Greece is the land where, in times of old, gods walked the earth and mingled with mortals, monsters raged at the heavens and heroes rose up to battle them. In other words, a perfect stage for an epic.
But let’s be honest: last night’s game was not an epic, was it? Instead of magic and moments of divine intervention we had a tough slog that relied on the distinctly human qualities of determination, effort and will.
Nevertheless, while it may not have been the stuff of legends, Arsenal delivered a thoroughly professional performance that leaves us in pole position to progress to the last 16 of the Europa League.
Siren voices had warned that beating Olimpiacos on their home turf wouldn’t be easy (they are top of the Greek Super League and were on an 18-game unbeaten run going into the match).
But our Greek odyssey proved successful, we found the opposition’s Achilles’ heel, the referee was not a homer and we took home the laurels.
There was much debate beforehand about what sort of team Arteta would put out. Would he play more youngsters with a view to resting players for Sunday’s visit of Everton? Or would he prioritise this competition, with its potential back door route into next season’s Champions’ League?
When the line-up was announced it was half and half, and not without surprises. The policy of playing the back-up ‘keeper in cup competitions, initiated by Arsene Wenger and continued by Unai Emery, was unceremoniously dumped by Arteta, who opted to play his number one as Number One. Seems sensible to me.
Ahead of Leno the team sheet showed a back four of Sokratis, Mustafi, Luiz and Saka, which led this observer at least to assume that Mustafi would play right back (a position he has occupied in the past). It also made me think that Arteta really does not fancy Maitland Niles as a fullback at the moment.
In midfield, with Torreira ill and Ozil absent on dad-to-be duty, Xhaka was accompanied by Willock and Guendouzi, back from the naughty step.
Up front Arteta went with his two most experienced strikers, Lacazette and Aubameyang, but opted for Martinelli ahead of Pepe.
When the game kicked off there was a surprise straight away: Sokratis went to right back, with Mustafi retaining his central defensive role. It seemed an odd choice and, sure enough, in the opening 15 minutes our right flank looked vulnerable as Valbuena and Tsimikas double teamed Sokratis and managed to bypass him at will leading to some goal chances for the home side. Luckily Leno was on his toes and managed to parry everything that came his way, including a smart volley from Valbuena after only two minutes.
Minutes later Masouras headed over from close range and the commentators on TV got very excited about how he should have scored, but they failed to notice the linesman waving his flag for offside, so it wouldn’t have counted.
There were urgent instructions from Arteta on the sidelines as he sought to get us to focus more and hold our shape better and the message eventually started to sink in.
After weathering that opening storm, we gradually exerted some control in midfield with Xhaka looking composed and Guendouzi as busy as ever. We were helped by the fact that Olimpiacos, after their fast start, were mostly content to drop off and let us bring the ball out from the back relatively unchallenged.
Our best chance of the first half came when Martinelli cut back a ball for Lacazette, whose shot went just wide of the post. I’ve heard people say he should have put it away and they may be right, but it was a tough chance given the angle, the two defenders on him and the split second he had to shoot.
Nil-nil at half time was probably fair. In the second period Olimpiacos came out strongly again but this time we kept our shape well and gradually started to dominate without ever looking entirely safe ourselves. Leno was called on to make more saves including an excellent reaction stop from Ba.
The big moment came in the 81st minute when Mustafi fired a long ball deep into the left wing channel. It looked certain to be going straight out but Aubameyang put on the afterburners and stretched out a long leg to keep it in; he fed it inside to the oncoming Saka, who slid a perfectly weighted pass behind the defenders and into the six yard box for Lacazette to slot home.
We could have added another goal before the end (our best chance – a five on three breakaway – saw Lacazette fire a powerful shot that was well saved by Malheiro de Sa in the Olimpiacos goal).
The final whistle meant we had another win, another clean sheet and a potentially vital away goal ahead of the second leg in North London next week.
Not the best game ever – a bit hit and myth you might say – but our boys ended up heroes on the night.
Despite the clean sheet we rode our luck at times and relied on the alertness of Leno, and if there was any overall cause for concern it was at the difficulty we had in creating chances for our forwards (until the last 10 minutes when everything opened up). Ozil had a good game last night without being anywhere near Athens. But there was also plenty to like about how we performed.
