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.