Football Features

“What’s the worst that could happen?” – Five things learned as Arsenal lose to Olympiakos but progress to the quarter-final on aggregate

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:03, 18 March 2021

In a drab night of football, Olympiakos beat Arsenal at the Emirates but the Gunners still qualified for the Europa League quarter-finals.

Arsenal flattered to deceive in their home stadium but the Greek side couldn’t find enough goals to really threaten them. What did we learn?

1. Arsenal qualify, but at what cost?

Obviously it’s better to qualify for the next round of a knockout competition, especially when winning it will grant you entrance into the Champions League, but looking at tonight’s game… do Arsenal really stand a chance of winning the Europa League?

The Gunners limped meekly beyond Olympiakos, relying on their first-leg win (which was only alright rather than genuinely impressive) they coasted through the home leg with a complete lack of urgency. They missed easy chances and gave them up as well; a team even slightly better than Olympiakos would have knocked them out tonight. Hell even the Greeks may have managed it were it not for the horribly harsh red card shown to Ousseynou Ba.

So yes, Arsenal are through, but they’re not likely to win the competition and so all that means is they’ll be playing extra games and draining their energy for the Premier League run-in which is quite important given that they are, y’know, 10th.

2. Dani Ceballos the no. 10

Arsenal were already a squad that had selection issues in the attacking midfield position. Having dispatched of Mesut Ozil, youngster Emile Smith Rowe had emerged as a superb choice to play there only for the club to pick up Martin Odegaard in January.

To those two we can now add Dani Ceballos. The Spaniard has usually played in a deeper role, driving the ball forward with aplomb but today he was deployed in that no. 10 role and he looked very accomplished, drifting into space and playing several balls in behind the Olympiakos defence. The two best Arsenal chances of the night came from Ceballos’ passes including one delirious ball behind the full-backs for Nicolas Pépé, and he’s now added to Mikel Arteta’s selection dilemma.

3. Olympiakos’ fighting spirit

It says something about the spirit in the Olympiakos camp that they came to the Emirates full of confidence and determined to actually try and win despite losing their home leg 1-3. Of course Olympiakos overturned a 0-1 home loss against Arsenal last year, winning 1-2 in North London after extra time. However that was just a single goal, this was a three goal margin they had to make up.

Yet Pedro Martins’ men came and gave it a go. They were sturdy in defence and pushed forward on the break. While there was a huge element of fortune about their deflected goal (although Arsenal benefited from similar a week ago) they also created danger for the Gunners in the most basic of ways. They won the battle, lost the war, and crucially demonstrated their heart.

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4. Pepnay and Whybameyang

Arsenal’s impressive come-from-behind victory in the North London derby was notable for the absence of two players: Nicolas Pépé and club captain Pierré-Emerick Aubameyang. Pépé was a selection decision while Aubameyang was a disciplinary matter but the Gunners didn’t seem to miss them.

Both got the start tonight and in a game where they should have shown their quality and staked their claim to be part of the team’s best XI, neither man distinguished themselves. In fact they embarrassed themselves. Pépé blew the chance to give Aubameyang a tap-in and missed a great chance himself while the Arsenal captain blew a hat-trick of superb chances including one where he was honest to goodness 1-v-1 with the goalkeeper with no defender anywhere near him.

5. What more must Martinelli do?

Given how poor everyone has looked for Arsenal, you have to wonder what more Gabriel Martinelli has to do to get a chance in the starting XI? The Brazilian offers pace and penetration and mere minutes after coming on showed the drive and initiative to get a key Olympiakos player sent off. That’s more than any of his team-mates managed.

Obviously Mikel Arteta has a lot of players to find minutes for, especially in the attacking parts of the pitch, but given how woeful Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has looked lately, and even Bukayo Saka hasn’t been at his electric best, maybe give the Brazilian a go? What’s the worst that could happen?