Why We Lost
There are very little words to describe this haunting feeling of loss at our own stadium. Very little words to describe the devastating sadness of Aubameyang’s miss. What can be described in plenty of words is how we lost.
We set out in our usual 2-3-5/4-4-2 in and out of possession respectively with nearly a full strength team. There were no surprises anywhere. Mustafi, Luiz, Saka and Bellerin defended, Xhaka and Ceballos anchored the midfield, and Ozil joined Lacazette, Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé upfront.
Olympiakos mirrored our 4-4-2 when out of possession and shifted to a more expansive structure when they had the ball.
Nothing was fundamentally wrong with our setup. In fact, it made a whole lot of sense (apart from the fact that it is our usual setup under Arteta) to employ such a structurally sound system considering that we had an away goal advantage. The 4-4-2 is a really solid set up and easy to coach in the defensive phase. If the space is compact, the players well-drilled and full of energy, it takes a lot to find ease in penetration. On the other hand, the 2-3-5 is the go-to formation for breaking down deep defenses. It ensures control in possession, width in stretching play and numerical presence in dangerous areas. Combining both formations gives incredible balance in both the defensive and offensive aspect. With a team like Arsenal’s, this setup makes much sense.
If Arteta’s setup and lineup going into the match was right, then what went wrong for Arsenal?
First of all, individual mistakes can undo any system. Arsenal were full of dull errors in both halves. An error is not always an obvious, egregious thing. Sometimes it can be a completed pass that ought to have been made a second earlier. At other times, it can be as miniscule as a player trying to shift the ball onto their strong foot before making a decision with it. Dull errors are insidious. Commit enough of them and you give the opponents a chance to get settled and comfortable. You give them security and a sense of solidity.
When an opponent is employing a deep 4-4-2 like Olympiakos, you only enhance their rigidity. Maurizo Sarri’s attacking philosophy is constructed to combat against this. To Sarri, football is not just about you, the opponent, the ball and space. It is also about the brain as well, all the 22 on the pitch. Just like how a Mourinho team might employ antics and arts designed to frustrate a more attacking side and wear them down (nipping at legs, outrageous curse words, excessive force in safe and legitimate defensive actions, diving, time wasting, hostile atmosphere, etc), an attacking side can do the same with the ball (constant possession, numerical superiority in key areas, constant switches of play, constant pressure in attacking phases, deliberate taunting when passing out of the back).
Sarri’s system uses a lot of disguised passes, false runs and decoy phases of play to keep the opponents constantly on their toes on as extreme a level as possible. By posing a constant threat and a certain level of unpredictability in your play, you do not allow the opponent to gain a sense of security. They begin to doubt themselves: is that pass about to go there or here? will this run really be picked up? why is everyone being pulled out of position? Sloppiness creeps in with mental fatigue and the quality of the defensive system begins to suffer. As it happened last night, Arsenal might as well have given Olympiakos a letter of assurance from the House of Commons. There was so much predictability on show, WWE wrestling felt like a Game of Thrones epic in comparison.
Arsenal committed too many individual mistakes and dull errors. One too many touches were taken when a touch could have progressed play faster. The ball seemed to move around like a thrown balloon and bounce like a beach ball. Everyone was committing these dull errors, even Ozil, a master at the subtle art of technical elegance. These little errors allowed Olympiakos too much of time to execute their instructions and gave them confidence as they settled into the game. The technical level in this Arsenal team is simply at an all-time low.
Secondly, we were not brave enough. Arteta, in trying to protect the lead, gave too much respect to Olympiakos when they had the ball. After 30 minutes, it was obvious that the Greeks had too much of an influence in the match. Their passing and transitions were so comfortable in a way they shouldn’t be in our own backyard. We have been braver against top 6 English opposition this season.
It kind of became obvious that settling into a 4-4-2 shape every time the ball was with their goalkeeper was not the best available option. We should have gone pressing man-to-man. Such a tactic would have placed them under great pressure and cooked far more counter-attacking transitions than we got.
