After three years of being put down with the classic line of ‘enjoy the Arctic Circle on Thursday nights’, Arsenal were finally playing European football on a Wednesday once again. Admittedly, it was a Europa League fixture moved to a mid-afternoon slot rather than the more glamorous Champions League ties that other London clubs enjoyed, but I wasn’t going to let that dampen my spirits. It was lucky that I didn’t, because the performance and accompanying was frankly dismal, and made me seriously question just how badly we are going to lose to high-flying Leicester on Saturday evening.
The questions began an hour before a ball was kicked, with the announcement of the line ups. I have never been a fan of Arsenal playing with three centrebacks and wing-backs since Hector Bellerin got injured in December 2018. It was with a heavy heart then, that I realised that we had reverted back to this system, handing Sokratis his first start in Europe this season. Perhaps even more concerning to me however, was the midfield pairing of Joe Willock and Dani Ceballos. Neither offer any defensive cover, and both are strikingly similar in their desire to carry the ball forward. A midfield then, that fundamentally lacked any balance whatsoever, and as a result was regularly overrun. On paper, the front three seemed well-balanced, but often found itself isolated and unable to create any real opportunities.
Moving onto the actual game then, and it became clear very early that something was fundamentally wrong with Arsenal’s set up. It was only thanks to a mixture of the post and goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez that the Gunners reached half-time with the game goalless. As early as the 8th minute, Vitoria’s Pepe saw his shot smack off the upright, whilst Martinez was forced into saves from ex-Tottenham academy player Marcus Edwards. Arsenal’s goal was under fire as Vitoria racked up ten shots in the first half alone, whilst the Gunners found the target just once. An altogether dismal offering.
Unai Emery, often the half-time tinkerer, opted against changing anything at the interval, and the first change came as an injured Dani Ceballos was replaced by Matteo Guendouzi. I was quick to heap praise on Ceballos after his early signs of quality in an Arsenal shirt, but have recently found myself increasingly frustrated with the Real Madrid loanee. For all his tricks and turns, there is little of substance to be impressed with. His evening was summed up in the 40th minute, when he nutmegged an oncoming player beautifully, before failing with a simple pass and gifting possession back to the Portuguese side. Therefore, Guendouzi replacing him would have been a change I would have made injury or not. Immediately, Arsenal had more intensity and bite in the middle of the pitch, and slowly began to turn the tide back in their favour. It is difficult to overstate the impact that the 20-year-old Frenchman has on Arsenal’s dynamic, but it was there for all to see in Portugal.
Having criticised Unai Emery’s substitutions in Arsenal’s trip to Anfield, it seems only fair to offer him praise in this situation. I personally felt that the personnel changes, although fundamentally lacking a system change, were spot on. He was let down by an uncharacteristically off-the-pace Alexandre Lacazette, and some individual errors all over the pitch. The Spaniard of course must take the blame for his failure to adjust the system, but cannot be faulted for the substitutions he called upon.
The damp squib of a game was finally cracked open as Shkodran Mustafi nodded in a Nicolas Pepe free-kick in the 80th minute. For the next few minutes, Arsenal looked comfortable. In typical Arsenal fashion however, and for the second successive game, they managed to throw away a one-goal lead in rather comical fashion. Despite having SEVEN players inside their own six-yard box, the Gunners allowed the single Vitoria player present to find the back of the net, grabbing what was a deserved equaliser. The game has to be put down as one of the most boring in recent memory, a poor quality affair from which Arsenal spurned the chance to seal qualification.