So we’re all waking up to a monument ours occasion in the UK this morning: Arsenal topping a group in the Europa League.
A hard fought comeback yesterday in the second half from Freddie Ljungberg’s charges meant that eventually, by virtue of the fact that Vitoria Guimares earned an unlikely victory in Germany, we actually tipped our group on 11 points and ensured what in theory should be a more favourable tie in the next round of the second European trophy.
What it served to highlight for me was just how poor and, frankly, pointless the group stages are because yesterday we had some pretty turgid performances from a vast number of the Arsenal players on the pitch and the result was going 2-0 to a team who hadn’t even mustered a draw against us in their last five games.
Standard Liege needed to win and hope results go their way and with Arsenal not really needing to do anything other than not lose by five goals, our opponents had the advantage of added incentive. Yet they still succumb to a couple of goals from us the second that we switched our team to a more coherent structure.
Freddie started the game with three at the back and the two youngsters – Maitland-Niles and Saka – as wing backs respectively. It was an admission from Freddie that the injury problems that have plagued us for most of this season remain and that there is still a lot about this Arsenal team that looks fragile, particularly when tactical shifts are made, because three at the back just didn’t work.
I don’t think any of our centre halves covered themselves in any glory whatsoever and each of Mavropanos, Luiz and Sokratis looked shaky; unable to retain possession for even simple passes at times and also making pretty average opponents looking dynamic and inventive. That was especially the case in the second half. It was a pretty nothing first half and I take Freddie’s point about not conceding any shots in the first, so I find myself thinking this very morn: “how on earth can Arsenal make a team with no shots on target still look good?
It wasn’t just the defence though, because in front of them I thought we had a couple of young players – and let’s emphasise that because it is important given that young players do make mistakes – in Willock and Guendouzi who has pretty poor games. At times Guendouzi holds on to the ball that split second longer than he should and that’s frustrating, but he also has very poor defensive awareness and for the second goal that cost us. He only half-heartedly closed down the Liege player on our box and although it was deflected in, you have to question how on earth players consistently get such time and space in our penalty box. It happened for both Brighton goals only a week ago!
Willock too was very poor and it’s clear he’s suffering a crisis of confidence. His lazy pass in the box was latched on to for the second goal we conceded and at that point you wondered whether we’d be destined for a nail-biting finish. Hey, this is Arsenal, so we all know those players are capable of an implosion.
Thankfully Freddie recognised just how bad it had got and by bringing Sokratis off for Martinelli he switched us to a back four, we started to stretch the Belgians more, which led to us pegging them back to what we now know is our favourite score line this season: 2-2.
We also know that this season there’s two things we’re great at:
- Giving away penalties.
- Deflected goals.
You can’t really say that about Arsenal at the moment and ahead of a tough festive period it does feel as though we’ve got a few more bumps along the road that are within sight right now. Potentially even this weekend.
Given that we went through though, I think it’s probably best on finishing up today with a little more positivity, in which I thought it was good that Smith-Rowe got minutes under his belt and I thought he did well. As did Martinelli when he comes on but that is becoming a regular occurrence at the moment and there’s surely no way he doesn’t start on Sunday at home to Man City. We shall see what Freddie’s thinking is for then.
But for now let’s just appreciate that we’ve done our job and we await our Europa League fate.
Catch you all tomorrow.