Arsenal’s disappointing 1-1 draw against Slavia Prague in the Europa League Quarterfinal is all on the manager, I’m afraid. Mikel Arteta deployed a conservative lineup, was too slow to make changes, and got harshly punished for it. Slavia’s away goal essentially means today’s result was as good as a loss for Arsenal, and it didn’t have to be that way.
Slavia was abject today. They were missing three regular centerbacks, and it was painfully obvious. Their defense was in shambles, and Arsenal were able to get in behind again and again. Bukayo Saka had free reign down the right flank, but seemingly every time he put a ball in, Alexandre Lacazette, the striker, the guy who is supposed to be furthest forward and pushing to get onto balls from the penalty spot in, was either late-arriving or nowhere to be found. And he missed the clearest cut breakaway since Gabriel Martinelli against Chelsea.
Arsenal could have had the beating of Slavia down the left too, but Willian just isn’t the guy to do that. His replacement, Martinelli, looked much better. One play in particular stuck out: Martinelli received the ball with his heels on the touch line and immediately drove infield and at his defender. He beat him and nearly slipped Emile Smith Rowe in. When was the last time you saw Willian do something explosive and dangerous like that?
Mikel Arteta being too clever by half with his team selection has become a disturbing trend. His lineup today struck me as overly concerned with neutralizing Slavia’s press by having players who he thinks are good on the ball and good at retaining possession. Whether those players are actually good at what he thinks they are good at is an entirely different question, but I digress.
Arsenal have the better players and the better team, especially with Slavia missing their CBs. Try to take advantage of that! Put your best attackers on the pitch and pressure a weakened defense. Who cares if you maybe give up a goal because you’re less press resistant, because I promise you with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé on the pitch from the start, you’re scoring three.
And I’m even willing to give Arteta the benefit of the doubt on the starting lineup, but he’s got to recognize that Slavia are playing poorly and adapt to exploit that at halftime. Or in the 50th minute. Or the 55th. Or 60th. Or 70th. But he waited until the 78th minute to bring on his talisman striker, highest paid player, and club captain and the club-record signing, who, by the way, has been in excellent form.
That pair, Aubameyang and Pépé (.76 xG) nearly managed in 16 minutes what Lacazette and Willian did (.8 xG) in 78 minutes. And oh by the way, Aubameyang and Pépé managed all that without Bukayo Saka, Arsenal’s best creative attacker, on the pitch. Imagine the damage they could have done playing together.
To be fair, I’m doing a bit of creative accounting on the xG numbers because I’ve removed Lacazette’s breakaway chance from my comparison, but hear me out. That chance came from a Slavia mistake and not an Arsenal pattern of play. It didn’t even come from an organized press. The defender blew it. That chance is not repeatable or reliably created. Mikel Arteta’s team selection let an awful Slavia Prague defense off the hook for 5/6ths of the match.
A few more thoughts:
- What a goal from Pépé. The pace to get around the defender, the strength to hold him off, and the poise to dink it over the keeper on the dead run. Absolutely magnificent. And great work from Aubameyang to win the ball back at midfield and play him in, too. PEA isn’t a bad passer per se, but it’s also not what you’d consider one of his strengths either, and he hit that one perfectly.
- It’s probably time to have a conversation about Thomas Partey. He wasn’t terrible overall, but his passing was poor and he dribbled himself into trouble. He’s far from the biggest problem at the club, but given some of what he’s shown previously this season and what Arsenal paid to acquire him, he’s been underwhelming.
- Cedric stinks. His crossing was poor. And I’m pinning the Slavia goal mostly on him. He put Gabriel under needless pressure by turning around and playing backwards with space in front of him, which led to a hit post and a corner. He then got beat at the back post on the corner for the goal. He shouldn’t play left back again for Arsenal, which is unfortunate because he’s going to be playing there for a while with Kieran Tierney out. Not buying a proper backup LB was a really bad idea.
- Slavia’s goal today was another one where Bernd Leno got his hands to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. As I said after Liverpool, he’s been quite good for Arsenal overall, but he’s in a down run of form right now. Hopefully he snaps out of it.
- Emile Smith Rowe drifted in and out of the match, but I think that was in large part because Willian was crowding him (I saw actual touch maps for the pair at halftime that supports this, I’m not just making it up). ESR was much more effective playing through the middle than from the wider positions in which he’s been deployed lately.
- In the second half of the season, Arsenal had one of the better attacks in the Premier League from an xG standpoint, helped by playing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang through the middle. Amazing what happens when you play one of your best players in their best position! And Mikel Arteta has just...stopped doing that. And the attack has gone flat.
So yeah. Finger of blame pointed squarely at Mikel Arteta on this one.
I still think that Arsenal have a good chance to go through mostly because I feel comfortable saying that the Gunners, warts and all, are significantly better than Slavia. If they’d only get out of their own way. And there’s the rub. This club has an annoying habit of doing just that. They’ve made it needlessly difficult for themselves by giving up an away goal and having to, basically, win on the road to advance. Arsenal could have and should have killed the tie today. Instead, the success or failure of the season is down to one match, next week, in Prague.