Post Match Review
That’s more like it Arsenal!
Well that was a relief. After Arsenal embarrassed themselves in last Thursday’s debacle in Belarus, fan confidence plummeted to a new low in the Unai Emery era, leading to the first truly intense questions about how long he might last in the job. But to a man, the Gunners stood up and ensured their European campaign would not end in front of their home fans, taking the second leg 3-0 to win the tie they will now continue on the face Stade Rennais in the first leg of the round of 16 in the Europa League on 7 March.
Emery looses the hounds
If Arsenal’s lacklustre display last week was characterised by tentative three at the back tactics, the home leg was the Arsenal in its element. Emery opted for a 4-2-3-1 with Mesut Ozil at the heart of it all. The Gunners were ready to go from the off and wasted no time putting the pressure on a hapless BATE side that quickly found themselves knocked back on their heels. Fullbacks Nacho Monreal and Stephan Lichtsteiner bombed down the wings, providing width and helping to overload the visitor’s conservative 5-4-1 off-ball shape.
Granit Xhaka was back on form, orchestrating attacks from deep while partner Matteo Guendouzi positively brimmed with effervescent energy and provided a dynamism that complimented his more stoic teammate extremely well. Alex Iwobi, who at times appeared the only Gunner to care in the 1-0 defeat last week, continued to impress with his direct running and crafty dribbling. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was also in fine fettle, dropping deep into the midfield at times and leaving defenders for dead down the flanks at others, even enjoying a bit of luck as it was his cross that was deflected by BATE defender Zakhar Volkov into his own net.
Emery has come under criticism of late for his overly negative tactics and some questionable decision making, but the Spaniard truly embraced the strengths of his players on Thursday. He has had mixed results in trying to implement a new culture at the Emirates Stadium that reflects his own personality and football philosophy, but this first season was always going to be a learning process, and a performance like this may just encourage him to stick with his favourite formation a bit longer.
BATE makes it easy
As liberated as BATE appeared to play last week in the home leg, their first competitive match since mid-December, it was a much more conservative a timid side that showed up at the Emirates Stadium for the second, nursing their precarious one goal lead. They made a tough ask even more difficult for themselves with Volkov’s own goal just four minutes into proceedings, speeding up the inevitable Arsenal victory. They sat back in a deep and compact block when Arsenal was in possession, similar to the first leg, but their counter attacks held little of the same sting that had troubled the Gunners so much the first time around.
It was hardly a surprise when Arsenal eventually scored their second and never looked back, but the result was disappointing all the same for the traveling supporters who had hoped to shock the world with a stunning upset of a European giant. Despite their ashen faces after the match, BATE Borisov has every right to hold their head high. This season showed a marked improvement on the 10-1 disembowelment suffered at the hands of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side last season, and their performance in the first leg was one of the highlights of the club’s history in European competition.
The much-maligned have their day
One of the hallmarks of this Arsenal side over the last few seasons has been the presence of some genuinely polarising players. Whether it be Granit Xhaka, Alex Iwobi, Mesut Ozil, Shkodran Mustafi, Henrikh Mkhitaryan or even summer arrival Stephan Lichtsteiner, the Gunners have more than their share of players who divide opinion among the fanbase. However, Thursday was a day that saw all of these players shine in their own right, undeniably contributing to the eventual victory.
In defence, Shkodran Mustafi and Stephan Lichtsteiner had very good days, with the former frequently acting as the first outlet Petr Cech looked to pass to when playing out from the back, and he even bagged the second goal of the match on one of his patented headers from a corner kick. Lichtsteiner had perhaps his best performance in an Arsenal shirt, the 35 year old tirelessly racing up and down the right flank with abandon for 90 minutes, firing in seven crosses on the evening. He was even there to diffuse the most dangerous moment of the match with a clutch goal line clearance that prevented BATE from a confidence boosting goal. He had to deal with abuse from his own fans but shook it off to deliver when Arsenal needed him most, something that he had arguably yet to do in North London.
The midfield absolutely dominated proceedings however, as a Granit Xhaka and attacking midfielders Mesut Ozil, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan repeatedly generated the bulk of Arsenal’s scoring chances. Xhaka was particularly immense, bagging two assists, four key passes and six accurate long balls in his match high 124 touches. The attacking midfield trio ahead of him provided creative impetus all match long, combining for 10 key passes while looking a threat to make something happen whenever the Gunners got into the BATE penalty area. It was eye opening stuff from a trio that has seen each member subjected to much criticism this season, and they represent a combination that Unai Emery could well return to more often as the season winds down after such a successful showing.
Hleb Bows Out Where He Always Wanted To Be
Aliaksandr (Alexander as he was more commonly called in England) Hleb might not have been a household name for some of the youngest fans in attendance on a Thursday, but he made 89 appearances for the club between 2005 and 2008, and he was present as the club left Highbury for its new Islington home in 2006. While he was eventually sold to Barcelona at the end of his time with the club, his time in Catalonia was a nightmare, making just 19 appearances during his five year stay. While fans have little love for players who left for greener pastures during that difficult period in the club’s history, Hleb has frequently stated in the following years how much he regretted ever leaving North London, where he wished he could have gone on to become an Arsenal legend.
Perhaps it was fitting then that Hleb, who was planning to retire for good until BATE’s Europa League clash with Arsenal was announced this winter, got to hang up his boots for the final time at the Emirates Stadium in front of the fans he once called his own. He received the warmest reception of all the visiting players, and the club’s Twitter account posted a fairwell message from Hleb himself following the match. While he will never go down as a true Arsenal great, Hleb was a technically proficient midfielder in his time with the club, and perhaps the most famous Belarusian to ever play professional football. He bowed out as he had arrived, a classy player who was always willing to put in the work in the centre of the park.
A Far Greater Challenge, and Potential Target, Await
Arsenal undoubtedly made more of a meal out of BATE than should ever have been necessary, but they will be loathe to do the same in the next round where they will face a far more talented Stade Rennais side in the round of 16. While the Ligue 1 side are far from the most threatening side France has to offer, they nevertheless will deploy a far more dynamic attack to potential stress the suspect Arsenal defence.
One such player that could give them headaches, and also pique their interest in the summer transfer market, is Senegalese international Ismaila Sarr. The winger possesses pace and trickery in abundance, the exact sort of thing that has given the Arsenal fullbacks fits this season, and should the Gunners have numbers sucked forward in a bid to break the Rennais defence, Sarr could make them pay with a quick hit on the counter attack. Also among their ranks is a former player for Unai Emery from his PSG day’s, midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa, a mercurial but talented player who famously fell out with the Basque manager in his time in the French capital. He could look to embarrass his former boss with a strong showing in March, and Arsenal should be wary of a young and motivated side looking to make waves in Europe for the first time since 2011-2012, where they crashed out in the group stages after a poor initial showing.