BEVERLY HILLS, March 12, (THEWILL) – English Premier League north London club Arsenal were in UEFA Europa League last 16 action on Thursday in Greece against Super League 1 leaders Olympiacos at the Stadio Georgios Karaiskaki in Pireas and as has been their predilection, they were soon causing problems for themselves of their very own making marked once more by defensive sloppiness.
In pre-match comments, Arteta highlighted Arsenal’s need to put together a run of four or five wins consecutively to get some balance into their system. The 3-1 victory in Greece was a confident start to build their confidence heading into an important spell of tough battles. From the current state of play, the Gunners know that Europa League glory is their most certain path into elite football in Europe next season. A late charge in the Premier League is plausible but quite uncertain.
The red side of London has a proud record of qualifying for European competition that stretches back 24 years through the length of coach Arsene Wenger’s time in the Gunners’ dugout. But the reform presently on course at the Emirates has meant that, they have left themselves with plenty to do to keep that record going for another season.
In their 10th position in the EPL standings, Arsenal are seven points behind seventh-placed Tottenham, whom they face this weekend in a crunch derby with all the common trappings of bragging rights and city superiority at stake. After that, they will hope to finish off Olympiacos and banish last season’s demons. At the other side of Olympiacos, David Moyes’ Champions League-chasing West Ham await.
The crucially important games do not let up after West Ham because that crunch tie will be succeeded by a home fixture against defending champions Liverpool at the start of April, a team on the brink and hungry to get their premier league campaign back on the road after veering far off course with an unprecedented six home losses in a row.
Therefore, it will be no small feat if Arteta and his charges can put together that winning sequence he voiced out. And, it is not outside their capacity to deliver when the quality in the side is taken into account. But, they will have to abandon their characteristic propensity to indulge in self-sabotage to bring that Arteta dream to reality and give their coach the improvement he craves.
This knack for unforced errors is demoralising for football fans that swear by Arsenal. Seven of the 14 goals they have conceded in 2021 have been the result of self harm, and that sort of football cannot win even the easiest matches and stringing wins together as Arteta is looking forward to becomes that much more difficult.
While the Gunners appear ever more consistent as the season has progressed, the Spaniard has it right to demand more consistency from his squad as they try to finish a rollercoaster season with a flourish. If the team can iron out their defensive lapses, no one following the team’s growth will rule them out as one of the favourites to go far into the competition.
Fortunately, Brazilian Gabriel Magalhaes is back at the heart of the backline for the Gunners. The defender capped a strong display in defense with a quite wonderful header to score and put Arsenal back in control against the Greek outfit late in game. It was a key contribution with the height and desire of his leap really highlighting how determined he was to ensure his team came away with the win.
It is that type of determination that each team member must embrace. And Real Madrid loanee Dani Ceballos needs to borrow a leaf from the Magalhaes’ playbook. The same applies to their often reliable goalkeeper Bernd Leno. Ceballos made two unpardonable mistakes which almost cost Arsenal against Benfica in Greece two weeks ago, and within three minutes of his introduction at Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, he was largely responsible for Olympiacos’ drawing level.
Although Leno’s pass was a poor one, Ceballos had no situational awareness to identify the danger lurking around him. Youssef El-Arabi took advantage and punished the Gunners yet again, this Europa season as he did in the previous. Ceballos has now made three errors leading to a goal in the Europa League this season, and no player has made more. This is the typical self-destruct mode of Arteta’s Arsenal.
But, there was a bright spark of positive infusion into Arsenal’s teamwork. Easily the Man-of-the-Match on the night, Martin Odegaard, another loanee from Real, seemed to be in for a frustrating match, based on his early miss when it was easier to have scored, but he had enough burn to prove his quality with an exceptional strike from outside the area to open his Arsenal account for the season.
It truly was a sizzling performance for the 22-year-old Norwegian as his 82 minutes on the field produced a game-high four chances, and he ventured four attempts at goal, which was more than any other player, while registering an impressive passing accuracy of 90.5 per cent.
Arsenal’s foray into the second tier European competition has been their most effective under Arteta and has not shared in the struggles of their domestic league form. Their 100% record of the group stages was the only perfect record in the entire Europa cast. And they have continued on at that very high level.
They have had only one draw so far, against Benfica in the knockout stages after winning eight of their nine Europa League games this season and are the highest scorers in the competition at the moment with 27 goals. The balance of the challenge the Gunners pose is the fluidity of their scoring. With Odegaard’s first-half strike getting him off the mark, Arsenal have now had 14 different goalscorers in the Europa League this season, more than any other side.
When they plug their defensive self-destruction and keep the errors at the back to the barest minimum, they pose a challenge to any team and can see the competition to a glorious and fulfilling end with silverware to show for it.