Overconfidence is a season killer. At the very least, it is the lesson that every Arsenal player should take away from Thursday night’s 2-1 second leg loss to FK Ostersunds at the Emirates Stadium. Coming into the home leg with a 3 goal cushion, the Gunners were right to feel confident, but instead they showed arrogance. It was painfully obvious that the players were simply going through the motions, expecting to show up and coast to an easy victory at home. The visitors answered this gross miscalculation with an inspired first half of football, and by the time the ref blew for halftime, the Gunners were lucky to not have seen their entire 3 goal advantage evaporate. Ultimately, Wenger’s men recovered and won the second half to advance to the Europa League quarterfinals, but supporters were rightfully incensed by their club’s anemic display.
First Half Farce
If Arsene Wenger thought rotating his squad would produce a team hungry to perform, he was deeply mistaken in the first half as Ostersunds took the fight to the Gunners. Despite having more possession than their Swedish visitors, the Arsenal team as a whole was disjointed and underwhelming in attack and overexposed at the back when they lost the ball. The lack of a proper front line striker (with Alexandre Lacazette injured and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cup tied) forced the Gunners to throw numbers forward in support of the uninspiring Danny Welbeck, who did little to threaten the Ostersunds defence in the first half.
With Henrikh Mhkitaryan starting in an attacking midfield 3 along with Jack Wilshere and Alex Iwobi, Arsenal lacked width down the right flank, forcing Hector Bellerin to overlap frequently in the final third. When Ostersunds countered, they did so predominantly through the spaces exploited by Bellerin’s advanced position and the attacking aggression of Wilshere and fellow central midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles. The midfielders were stagnant for much of the first half, choosing to wait for the ball the come to them rather than working to move into space and provide an outlet for the player on the ball. Ostersunds did not press that aggressively, but did a good job forcing the Gunners into wide areas at both ends of the pitch, where they would then press the man with the ball. Mkhitaryan in particular suffered from this treatment, and his wayward passing was exacerbated by the poor off-ball movement.
Ostersunds went into the half with a 2-0 lead, trailing by just a goal on aggregate, and the score line was fair given the hosts’ total lack of quality. The first goal was made possible by an ugly mistake by Sead Kolasinac that left Hosam Aiesh with space to walk in and fire past David Ospina. Their second, just seconds after the match had restarted, came off of another poor pass out from the back, but it still took some trickery and an accurate shot by Ken Sema to beat the hapless Ospina. The Columbian was not done any favours by his outfield players, but he could have perhaps done better on both shots, as they fizzed passed him along the ground. After such a heinous lapse in execution and concentration, the Gunners settled down and did not concede again, but the attack remained ineffectual until halftime.
A Chance To Impress Wasted
Like any big club, Arsenal have more than 11 players that realistically could be fighting for important starting minutes in every match. Players like Sead Kolasinac, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Rob Holding, Jack Wilshere, David Ospina and even Calum Chambers do not always get to play as much as they would like, and should be highly motivated to play well when given a start. However, none of the squad players closest to challenge for a place in the first XI were particularly impressive, with a decided lack of movement off the ball, and a lack of crispness in the passes. Kolasinac took bad angles on at least 3 separate occasions, and one of his mistakes directly lead to the first Ostersunds goal. Holding and Chambers played reasonably well as the centre back pairing, with Holding in particular making an impression for his shot blocking, but teammate mistakes and badly stretched lines undermined their good work in the middle on both Ostersunds goals.
Jack Wilshere might have been the best of the bunch, but he too struggled with his passing and positioning for much of the night. As a player that is instinctually drawn into central areas where he can make things happen on the ball, he provided a less fluid creative partner to Mhkitaryan than Mesut Ozil, who will happily create space for the Armenian with his clever movement. Even still, Wilshere was the most consistent outlet in buildup play for much of the match, and his driving runs represented the Gunners’ best threat around the penalty area for much of the match. However, he has not yet reached the dynamic heights of Aaron Ramsey this season in a similar role, and if the Welshman is fit for Sunday, he is likely to get the nod over Wilshere should Wenger elect not to play both.