There is a real sense that Mikel Arteta is getting something going with this group of players he’s inherited. We don’t need to get ahead of ourselves, but the signs are encouraging.
He started by tightening us up at the back and making us hard to beat. That led to more draws than we’d have liked, but at least there were fewer defeats. Now we’re starting to win, the sense of togetherness among the players seems really good and we have every reason to feel optimistic.
Supporting Arsenal is starting to feel like fun again.
Leno 7.5 MOTM
Made a string of important reaction saves throughout the game, including a stop from Valbuena early on that would have changed the complexion of the match if it had gone in. Also distributed well, choosing the right pass out every time or going long when necessary.
Right back does not really suit him and he was all at sea in the early stages. To his credit he settled down and even managed to drive forward a few times in the second half. No faulting his effort or commitment.
More progress from Saka. In the first half our best moments came when he was able to attack the Greeks’ box, although on a couple of occasions he was so far forward that he left us exposed to counter attacks. He had a quieter spell for much of the second half, but then did brilliantly to provide the assist for the winning goal – his ninth assist of the season. Close call for MOTM again.
If he keeps going like this, a lot of fans will be eating humble pie. Some of his past mistakes came from trying to play fancy balls in inappropriate situations, but lately he has been more willing to put his laces through it if in doubt, which is good for everyone’s blood pressure. He actually inspired confidence at the back last night.
He’s on a quietly impressive run of form. I particularly like how he can release the pressure on the defence with first time passes. It’s a small thing, but not needing to take that extra touch often removes the opposition attackers’ ability to put pressure on the ball and force mistakes.
Was key in helping us to get back in control of midfield. I like his ability to switch the play from left to right and vice versa at will. I know he’s predominantly a lefty, but he is comfortable playing off either foot. Intelligent positional play and passing and none of the silly fouls.
Plenty of effort and he came in for some rough treatment from the Olimpiacos players. By contrast with Xhaka, he finds it hard to switch play because he’s quite heavily one-footed. But his role in breaking up Olimpiacos moves in midfield should not be undersestimated.
Was plenty involved and had some good moments without really shining.
Great movement throughout, but found it hard to make too much of an impact on the game.
Struggled on the right wing and looked better when switched back to the left towards the end. Great work leading up to our winner.
As hard working as we’ve come to expect (without much service) and showed good anticipation and movement for the all-important winner. Hopefully two goals in two games mean he’s well and truly over his drought.
Helped cement our midfield control when he came on for Martinelli on 58 minutes.
Had a few decent moments.
Maitland Niles N/A
Came on for the last couple of minutes.
For comparison, here are RC78’s player ratings, posted last night:
Leno – 5
Sok – 6
Mus – 7
Luiz – 6.5
Saka – 7.5
Douzi – 6
Xhaka – 6
Willock – 5
Martinelli – 6.5
Laca – 7
Auba – 7.5
My error, again! Bayern won 2-3 there! Now to read the post.
Love the film Jason and the Argonauts.
A fine post, Rocky. Agree 100%.
Great write up, Rocky L. Mostly agreed with the player ratings. Love the Greek references. 🎇
Excellent Rocky, thank you for helping me relive the game, your report confirms the sense that I had of proceedings.
You’re right to only advocate cautious optimism because the Arsenal of recent years had a tendency to collapse just at the point when it looked like we were actually going to progress. We are at that point again now. We have the potential to climb the league and get in a European slot …. and even win the EL. If Mikel can fix that, my optimism will be irrepressible.
You’ve not left me much to say about the individual performances except that yet again, the manager is the single most important factor in the victory. The strong decision to replace Martinez with Leno is probably what won us the game. It is clear that no player is guaranteed his place in the side, so what is guaranteed is that if a player shows bad attitude or a lack of effort, he’ll be sitting out the next game until he works his way back in.
Nice one, Rocky! Love the “hit and myth” line 👍
An away win with a clean sheet – what more can you ask for?
Was surprised to see Leno… he did play well though and motm for me was between him & Shkodran! Can’t wait for next week…..or Sunday, although I’ve just seen there’s a lot of tube disruption this weekend – great – theatre Saturday, the game Sunday… wonderful.
