Arsenal get out what they put in
Thursday night’s clash at the Emirates is a strange one to analyse in many ways. Normally at the end of a match that runs to penalties while containing a goal from the halfway line, 10 shots on target and a red card, you feel as though you’ve just stepped off a rollercoaster. This one though, barely reached the speed of a Ferris wheel.
It’s not that Arsenal didn’t care. Alex Zinchenko was geeing up the fans from before kick-off, while Martin Odegaard was constantly raising his arms and winding his wrist to try and answer Mikel Arteta’s call for a “big European night” at the Emirates. Gabriel, meanwhile, could be seen yelling towards Fabio Vieira, pointing to his head to encourage the Portuguese midfielder to focus, but ultimately that intensity wasn’t there.
Contrast the final minutes of this game, to the final moments of the Bournemouth match that preceded the Europa League tie. By the time Reiss Nelson’s 97th minute winner came that day it felt as though the Emirates had been building to a crescendo, but if Gabriel’s late header had gone beyond the outstretched palm of Antonio Adan on Thursday, the atmosphere would have been more shock than symphony.
“We didn’t find our rhythm and flow,” Arteta said when delivering the post-mortem on another premature European exit in his post-match press conference. “Allowed too many spaces, were late, didn’t dominate there and gave the ball away many times, sometimes time after time.”
Much like in Arsenal’s last European knock out tie in front fans against Olympiacos three years ago, something felt off from minute one. The intensity that had been so present in Sunday’s win over Fulham was as elusive as it had been in the return leg in Lisbon seven days prior.
Given that Arteta kept the majority of the side that had starred at Craven Cottage in the starting line-up for this one, it’s hard to truly put that down to the drop off from first team to squad players.
Instead the reality is that, just like in the rest of Arsenal’s Europa League campaign, they failed to get anywhere near the heights they’ve shown in the Premier League. Had they done so, they surely would have surpassed a Sporting CP side that managed just two shots on target at the Emirates.
In many ways the biggest disappointment of the night came long before Gabriel Martinelli saw his penalty saved by Adan. First half injuries to Takehiro Tomiyasu and William Saliba present a huge issue for Arsenal ahead of their crucial match with Crystal Palace this weekend.
The former lasted just nine minutes before coming off after what appeared to be an innocuous slip when challenging Francisco Trincao. It’s often those seemingly banal injuries that cause the most concern though, and Mikel Arteta’s update after the game did little to quell any fears of the Japan international’s absence.
“Tomiyasu looks pretty serious from his reaction straight and what he said to me,” the Spaniard said. “But obviously, it’s very early.”
The likelihood is that the Japan international would not have started against Palace anyway. Ben White has played all bar two of Arsenal’s Premier League games from the beginning this season, so Tomiyasu’s absence is one the Gunners would have probably been able to cope with.
Saliba’s however, is a different issue all together. Like Tomiyasu, there didn’t appear to be an obvious injury for the Frenchman when he came off immediately after Granit Xhaka’s opening goal. There were suggestions that the 21-year-old was pointing to his back as he came off, but Arteta was unable to shine any more light on the problem after the match. “Willy? I don’t know,” the Spaniard said. “He had some discomfort and could not continue, so we had to take him out.”
Next in line beyond him is Rob Holding who did a decent enough job after coming on for his first appearance in a month. Saliba is essential to enabling the high line that Arsenal like to play with though and replicating that is no mean feet. The international break could be conveniently timed if the Frenchman’s absence is not too serious, but if it is a longer-term one, then there will concerns ahead of huge matches in the title run-in.
11 finals to go
The reality is despite the disappointment of Thursday night’s loss, it will not define Arsenal’s season. The Europa League would have been the cherry on top of a superb campaign, but the Gunners want to be feasting on Premier League glory come May.
With the potential damages to fitness in the squad, they may well be grateful for the lack of games coming up between now an the end of the season. Although Arteta admitted it was hard to be philosophical straight after the loss, he was willing to concede that it has made their objectives much more clear.
“I cannot see that today that way,” he said when asked if an early elimination might be a blessing in disguise. “You go through the competition and you win it’s magnificent. If not and it affects your plans in the league that’s a different story, but we wanted to go through.
“We put everything and with the effort that the boys put when it wasn’t our best day individually and collectively, the hunger and desire that they showed to win it was incredible. We really wanted it and it didn’t happen. We need to put our heads up, look for Palace. It’s what it is. There are 11 games and the first one starts on Sunday.
“We have to look at ourselves, things that we have to do better to win the game and have bigger margins to win the game and not have to rely on the last 20 minutes and extra time to win the game to go through in the competition.
“Now the 11 games that we have is the only focus that we have. Everybody is thinking about one thing and that’s Palace, being in the best mental and physical condition to win that game.”
Cup defeats have lingered on Arsenal in the past. After the loss to Manchester City in the FA Cup they embarked on a three-match winless run in the league that threatened to hand Pep Guardiola’s side the initiative in the title race. With so few games now, they cannot afford a repeat of that. Fortunately, it seems that this was a topic of discussion immediately after the full-time whistle.
“We talked about it already in the dressing room,” Martin Odegaard said when asked about the lessons of the City loss in January. “We have to move forward now. We have to look to Sunday. It started already now in the changing room and we get ready. We just have to change the mindset again. I think everyone is disappointed, but we have to move forward and just be ready for Sunday.”
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