How Arsenal’s lack of ruthlessness left them with Slavia Prague stalemate
The final stages of the first leg quarter-final against Slavia Prague felt like a particularly painful reoccurrence of an unwanted nightmare for Arsenal fans.
After taking a late lead through substitute Nicolas Pepe’s dinked effort, Slavia struck back deep into stoppage time as Tomas Holes’ header snuck past a despairing Bernd Leno to level the scores.
Read on below for our breakdown of Thursday night’s tie.
Arsenal’s wastefulness in front of goal cost them dearly on Thursday night
Despite dominating the ball with 55% possession, Mikel Arteta’s side mustered only two shots on target and wasted a number of good opportunities to put the contest to bed. With ample time to pick his spot after pinching possession and running half the length of the pitch unchallenged, Alexandre Lacazette somehow hit the crossbar. Willian also rattled the woodwork with a fiercely hit shot whilst Bukayo Saka inexplicably struck wide with the goal gaping.
The scenario that led to Saka’s effort (below) was the result of a definitive tactic from Arteta to get the England youngster into dangerous positions behind a Slavia backline that lacked top-end speed.
A concerted effort to put Saka and fellow Hale End graduate Emile Smith Rowe in behind meant that, instead of building patiently from the back, Arsenal often elected to go long. Whilst it may come as a surprise given Slavia’s tag of being underdogs, it was the Czech side who prioritised ball retention from goal kicks.
Complete with a protective head-guard after suffering a fractured skull, Ondrej Kolar could be forgiven for looking a little nervy with the ball at his feet in the opening stages. With Kolar uncertain, it was strange to see Arsenal sit off when a high press looked to be on.
As shown above, Arsenal’s pressing scheme lacked in cohesion. Granit Xhaka pushes up to close off any short passing lanes but his advance requires Thomas Partey to cover two men in midfield.
Arteta could have remedied any confusion amongst his players by instructing his centre-backs to maintain a higher line but, as you can see, the back four were content to sit deep.
Of course, the second instalment of this tie is yet to be played. Therefore, the Arsenal manager may have preferred to preserve the energy of the team where possible, instead of sending them out all guns blazing. Opting to stick instead of twist, however, always meant Slavia were in with a chance.
Substitutes sparkle, leaving Arteta with plenty to ponder
When Arteta did eventually play his hand by introducing Gabriel Martinelli for Willian after 73 minutes, the tempo was ramped up. Put on edge by the relentless energy of the Brazilian, the visitors looked flustered.
After Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang entered proceedings, it was the pair’s time to shine.
The build-up to Arsenal’s goal was the result of another direct ball, this time from Granit Xhaka, who hoisted it forward towards Aubameyang.
Aubameyang subsequently wins his individual duel to set Pepe through, the Ivorian’s chip sneaking into the bottom corner.
And yet, just when it looked like the hard work had been done, it was torn up and tossed away.
A fine stop from Leno led to this corner, which deflected off Pepe, with the unsuspecting Arsenal players slow to react. This gave Holes enough time to generate sufficient power behind a header that was too forceful for Leno, who could only tip it into the roof of the net.
A draw does not define the outcome of this tie, but Arteta and Arsenal will be desperately disappointed that they could find the necessary cutting edge to have pulled away after 90 minutes in north London. They know that now is no time for excuses, with the business end of the season in full flow.
Before next week’s return leg in Prague, Arsenal’s attention turns back to the Premier League. A tricky test away to Sheffield United, where they lost last season, awaits.
A night where the Gunners should have been out of sight sums up their shortcomings: inconsistent, inefficient and unreliable to a man, more must be done by this squad of players for European football to be attained come the season’s end.