So sad to wake up to news of one of the cast members in Friday night dinner has passed away… gutted… she was hilarious.. RIP Frances Cuka… you will be missed 😢
Much criticism by “everso experienced” young pundits on Twitter of Willock as a No10!! What is certain he is not a holding defensive midfield player and, although I still feel Smith-Rowe and/for the meantime Dani, are best placed to replace Mesut, think Willock is best suited to that role with the addendum that he needs to make Ramsey like late runs deep into the box and to score a few more goals.
A point for discussion. Aubang AND Martinelli are wasted on the right. If Mikel insists on the three up front, surely Pepe is the only one fleet enough of foot to cut inside and do damage with a curled left foot?
Thanks Rocky, I may have got a bit carried away with my comment last night. It is true that there are many aspects of our game that still aren’t quite right and much of it seems to be relating to our consistency across 90 minutes.
That said we are showing a resilience and fight when we have gone off the boil (in a possession and attacking sense) to ride out those moments. That serves us well as a good foundation because I have no doubt that over the next couple of years Mikel will refine and improve our game in possession and in attack.
From what he took over it is hard to argue with 5 wins 5 draws and 1 loss with a 16 to 8 positive goal difference across those games, especially as we know we were unlucky not to get wins in 2-3 of those games we didn’t win.
The funny thing is that we have all felt that it was the defence and resilience that has let us down and needed improving for eons, and the attack that we haven’t been that concerned with. Our defensive shape and solidity looks far better now before we have even added Tierney, Saliba, Mari, Soares, Chambers into the equation.
It now seems to be the opposite, that we need to be able to improve, and get a greater consistency across 90 minutes, our creativity and threat in possession to add to the more solid base we are witnessing.
Jason and the Argonauts LBG? I like that film as well, and I just knew you would like it. Is it because of your penchant to talking with inanimate women made of wood, and that you bear an uncanny resemblance to the captain of the Argos?
Lovely flowing report, really enjoyed it.
I know nothing of inanimate women, of wood or otherwise. My interest at my age is only of soft and sqidgy.
Nice one Rocky. A tragedy for the Greeks!
A very professional performance. The defence has improved no end under Arteta. I always thought that needed to be the first thing fixed. The rest can follow. Sacrificing solidity for creativity is a tricky balancing act. He’s definitely getting there.
The defence kept the 100 goal a season journeyman El Arabi quiet. Their main threat was Valbuena as expected, but he’s getting a bit long in tooth for high tempo football.
– Mustafi rediscovering his Valencia form?
– Xhaka being disciplined?
What s going on?!?
Clever and creative report, well done. 8.75 rating.
Mikel knows what he is doing. The stats do not lie, nor does the eye test and games played without a loss.
It is way early, but he has got players that I could not stand watching actually playing with positional awareness and togetherness not seen in ages. Remember the Arsenal were on a path of destruction and relegation if board left emery in charge- worst run in 100 years??
How Mikel is changing this team is nothing less than dramatic and amazing. I look forward to our incremental improvement and the team emotionally and psychologically righting the ship to sail on tailwinds again
Smart move to have the team rest and recover without stress of airports and such.
Look forward to the Arsenal taking on Everton this weekend.
Just wanted to say that Leno should have gotten 7 in my rating and not 5. Our weakest player on the night was Willock.
According to whoscored.com, the MOTM was Saka (8). Our second highest rated players were Mustafi (7.8) and Leno (7.6). It is all based on stats. For Olympiakos, it was Valbuena at 6.8.
Our worse rated players were Willock, Martinelli and Xhaka.
Thanks for an excellent report and still buzzing from 2 wins in a row without conceding a goal…
Now onto welcoming a revived Everton at home…it s gonna be interesting, two new coaches with two teams that seem to have found some rhythm.
For sure, the following line ups:
Leno – Bellerin, Mustafi, Luiz, Saka – Torreira, Xhaka – Pepe, Ozil (? or Ceba), Auba – Martinelli
Pickford – Digne, Keane, Mina, Coleman – Bernard, Sigurdsson (or Holgate), Schnerderlin, Walcott (or Sidibe or Iwobi?) – Richarlison, Lewin
I can’t wait!
I agree with your comment about the criticism of Willock.
There’s nothing wrong with saying “Willock was poor last night” or similar, as people on this blog do.
But that clickbait rubbish with headlines like “Arsenal fans slam headless chicken Willock” or “Fans tell Arteta to get rid of one player…” – where idiots write off a young player’s entire career after one average performance does my head in.
