And with that, Arsenal’s Europa League campaign ended. The performance tonight from the Gunners was bad, bordering on shocking. To blow a 1-0 aggregate lead at home in the second leg is inexcusable. To have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang virtually win the tie with minutes remaining in extra time only to concede again might be worse. What comes after inexcusable?
Poor Aubameyang. The man who has saved Arsenal’s bacon so many times this season missed a sitter at the absolute death that would have rescued the side once again. The same can be said for Bernd Leno. Along with PEA, he’s a candidate for player of the season, but he made a poor play on the ball, invited pressure, and conceded a needless corner that eventually led to Olympiacos’ second. Just as against Chelsea and his dropped cross, a mistake from the German keeper sticks out like an extremely sore thumb and disproportionately colors the perception of what has been a great season thus far.
The Gunners have definitely improved under Mikel Arteta, but it wasn’t going to be a continuous march of progress. There were always going to be steps back, bumps in the road, and pitfalls. Unfortunately, Arsenal picked a really bad time to stumble. Arteta isn’t blameless either; his substitutions still leave a lot to be desired. Going to a back three was a risk that didn’t pay off, Joe Willock continues to contribute very little, and he waited too long to bring on Gabriel Martinelli. I’ll also take Arteta to task for not figuring out a way to break down Olympiacos’ low block; he shares the blame with the players on that one.
Arteta has worked some kind of a miracle in reclaiming Shkodran Mustafi to turn him into a useful player again, but he hasn’t been able to work similar magic on David Luiz and Sokratis, both of whom were at fault on the deciding goal. Luiz perhaps could have gotten a head to the cross, but for some reason, pulled back (and he was also completely unaware of Cisse running through to score the first). Sokratis let El Arabi run right past him for the goal.
Hopefully Mustafi’s injury isn’t serious, because he was having another stormer tonight. He left the game in the first half of extra time with what looked like a hamstring issue. Arsenal may have bodies at centerback, but they lack quality, and we may see Pablo Mari make his debut against Portsmouth on Monday out of necessity.
Arsenal are struggling all over the pitch, not just at centerback. You can only paper over the cracks for so long — the squad isn’t good enough. This is a recovery season for Hector Bellerin. He’s not back to his pre-injury level but has to keep playing because with Cedric Soares not fit and Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the cold, Arsenal don’t have another right back. Bukayo Saka looks tired, as you’d expect an 18-year old converted winger playing left back to look after playing four consecutive matches. Again, the Gunners don’t have cover at the position right now.
After looking like he was rediscovering his form for a few matches, Alexandre Lacazette put in a stinker. Nicolas Pepe continues to show flashes of potential, but he gives the ball away cheaply too often, is extremely limited with this right foot, and often looks as if his feet and his body are moving too quickly for his decision-making to keep up. He still has a shot to come good, but at this point in the season with the price Arsenal paid for him, you really need more from your record-signing.
But at the end of the day, there aren’t any excuses for the performance. It wasn’t good enough. And it stings. I was bullish on Arsenal heading into tonight. The side was on a good run. They were playing better and getting results. I thought they would take care of business. Blowing an aggregate lead and getting knocked out of the Europa League feels like three or four steps back. At least Arsenal still have an outside shot at making something happen in the Premier League.
And away goals is still one of the worst rules in sports. Away goals still counting in extra time, remarkably, is even worse.