Maitland-Niles Shows His Age
Arsenal used to be known as a club that gave youth a chance, but in recent seasons the pipeline has dried up, with only Alex Iwobi in recent seasons making a lasting impression after graduating the academy. However, this season has seen 3 youngsters explode onto the scene, exciting the fans with the flair, pace and technical skill. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah are all highly thought of within the club, but Maitland-Niles has gotten the most minutes with the first team, including making multiple starts at left back when the club was in a bind due to injuries. Whether in the backline or centre midfield, Maitland-Niles has typically impressed, showing no lack of confidence on the pitch, and forcing his way into Arsene Wenger’s plans for the season. In the first leg against Ostersunds, he was explosive from his place in the midfield, bursting through the lines and helping his side transition from defence to attack.
Maitland-Niles got the start once again in the midfield on Thursday, playing deeper than Jack Wilshere but venturing further forward than Mohammed Elneny, who largely acted as a shield for the defence. The young Englishman struggled against Ostersunds, his passes lacking their usual crispness and accuracy and his recovery runs lacking urgency. Many fans have been calling for a regular role for Maitland-Niles in the midfield, with Granit Xhaka a popular choice to be replaced, but the team settled down after Xhaka’s introduction for his teammate at the half. While he was undoubtedly poor, the whole team failed to meet the required levels in the first half, and his positional struggles made him the prime candidate for substitution. His performance in no way dulls the shine of his future potential, but the inconsistent display is a useful reminder that young talent needs time to grow, even if the player appears ready for the consistent spotlight.
Potter Impresses Again, This Time On His Home Soil
Despite Arsenal eventually coming away with a straightforward 3-0 win in the first leg of the match in Sweden, many fans and pundits alike were impressed by the quality Ostersunds showed in hosting a top level Premier League club. They grew into the match and were unflinching as they sought to move the ball around and generate scoring opportunities. Their hard work almost lead to a goal at the end of the match, as they were unlucky to have a penalty saved by Ospina.
On Thursday, Ostersunds were even more impressive, showing no signs of being intimidated by their surroundings or their opponent. Potter’s men thoroughly outplayed the Gunners in the first half, and as they headed into halftime with the aggregate score 3-2, they looked as though they would have a legitimate chance to force a shootout, or perhaps even win the match outright. Arsenal eventually found their legs, if not their best form, in the second half and Kolasinac’s goal effectively ended Ostersunds’ challenge for good. However, Graham Potter and his entire club should be proud of their performance in the round of 16. He has put his name on the map in England with his managerial performance, and it should not be surprising to see clubs in the Championship enquirer about his availability in the summer.
Pointing The Finger
Arsenal may have ultimately advanced to the quarter finals of the Europa League, but they once again played well below their capabilities in both legs of the round of 16. The Gunners have struggled in European elimination games ever since losing to Barcelona in 2006. While the players have not covered themselves in glory during their last 12 years of European struggles, many fans are wondering if the fault lies with Arsene Wenger. The manager is known for his gentle, father-like approach to man management, and it begs the question whether or not players are still receptive to his motivational tactics. Despite not always getting the result, Arsenal have improved this season against their fellow top 6 foes in the league, but more than ever seem vulnerable to lesser opposition. It is as if the team is able to self-motivate for the marquee matchups, but struggle to maintain that same focus in the buildup to a match with a less prestigious opponent. Whether the issue is indeed with the manager, and his inability to get his team to maintain their levels, or it is a player issue, where inconsistent effort and a lack of focus cause too many crippling mistakes, it is a problem that Arsenal must solve quickly. Wenger is running out of time to prove to the fans and the club that he can still compete for a title, and performances like Thursday’s give his detractors fuel for their argument that the man has indeed lost his touch.