Who knows if Willock will make it? I thought he was OK last night but no better than that, but he has shown flashes of real ability at times this season. But it’s way to early to give up on him and this sort of (unfair) criticism is hardly going to help him.
Everyone now is (rightly) raving about Saka, but some of his early appearances for us even this season were hit and miss.
Greek tragedy 🙂
Nice to know I’m not the only fan of Jason and the Argonauts. It’s hard to countenance in these days of amazing CGI, but the special effects in Jason were mind-blowing at the time (early 1960s).
The stop-motion effects (real models, moved a fraction of an inch for each frame of film) were done by Ray Harryhausen, who also used the technique in One Million Years BC, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, the Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans (1981) and others.
The effects look terribly fake by modern standards, but boy were they great at the time.
Lovely match Report, Rocky, well done sir. 😁
It is a poor show if any fans based their acerbic opinions about individual players, particularly youngsters, on an inevitably stressful European away jaunt.
Let them have their opinions, I suspect they will fall on deaf ears as far as most AA patrons are concerned.
You are quite correct that the game was not a heroic win, or an avoidance of a lamentable defeat, it was what it was — a hard working away game win in front of slightly hysterical supporters, and we should all be very happy with the result.
It is true that two of the young players, Willock and Gabriel did not particularly shine, but in the circumstances, the game was an important learning experience to put in their lockers for the future, and they did OK by me.
I hope that Mikel will have a quiet word with both Xhaka and Pepe.
My personal and long held views on Xhaka are unlikely to change much, but he did OK on the night, and as you say, he moved the attack focus pretty well — but in one split second he blotted his copy book, as having been beaten for pace he brought the O player down with a foul but instead of accepting the freekick awarded against him, he mouthed off against the referee and got an unnecessary and frankly stupid yellow card. That behaviour is just endemic with him – but will cost us dearly in an important game one day.
As for Pepe, Mikel must worry that the huge outlay made to buy him does not look value for money, when he spends so much time on the bench, and does relatively little when he comes on, especially when he is compared with the industrious, and skilful tyro, Saka, who shared MOTM with Leno for me.
Perhaps he needs an arm put around his shoulder from Mikel, and to be told to be greedy and go for it himself, instead of trying to dribble towards the corner flags, where the defenders can corral him too often.
Hopefully the above will not seem too negative — it is intended as constructive observation — I really enjoyed the game, and overall your player ratings seem spot on! 😉
I have never heard of the films you mention, let alone seen them, but on your recommendation, I will try to see if I can catch one on Facebook in the near future. 😳
I had the same thoughts as you about Pepe, but the Newcastle game restored a bit of my faith (hope?) in him. I thought he was really good in that game and there were hints he could get even better in the future.
Admittedly last night he made little impact during his cameo, but it’s sometimes hard to get into a game when you come on as a late sub.
Pepe has had many more sub standard games than good ones for us so far, but I would like to think that Arteta’s arm is indeed being applied to his shoulder on a regular basis and that that may bring the best out in him.
I managed to miss Xhaka’s yellow card (must have been getting a beer from the fridge). I would have docked him half a point if I’d seen it!
They’ll seem very dated and clunky these days, but to a boy growing up in the 1960s they were a portal to another world of heroes, monsters and fantasy.
Pepe will come good. He is already playing better and is becoming more and more decisive. I think he definitely needs to improve but I think that when March comes, we will start to see a better Pepe.
6 goals and 7 assists is not bad at this stage of the season and I think he may be able to get to 10 and 10 before the end of the season or may be a bit more. He also does dribble 2.6 times per game and is dispossessed 1.6 times.
I think that like Martial, Ozil, Mbappe (at times), he gets some stick because of his body language but make no mistake, the guy is hungry.
Will he be worth the 70 Mln we paid for him, I am not sure but we still have a very promising winger/forward in our squad. I think that the likes of Saka and Martinelli playing well will give him extra motivation to show that he deserves to play rather than discourage him.
