch it seemed as though he was fired up and looking to provide a reaction that had been sorely lacking after his initial return following Mikel Arteta’s decision to drop him in the North London Derby due to disciplinary issues.
An early chance was poked just wide of the post that he probably could have done better with just moments after coming on, and not long after his perfectly weighted pass through to Nicolas Pepe looked briefly as though it would be enough to win the game for Arsenal.
The Gunners captain’s relationship with his manager has been called into question in recent times and speaking after the game Arteta did admit that he hadn’t explained to Aubameyang why he chosen to play Alexandre Lacazette up top instead.
However, signs of healing the rift were there as the Spaniard praised his skipper for the quality of his late cameo.
“Well I cannot talk with everybody individually every week, but we try to be transparent and communicate with the players as clearly as possible for them to understood the role that they have in the game,” he said of the decision to leave the 31-year-old out.
“When he came on, he showed the right attitude and the right commitment.”
Going into the game against Sheffield United on Sunday it seems as though the Gabon forward could be given his chance from the off. A goal there and all talk of the Ozil comparisons may quickly become water under the bridge.
Tierney’s absence is felt
Going into the game one of the most intriguing selection dilemmas Mikel Arteta had to contend with was over how he was going to fill the huge void created by the absence of Kieran Tierney.
The Scot was ruled out for four to six weeks after sustaining a knee injury in the defeat to Liverpool on Saturday.
So influential has he been to the Arsenal attack this season – creating more chances from open play than any other member of the squad – Arteta admitted before the match that the Gunners were going to have to change their whole approach to the game against Slavia Prague without him.
It seemed to be a straight shoot out between Cedric and Bukayo Saka for who would be asked to fill in out of position at left back.
The 19-year-old offered the closest thing to Tierney’s irreplicable offensive threat with overlapping runs beyond the left inside forward, but Cedric provided more defensive solidity as a specialist full back.
In the end it was the Portuguese international who Arteta went for and curiously by having youngster Joel Lopez – an orthodox left back who has done well for the under-23s this season – on the bench, the Arsenal boss seemed to be making a statement of intent that he viewed Saka’s future as an attacking option rather than a defensive one.
Although the England international did provide the Gunners best threat for most of the game down the right it was a decision that ultimately proved hinder the side going forward.
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Cedric did a good job of getting forward when he could but his balls into the box on his weaker foot when in the final third was not a patch on the consistently high quality delivery we have grown accustomed to from Tierney.
With a slightly less daunting task in Sheffield United coming up this weekend perhaps Arteta will be tempted to put Saka back into the left back position where he did so well at the beginning of 2020 as he seeks to explore alternative ways to cope with the Scottish full backs loss.
Try as he might though not having Tierney in the side for this crucial stage of the season may well be looked back on as a defining moment in Arsenal’s campaign.