In a topsy-turvy night of football, Arsenal came from 0-2 down to draw 2-2 with Standard Liege.
Thanks to Vitoria’s comeback against Frankfurt, this result was enough to see the Gunners top their group. What did we learn?
1. Bukayo Saka has “it”
There haven’t been many bright spots for Arsenal this season, but the emergence of Bukayo Saka has most definitely been one of them. The teenager has shown repeatedly in the Europa League that he is a player capable of great moments of magic. He’s obviously not the most consistent performer, but as a teenager in his debut season he has a nerveless confidence that is impervious to managerial nonsense.
That may not last, but so far he most definitely has “it” – he created Arsenal’s first goal out of nothing with a beautiful pearl of a cross from the left-wing. And he scores the second goal with a dazzling bit of dribbling on the edge of the box followed by a delightfully curved finish. It was a special goal that preserved Arsenal’s honour and confirmed Saka as a bonafide difference-maker.
2. Alexandre Lacazette needs more service
Alex Lacazette is a phenomenal striker. His successes for first Lyon and then Arsenal have confirmed just how good he is and can be. The Frenchman moved to Arsenal and has failed to crack 20 goals in either of his seasons even though he’s still been a reliable scorer.
Lacazette’s all-around game has been impressive for Arsenal. He presses well, links with team-mates nicely, and scores big goals when he needs to. The thing is he’s nowhere near as prolific as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, which could be read as a criticism of the Frenchman. But the thing is, Lacazette’s problem is mostly down to a lack of service.
Aubameyang’s skill-set means that he is usually the player gifted with big chances that Arsenal creates whilst Lacazette plays more of a team-focused role. Lacazette doesn’t have electric pace, so isn’t as able to generate his own chances and needs chances creating for him. And, well, Arsenal so often fail at that. The one good chance they created for him today, he buried with ease.
3. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”
During the American vice-presidential debates in 1988, the two candidates were the young Dan Quayle and the veteran Lloyd Bentsen. They were debating and for some reason Dan Quayle’s response to questions regarding his inexperience was to compare his experience level to John F. “Jack” Kennedy when the latter campaigned for and won the Presidency.
Bentsen’s response was instantly iconic: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Last year Manchester United found themselves in the midst of a horrible run of form – they hadn’t looked right all season. Out of desperation they sacked manager José Mourinho and appointed, on an interim basis, club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The hope was that Solskjaer’s status as a legend of the club would help galvanise everyone and the Norwegian could lift United to finish the season well.
With Solskjaer as boss, United jolted to life. The Norwegian had such an amazing impact on United’s form that he earned the job permanently. After that he struggled, and this season has been inconsistent – but has shown amazing potential for growth with the big game performances he has gotten out of his players.
This season, Arsenal found themselves in much the same situation United were, so they turned to Freddie Ljungberg hoping for the same kind of managerial boost from a club legend. But, well, it was a poor copy. Whatever his flaws may be Solskjaer has managed senior players before, both at Molde to great success and then at Cardiff to failure. He is an actual senior football manager.
Ljungberg meanwhile had only managed reserve and youth sides, and was a poor choice to try and save Arsenal. Something which has now been made plain by the hideous displays under him that have changed absolutely nothing. For the first time in forever there has been no new manager bounce, Arsenal have continued to limp around the place, repeatedly punching themselves in the face.
Freddie, you’re no Ole Solskjaer.
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4. Tepid defending a disgrace to Per Mertesacker
Whilst Freddie Ljungberg is Arsenal’s manager, his assistant is Big Forking German Per Mertesacker. Now Mertesacker wasn’t the greatest defender in the universe but he had an innate organisational ability, a superb positional sense and a bravery in confronting attackers.
Arsenal’s defending was embarrassingly tepid against Standard. Their players didn’t race out to confront their opponents, to put pressure on open shooters, and as a result they were made to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous deflections that put Standard into a two-goal lead. A bit like when Steve Bould joined as a coach and Arsenal’s defending didn’t improve; what on earth is Mertesacker doing in training if his players are still defending like this? No one’s expecting Sokratis and David Luiz to turn into Baresi and Maldini, but be better than this!
5. Arsenal limp on, but a storm is coming
For most of the match it looked like Arsenal would finish second behind Eintracht Frankfurt (in fact for a brief moment it seemed like Arsenal might even get eliminated). Then thanks to a dramatic late turnaround in both games, Arsenal actually ended up winning the group.
So the Gunners avoided the embarrassment of elimination and even the potential troubles of a draw against an eliminated Champions League side like Inter Milan. But anyone who watched their performances so far this season, and especially their miserable dribble of a display in Belgium, will know that there is a storm on the horizon. Arsenal are a horrible side and unless something dramatic changes before February, the Gunners are heading for Europa League embarrassment in 2020.