Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Arsenal 1-0 FC Zurich: Gunners top the group

Match report Player ratingsArteta reaction

Arsenal finished top of the Europa League Group A after a 1-0 win over FC Zurich at the Emirates last night. Kieran Tierney produced a moment of quality which was sufficient to win the game, and finishing top means we avoid another round of fixtures early in the new year.

This thread from ESPN’s Dale Johnson outlines perfectly why that is a good thing.

The result, good. The rest, well. Not so much. I’m not going to complain about a win, far from it. We made 7 changes from the side that beat Nottingham Forest, but fleshed out the starting line-up with Ben White, Gabriel and Gabriel Jesus, while Aaron Ramsdale started again because Matt Turner remains injured.

Zurich started well, high on the fumes their fans had produced with a load of flares, but we gradually got ourselves into it. A nice pass from Reiss Nelson found White overlapping, he cut it back, Vieira’s shot was blocked, it squirted towards Tierney outside the box and he got his foot over it well to half-volley into the bottom corner.

Vieira had first half chances; one blocked by a defender, one by Jesus (I think). Eddie forced the keeper into a couple of saves, one from a very decent header, and there was a moment when he could have gone down in the box when his shirt was pulled, but given the way this referee gave us nothing all night, I’m not convinced we’d have got a penalty even if he did.

Clearly this particular official watched the Southampton match recently, and thought ‘This ref is my hero. I’m going to be exactly like like him!’. So, Zurich defenders were allowed clatter our players from behind time and time again, and we got nothing, but when their big baby left-back let out a squeal every time anyone went near him, they got a free kick. Tierney literally had his shirt ripped in two and we didn’t get a decision in our favour. The decision to book Gabriel and give Zurich a free kick in the depths of second half injury time was an abomination. Thankfully it came to nothing.

Still, I think we were just about value for our lead at the break. We’d had the most chances, 12 shots to their 4, but it wasn’t especially convincing. With PSV leading in Norway, a one goal lead was precarious, and as the second half developed, you could sense the nervousness creeping in. Mikel Arteta brought on Bukayo Saka and Thomas Partey, the latter in particular should have given us more control, especially on another night when the game more or less pass Albert Sambi Lokonga by, but he couldn’t do that.

Takehiro Tomiyasu and Martin Odegaard came on, but at that point the momentum – such as it was – was with the visitors. In 20+ minutes, Odegaard only had 8 touches of the ball, which tells you a lot about where the game was being played. Zurich had a goal rightly disallowed for offside, a warning sign which didn’t see us react in any other way except ‘Oh shit, let’s defend’.

They fired one just over, Tomi went off injured, Cedric came on, there were a couple of dangerous low crosses, and then that late free kick I have previously mentioned. Not one bit of of it was any fun at all. I know we can’t win every game 5-0, and Zurich have recently changed manager which has obviously helped them, but it was pretty low-grade stuff all round.

Then, the final whistle. A far more welcome sound than the big baby wailing like a big baby, and some relief. The last thing we need is another couple of fixtures in this competition, and when you look at the likes of Ajax, Barcelona, Juventus, Monaco, Man Utd, Sevilla and Roma in that group that will have to go through a play-off round, we should be glad we’re not involved in that. So, on the basis of doing the job we needed to do in this group stage, fair play.

Last season without European football wasn’t great, not least because it meant too few of the squad were involved and there were times when players were coming in too cold. We’ve been able to give playing time to the ‘second string’, and that’s valuable in itself, and hopefully beneficial down the line, but I don’t think anyone has really stood out during these games.

Two goals in six for Eddie, you’d probably have expected a bit more. Lokonga has had his struggles in that deep lying role, but played further forward last night he was basically missing for most of the first half, and while better in the second period, there was just something missing from his game when we were under pressure. A lack of presence. Fabio Vieira is still finding his feet in English football, and had some nice moments in these Europa League games, but maybe didn’t quite deliver as much as we’d hoped. Which isn’t to be hugely critical of these guys, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable observation that there’s still room for improvement.

That said, I was very pleased for Tierney whose season has been tough, dealing for the first time in his career with a situation where he’s not a first pick every week. Last night I thought he was probably our best player, and he showed he’s up for this challenge by producing the decisive moment of the game.

Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:

Obviously we had some big chances that we didn’t put away and that made the game more difficult in the last 15 to 20 minutes. We didn’t control certain situations and we had to dig in which we did. We found a way to win and we’re top of the group.

In many ways, the Europa League group stage is like a trip to a proctologist. You just have to grit your teeth, get through it, and hope for the best possible outcome. You may remove your glove, doctor, we’re through.

The knockout rounds await.

We’ll have a podcast for you a bit later this morning, stay tuned for that. For now, have a good one.

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