Ajax showed us the beauty of a man-to-man marking system last season in the Champions League. It simply startles even the most technically accomplished teams in the world, not to mention the mighty Olympiakos. We were pressing hard but not efficiently. We forced no good turnovers in their final third, no dispossession or interception at all. We had to move the pressure forward and contain the threat they posed from buildup. Unfortunately, Arteta stuck with the safe option.
Additionally, this match had Arteta make some of his worse decisions when it comes to personnel. We could have used Ainsley Maitland-Niles today. In fact, we needed him. Bellerin was very pathetic in both the attacking and the defensive phase. If he had the ball, Bellerin made a poor decision. When Nicolas Pépé had the ball: his movement offered no useful option. There were so many instances when Pépé had the ball in front of three opposing defenders where Bellerin could have provided support by making a run out wide but didn’t. Instead, he floated uselessly behind the Ivorian who usually had to return the ball or attempt a mazy dribble through.
In defence, Bellerin offered no confidence in covering or marking. At one point, it seemed like Bellerin had drifted outside the bylines and Mustafi had to provide cover for him. He was so easily beaten by his man and only Mustafi’s glorious cameo stopped the ship from sinking from his side.
Sometimes, in football, it can so happen that a much-loved senior player does not fit into the tactical system of a new coach or that there’s simply a better option available. This seems to be the case with the inverted rightback role. Ainsley is a more natural fit for it than Hector Bellerin. Why the 21-year-old is on the bench is a decision shrouded in mystery. In any case, he had to have come on. Olympiakos were dedicating most of their defensive strength to stop Saka on the left. This was why we could generate so many attacks and chances from the right.
Unfortunately, Nicolas Pépé was abandoned by Bellerin (and Arteta) and was forced to do most of the penetration alone. A role he shone at against all odds. Having Maitland-Niles come on would have been a big boost for our right-sided attack. That did not happen.
Lacazette was also pathetic and he was screaming to be substituted off by halftime. How he remained on the pitch past the 80th minute is another mystery. This match exemplifies why Nketiah has taken his spot in the league. The Anglo-Ghanian youngster simply offers more than the 28-year-old.
Arteta’s ineffective substitutions did not stop there. Bringing off Ceballos was a mistake. Granted, the Spaniard had also been error-prone as much as anyone but none of his errors were overly egregious. Most of the time, it was just that his decisions and passing could have been better. A stern talking-to could have elicited a change into the second half. But we would never know now.
If Ceballos had to be brought off and another midfielder brought on in the match, it had to be Matteo Guendouzi. Highly energetic, aggressive in marking and progressive in his decisions with the ball, Guendouzi would have injected a particular kind of intensity and passion that we lacked in midfield, as well as bring quality on the ball. That could have won us the game. In several matches this season, notably against Tottenham and Bounermouth, Guendouzi has almost single-handedly operated the entire midfield by himself and raised the urgency level of the team. His presence brings bite and drive: things that we were missing through the middle in this match. Mentally, he’s almost world-class, capable of inspiring his own teammates with his own passion. Unfortunately, Arteta brought on Torreira whose qualities were not in acute need on the field. We didn’t need more protection. We needed more purpose through the middle.
In fact, after the introduction of Torreira and Joe Willock, the midfield did not get any better. Sometimes, a specific player fits into the specific context of a match. This was a match screaming for Guendouzi.
Overall, there was no gargantuan error made by anyone anywhere. It was the little ones that accumulated and eventually overwhelmed us. From David Luiz’s backpass to the continuity of Lacazette on the field to Arteta’s decisions, those errors gathered weight and heft until we were broken.
It has to be said that Arteta is very inexperienced at this level. This is his first European two-legged knockout tie and this fact might explain his security-first approach to it. He trusted old deputies in Lacazette and Bellerin over the obvious. We were set up not to ensure goals but to contain the opposition. Then it seems he has not fully come to grips with the specific qualities of all his players. This was a Guendouzi match. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was a better fit for the game he wants. All battle-hardened fans know this.
Perhaps then we need him to quickly learn and not put him down after this. It is not everyday that a very improbable stream of errors would happen in this way. Take away just one of those errors and Arsenal would have won.
Football, bloody hell!