In a low-key night of football, Arsenal and Vitoria Guimaraes played out a 1-1 draw.
The Gunners were nowhere near their best in Portugal, most clearly seen that when they took the lead only to be pegged back minutes later. What did we learn?
1. Mustafi’s redemption
Shkodran Mustafi has been a laughing stock for a while. Despite thriving at Valencia, since moving to North London in a role that he should be perfect for, he has in fact been much less than that. He often looks absurdly out of his depth and unable to cope with basic pressure. A week ago he scored a bizarre own goal at Anfield which sort of summed him up.
But he’s actually played well in the Europa League so far this season, and tonight seemed to complete his redemption. With Arsenal playing terribly, Mustafi rose proudly late on to head-home a free-kick and give Arsenal a big lead. Beyond that he actually played well too, effecting five clearances and three interceptions (both team highs). Now, Mustafi probably isn’t going to morph into Tony Adams or anything, but he’s surely proved himself to be a useful squad member for Unai Emery’s side. And who would have thought that possible a couple months ago?
Arsenal played a 3-4-2-1 shape against Vitoria. Now, there’s nothing too remarkable about that, they’ve used that system many times, but watching the Gunners play against the Portuguese side you would have never known that.
The way Arsenal had set-up, their midfielders were operating as though they had just two men behind them. Constantly dropping deep to pick up the ball instead of pushing up and allowing the Arsenal defenders to find them between the lines. Neither did the wide centre-backs confidently step up into midfield, at least not consistently, so the team played with basically no energy until Matteo Guendouzi came on.
It reflects so badly on Emery that his side still looks clueless even after over a year in charge. He has completely failed in his attempts to imprint his ideology (if he even has one) onto his men. The constant switching of formation can’t help matters but lesser-regarded coaches have managed to make their teams more reliably versatile, why can’t Emery.
3. Vitoria couldn’t keep it up
Arsenal were there to be beaten tonight. The Gunners did not play well in Portugal and until Matteo Guendouzi came on they weren’t even the better side. But here’s the thing: as much as Vitoria were better in the opening 45 minutes they didn’t really hammer Arsenal. Only 3 of their 10 first-half shots hit the target.
Still, you expected them to pick up in the second half and really hurt the Gunners – but they didn’t. In fact they were flagging even before Guendouzi came on to wake Arsenal up. Suddenly their energy had gone and they were seemingly happy with Arsenal passing the ball around even though they needed to win to go through.
Suddenly in the last few minutes they woke up and hammered Arsenal. They scored a stunning equaliser and then in the five minutes that followed came phenomenally close to bagging a winner. Arsenal looked completely incapable of handling Vitoria’s pressure, and so one had to wonder what would have happened if Vitoria had played with that level of intensity for more than just the last gasps of the game. They picked up their first point of the group, but it could have been so much more.
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4. Xhaka is done at Arsenal
The fact that Unai Emery didn’t come out in full-throated defence of Granit Xhaka after the Arsenal fans turned on nonsensically was a great shame. Still, there always existed hope that Xhaka would turn it around, after all he is a quality player and it’s not like Arsenal have an overflow of those in their squad.
But this afternoon’s game in Guimaraes basically spelled what had been obvious since the whole scandal broke. That Xhaka has been stripped of the captaincy is no surprise, but that he has been exiled to the point where he didn’t even make the squad to play Vitoria despite Emery’s mass rotation is a very telling fact.
The funniest thing, of course, is that Arsenal really could have used Xhaka in Portugal. The Swiss’ ability to drive the ball forward from the centre of the park would have really injected life into an anaemic Arsenal display. The fact that Shkodran Mustafi scored the winner for Arsenal and was arguably their best player shows the Europa League’s regenerative qualities, but Emery has clearly bowed to fan pressure (instead of standing by Xhaka and playing him in a system that augments his strengths) and that the Swiss is probably done at Arsenal.
5. Arsenal are bad and should feel bad
Arsenal have had a troubled season, really. They’ve not played well and have often needed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to save them. The Europa League had been a safe haven though, a place where the Gunners could forget their troubles and show their skills. Gabriel Martinelli was playing and producing Ronaldo-esque number, Joe Willock and Bukayo Saka showed that Arsenal had a bright future, they had won three out of three games, it was all good.
Tonight was a reality-check, where Arsenal’s domestic troubles came back to haunt them. A lack of clarity over what tactics they’re playing, bizarre rotation and decisions that simply don’t maximise all the talent available to the side. Tonight there was no Aubameyang, nor a miracle from Nicolas Pepe as there had been two weeks ago. No, this was Arsenal’s true nature laid bare for all to see. They are a bad side with a handful of brilliant players capable of carrying the side from week-to-week, but the basic structure of the side is quite simply terrible.