Arsenal, or more accurately Nicolas Pepe, avoided their first Europa League group stage loss since November 2017 against FC Koln, beating Vitoria 2-1 at the Emirates. Not a whole lot went right in this game. Arsenal started out not realizing or remembering that they also needed to defend down the left; early on, that almost cost them, as Rob Holding got turned, only for Vitoria to realize they’re not very good at finishing, so the chance came to nothing.
The game began to unfold in a similar manner - Arsenal, conceding a lot of space and not looking likely to create much going forward, and Vitoria, taking advantage of the space they were given, only to mostly squander it.
The visitors got the opening goal, though, in the eighth minute, when Marcus Edwards posterized not one, but two Arsenal players, leaving Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin in the dust and finishing well to take the lead.
Gabriel Martinelli headed home a Kieran Tierney cross in the 32nd minute, in a rare display of first-half competence, but five minutes later, Vitoria took the lead again, again following some absolutely clownshoes play by Arsenal, this time by Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who surrendered the ball way too easily to a Vitesse player, who promptly marched the ball down the pitch and fired off a shot that doinked off the post, only for Bruno Duarte da Silva to hammer home the rebound and send Arsenal in to the locker room down 2-1.
The second half got underway and...it was more of the same. Arsenal just look lost right now, and even a half time break didn’t wake the club up. You know what did, though? Nicolas Pepe. He came on in the 75th minute and, while he didn’t singlehandedly change the run of play, he did provide two moments of absolute brilliance, in the form of free kicks.
The first came in the 80th minute, and it was probably the best free kick I’ve seen in a while...until Pepe’s second, in extra time, which was every bit as good, if not better. Arsenal thus escaped with three points that they barely deserved (“deserved” being the worst word in sports), but here they are, leading their group with three games to go.
As for the meat of the game: look,
As I’ve mentioned before, there’s more than enough blame to go around Arsenal right now, and at some point, some of that blame has to fall on the players, even while raining blame down on the coach. Whether Emery is getting all out of them that he can is one question, but even apart from that, most Arsenal players just aren’t playing well right now. I’m sorry if this violates the Popular Arsenal Narrative Rule, but I also blame the players for that.
We can (and probably will) talk about bad coaching all day, but it wasn’t bad coaching that made Emile Smith-Rowe screw a shot wide when it would have been easier to score. It wasn’t bad coaching that made Nicolas Pepe pass into four defenders straight in front of him when he had ESR open to his left, or make Gabriel Martinelli waste a promising chance at the death by dribbling meekly straight into a defender, when all he had to do was deke him slightly and he’d be past him.
It didn’t turn out to matter today, thanks to two moments of individual brilliance, but Arsenal need to whip themselves into shape pretty quick here, both coach and players, or else even moments of brilliance won’t save them.
Points are obviously great, leading the group is of course great, but an improvement in playing quality would be a whole lot more fun to watch than most of this game was. Nicolas Pepe made it memorable, but heroball is not a repeatable skill, even if it’s a Pepe-level hero we’re talking about.