Monday, December 11, 2023

Olympiacos 1-3 Arsenal: A big win as Gunners overcome that little voice …

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Perhaps it’s performance art. Perhaps all of our players were subjected to a kind of subliminal mind-attack, which causes them to do something catastrophic. A kind of footballing Manchurian Candidate, unwitting assassins of their own selves.

A little voice says “You’re doing fine, you’re doing quite well actually. Now, do something stupid.”

And we do! It’s amazing. I know I should be talking first and foremost about the fact we won 3-1, we have three away goals to take into the second leg – and three cracking goals at that – but goddam if it’s impossible not to talk about ability, verging on desire, to hit the self-destruct button.

Little voice: “It’s coming up to half-time. We’re leading 1-0. You know what to do!”

David Luiz: “Yes, I will play a catastrophically stupid pass in my own penalty area, just like Granit did in the last game.”

Little voice: “Good man!”

David Luiz: “Aww, it didn’t work.”

Little voice: “Give it time …”

Little voice: “You are 1-0 up and controlling the game. You know what to do!”

Bernd Leno: “Yes, I will play a pass to a teammate surrounded by opponents, rather than give the ball to any of the others who are not.”

Dani Ceballos: “And I will take the touch of a club-footed mule!”

Little voice: “Good lads!”

When it was put to Mikel Arteta that people say we might be our own worst enemy, he said, “Yeah, they are not far off.”

And continued, “The reality is that we have to stop it immediately.”

It being mistakes. Which probably should have been plural, but let’s not quibble. To be fair, before this game and afterwards he talked about playing out from the back, which isn’t the problem for me. It’s decision making when we’re doing it, and unfortunately we have too many players whose decision making is far too suspect.

“It is not about stopping or discouraging the team not to play, we just have to understand when to do it and that’s crucial,” said Arteta, and it’s on him to teach these players those limits. And if they can’t learn that, then get new ones or adapt the style a bit in the meantime.

However, let’s not dwell on the thing that will terrify me for the duration of Sunday’s North London derby, and talk instead about what was – in the end – a fantastic result. We started so brightly, with both full backs creating good chances in the opening minutes. Kieran Tierney provided Martin Odegaard with a glorious opportunity in the first few minutes, before a brilliant save denied Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from a good Bellerin cross.

That is another worry, not taking chances, and something we’ve talked about before, but at least we’re making them. Aubameyang and Luiz got free kicks on target (I’m hearing hell froze over with regard that second one, btw), before Olympiacos stopped worrying about the ball and just decided to kick Bukayo Saka instead. It’s happening a lot at the moment, and while managers influencing referees might not be to everyone’s taste, I hope it’s something Arteta has the chance to go public with soon, because the young man is taking too many hits, and it’s a worry to think one of them might end up being serious.

Then, just after the half hour mark, Odegaard cracked one into the net from 30 yards. The ball moved with such speed the goalkeeper could only flap at it like someone driving along the motorway who realises there’s an angry wasp in the car with him. A brilliant goal, and it came after what was a bit of a poor spell in the game for him, where he too had that little voice going off.

I don’t really want to talk too much about their goal because it was just so stupid. If it was revealed tomorrow that we’d hired a Director of Stupidity who puts the players through their paces every day, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. As the manager says, we need to stop this nonsense immediately. I’m sure it’s very funny for everyone who isn’t an Arsenal fan, but as much as I appreciate our willingness to entertain during these difficult times, I do wish we’d just give it a rest.

It’s also worth pointing out that when we do these stupid things, we also tend to feel it in how we play. After the one at the weekend, it took us ages to get going again, and last night you could feel the injection of confidence into a very ordinary Olympiacos team. They almost scored again, and our job would have been even more challenging had that gone in. It demoralises us, and boosts the opposition.

Arteta was about to deploy a triple substitution when we got a corner. Before it happened the cameras showed Elneny ready to come on, and I was a bit ‘Huh?’, but then Smith Rowe and Pepe were there too and things made a bit more sense as we needed at least one goal. You might wonder about the timing of the changes, and whether we could have done something sooner, but that discussion was made moot by what followed.

Willian will be credited with an assist, and I’m not going to say he shouldn’t be, but if credit for a goal is split between scorer and assister, 99.9999999999% goes to Gabriel, after he worked hard and planted a brilliant header into the top corner from the kind of routine cross any semi-competent park player could produce. That was a big, big goal, and the centre-half showed tremendous desire and outstanding technical quality to score.

As frustrating as it is to concede, 2-1 is actually a better lead than 1-0 (although not as good as 2-0, obviously), and when Mohamed Elneny spanked home the third from distance the game was safe. We’d overcome that tendency to make life as difficult as possible for ourselves. I mean, we gave it a good try, but in the end coming back to London with a 3-1 lead for the second leg is good stuff. No arguing with that. You also want to go into a North London derby with some positive vibes, and I think we can do that too. There’s also credit for showing character to get those late goals, but we had to dig deep because we’d shot ourselves in the foot again.

Watching Arsenal at the moment though feels like watching someone you care about trying to walk a high wire between two tall buildings. You desperately want them to just be solid, be sensible, and make it across and WHY ARE YOU DOING A SOMERSAULT FFS?! I dunno, they don’t make it easy on us or themselves, and I wish they would.

Mikel Arteta’s face in his BT Sport interview after game wasn’t that of a manager thoroughly pleased by what he’d seen, to say the least. He can be happy with the result, and the goals we scored, but he knows that there’s a significant problem he’s got to sort out, because otherwise it will cost us goals and points and games.

Sunday would be a good time to debut the new error-free Arsenal, having given Little Voice a free transfer to Sp*rs.

James and I will be recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning. As ever if you have questions or topics for discussion, send to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Pod should be out before lunch, until then, take it easy.

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