I was never really a film buff, but that was probably because I was educated in Boarding schools, or on the move abroad with my father, and films were not much on the menu. — I am still not into films even now! 😉
[Psst – don’t let anyone read this – but I have Netflix, and last week, purely out of curiosity, I watched the first episode of ‘Sex Education’ – and I never laughed so much — seriously funny, even though it is pretty graphic, and I think it is a learning tool for teenagers] 🙄
You are absolutely right about Pepe. He has tremendous skill, with his fast foot dribbles and terrific crosses and shots – but I am probably expecting too much in his first season – next season could be very different for him.
[The inverse position when comparing Pepe with Saka, is not for me to worry that Pepe is not yet firing – but to thank our lucky stars we have a 17/18 y.o. player who is comparable to such a classy player as Pepe.] 😜
Perfect description of Xhaka and his approach, which is why my views are clear on him. As I have said before, I also think he influences Douzi negatively in that way as well.
I know that our views on players are very similar, especially as regards Xhaka.
It is inevitable that he (Xhaka) may well have an influence on younger players, such as Guendouzi, who has occasionally shown the same confrontational attitude towards opponent’s players, and sometimes this spills over into arguments with the referee. Not clever.
MA will have to keep an eye on this – and who knows – maybe this is what the bust up with Mikel was about.
Just a guess but it makes sense.
I hear you both regarding the Granit man and you almost have me convinced.
What gives me pause is the fact that, as far as we can tell, successive coaches have seen him as pretty much an automatic name on the starting eleven team sheet (Wenger, Emery, Freddie and now Mikel).
Indeed Mikel said Xhaka had been very much on Man City’s radar before Arsenal snapped him up.
All these people, who know football and are used to appraising the relative qualities of players, seem to rate him highly. What are they seeing that many of we fans are not?
(Although I should add I think I have a bit more time for him than you two do).
Speaking for myself, I am only expressing an opinion based on personal observation, and I am prepared to admit that an opinion is not fact, per se, so it is possible that managers / coaches do have other knowledge that I do not, but I understand that we tried to sell Xhaka/Mustafi/Ôzil but were unable to do so, for various reasons, but when Xhaka decided to leave, Mikel talked him out of it. Who knows?
Perhaps the coaches were making the best of a player that is on our roster, and that is their privilege — but my opinion was not particularly based on last night’s game, and I gave him some credit for how he played, it is based on observations made over an extended period.
I respect your opinion, and those of fans who agree with you, I just have my own opinion, even if that is not respected.
Like RA my view of Xhaka is based on close observation of him during games, both those that I attend at the Emirates and others televised.
I dont think the details will do anything other than repeat (bore everyone else) what has been said before. (Especially by me, sorry.)
I too know I am not a professional coach or manager, but I think we have all seen players bought by those same professionals who have turned out to be duds, and I personally believe Xhaka flatters to deceive.
Chaps, to be clear I totally respect your opinions of Xhaka.
As I mentioned, I’m a bit more positively inclined towards him but sometimes I’m not entirely sure why. Occasionally I find myself confused about what his job in the team actually is.
I think I need to spend a couple of games where I watch him very closely…
Arteta seems to have changed the view that many of us have had, prior to his arrival, on quite a few players most notably Mustafi, why not the same with Xhaka, apart from the yellow card incident, I thought his commitment to the cause was as good, if not better, than anyone else on that pitch.
HI RA. I am glad to hear that the netflix show adult education is a learning tool for you. My daughter and her boyfriend are also watching it. You youngsters have so much in common.
As for the game, thats another whoop whoop whoop from me.
Talking about teenagers. My son at Futsal last week had my shin pads in his bag. I asked him to take them out as I said I don’t know what I would find if I put my hand in his bag. So he pulled out my shin pad and there was a condom on it. He was very embarrassed. Especially when I asked him what he uses my shin pads for.
VP.. YOUR shin pad?!! 😆 Oo-er!! …….Maybe he’d seen something on Sex Education?! 😂 (I doubt there’ll be one big enough for RA 😂) Another great story from down under……👍
Rocky, @ 7:56 p.m.
I do not think there is a more fairly disposed and level headed blogger than you — regrettably I have lost my grasp of communicating English prose to my fellow bloggers, if I ever had it.
You did not need to clarify your position regarding respecting opinions, and I would never dream of intentionally implying otherwise. Sorry for not making that clear. 😩
VP – that story is gross …………. 😆
We have a New post ………..
Protection of course, from shin kicking ladies!!
VAR officials now saying that it should have been a red ……. you couldn’t make it up 🙈