I thought last night’s game against Valencia worked out well in the end, considering where we were on the 12th minute, a goal down and looking as ropey as ever at the back.
But let’s give some credit to ‘home team Arsenal’ – a very different proposition to ‘away team Arsenal’ – because they bounced back and showed some real fight to give us the slightest of edges for the second leg.
I say slightest of edges because you only had to see the way Valencia took advantage of some of the set pieces, plus the woeful defending for the concession of our away goal, to see that we still have a lot of work to do.
Unai Emery went with three at the back again and decided to roll Koscielny out one more time to add some semblance of experience and supposed composure to the back line. I suspect he won’t see action against Brighton and he came off looking a bit knackered yesterday so hopefully a full week’s rest will now do him good. But it was a relatively familiar line up and only the dropping of Torreira to the bench in place for Guendouzi was probably the main eyebrow raiser on the night. Perhaps the Uruguayan was carrying a knock, or perhaps it’s that he’ll play at the weekend because Emery never wants to see the Guendouzi/Elneny axis of hair in the midfield again, but we started the game with possession and I guess that’s where Guendouzi is useful.
Valencia looked like the type of side who would look to be compact and try not to concede and when they scored their goal I did wonder if we were in for a rough night. It was a shoddy goal to concede too. We’d been given warning just before that with Valencia missing an open goal from a dinked ball out wide that was put in to the centre. But we don’t learn our lessons and when a ball was flicked to the back post, to be nodded back to the other side of the goal, Xhaka didn’t jump high enough but there were three Arsenal players surrounding the Valencia midfielder Diakhaby. It was poor stuff but thankfully the response was relatively swift.
Lacazette scores just seven minutes later and I do believe that it had a significant impact in the overall pattern of play. Had we huffed and puffed for another 15 minutes or even just snuck one at halftime, I suspect it would have empowered Valencia a little more, but the fact that we responded well and then again another seven minutes later, took some of the pressure and probably nerves out of our play.
The first goal was lovely running and a great square ball from Aubameyang to Lacazette and the Frenchman duly obliged his partner by passing the ball in. The second was a great ball to the back post where Lacazette was lurking with his head and when he wheeled away in celebration we knew that the rest of the game would be about whether Arsenal could capitalise.
We came out in the second half and created a few chances, with Lacazette probably thinking this morning that he should have had a hat trick, but that final icing on the cake from Auba will possibly have a big bearing on the second leg.
At 2-1 it’s so tight. Valencia know they can approach the game with time and as long as they are resolute they can take their time worrying about not conceding and just focusing on getting a single goal. But at 3-1 there will be more urgency from the Spaniards. They will know that they have to start quickly and commit more bodies forward and that might leave us space. 3-1 gives us a bit of a buffer but an early goal for Valencia next week will change everything. It’s the beauty and horror of knock out competition and we’ll need to see a similar performance to that of the professional display away to Napoli to make sure we take our place in Baku for the final.
Quite how we approach that game is a little too soon for me, but for now I’m thinking about the way we set up last night and the fact that at home when we are faced with pressure and adversity, we are a totally different beast to away.
I thought the wing backs for us did well. Maitland-Niles had a shaky start but grew in to the game and with him out for the weekend through suspension I wonder if Emery will stick with a back five or go back four with Monreal and Jenkinson/Lichsteiner as our right back? But there’s no doubt that we look better with those two plying wing back as they are pretty much the only two players who provide width. You only have to look at average playing positions in the game last night to see that. So when they don’t play we are very narrow and congested. There also isn’t the athleticism in wide positions going forward and it’s been a real weakness this season.
We also improved on our pass completion too and even though Kolasinac was our poorest passer on the night he still racked up a 71% pass completion, which I though was interesting because I’m away games this season we’ve seen him in the 50s and 60s. Everyone seemed to be a little more switched on and although it was still nervy I thought we played some decent football at times. There was more composure about the team in possession and I think that showed overall last night. We controlled the football a lot more and the result was a two goal lead to protect that I think was merited.
But we have another game in Spain that we have to navigate. And before that it’s Brighton on Sunday. I’m less fussed about that because I think our league season is done, but Emery will want to sign off at home with a win so hopefully we get that.
Right, I’ll catch you all tomorrow, so have a good’un.