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Post Match Review

Arsenal survive worst impulses to punch a ticket to Baku

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It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t always pretty. At times, it didn’t even look possible. But today, Arsenal have officially punched their ticket to Baku and the Europa League Final! The road took Arsenal through some places that seemed a world away from where they want to be as a club, but they persevered through trips to Belarus, Azerbaijan and Ukraine to finally get the chance at European silverware. The penultimate stop on their journey took them to the beautiful city of Valencia, where they were tasked with defending a 3-1 lead from the first leg. 

The worst news imaginable

Once upon a time, it seemed like Arsenal supporters could set their watches to one thing: Tottenham would eventually bottle the opportunity to win a trophy. Unfortunately for Arsenal supporters, that was thrown into doubt in an emphatic way on Wednesday, as Tottenham became but one of the two hated rivals to win their Champions League semifinals in dramatic fashion to advance to the final in Madrid. Tottenham erased a two-goal deficit to eliminate Ajax from the competition while Liverpool clawed back a massive three-goal advantage held by Barcelona to meet Spurs in the final. 

This sad twist of fate has left Gooners in the unenviable position of choosing between a club they do not like and a club they hate with every fibre of their being. The despair was palpable on social media on Wednesday night, and it lead to some rather fatalistic thinking on Thursday in the build-up to the match. Surely then, it was up to Unai Emery and the players to make sure that even if a hated rival will be lifting the Champions League trophy this season, the Gunners would have a chance at lifting their own. 

Flirting with disaster

Heading into the second leg in Valencia, already carrying a 3-1 lead from the first, it was imperative that Arsenal limit their host’s opportunities. An early goal would hand some confidence back to Valencia following Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s last minute goal at the Emirates in the first leg that doubled their challenge at the Mestalla. Well, you know how this goes…

The Gunners started in a tentative fashion, clearly unwilling to overcommit to attacks in favour of maintaining a defensive shape. However, this lack of urgency may have been all Valencia needed to get their own game up and running, and it wasn’t long before the pressure started to arrive on the doorstep of Petr Cech’s goal. With strikers Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette isolated during the opening stages of the match, Arsenal were forced into passing it around deep in their own end, struggling to make any real headway into the attacking third.  

Valencia moved ever closer to breaking the deadlock after the first five minutes, and just after 10 minutes had elapsed, Los Ches broke into the Arsenal end with pace where Kevin Gameiro was eventually able to latch onto the end of a deflected cross to poke home the first goal of the match. The Mastella surged with newfound energy as the hosts cut the deficit in half, and once again Arsenal supporters around the world felt that now-familiar pang of dread that this might not be their day.

A league of their own

With Arsenal knocked quickly onto the back foot in a match that should have been under their control, it became imperative that the big guns step up and respond. As they seemingly have all season, North London’s dynamic duo, Lacazette and Aubameyang, answered the bell. First it was the Gabon strikers turn, and his tying goal seemed to come from nowhere as what appeared to be a non-threatening ball into a well-marked Lacazette was somehow nodded on by the Frenchman into his path, where he was given a run at goal. As he lurched into the box, Aubameyang launched a dipping top-spin shot into the bottom right corner of the net, restoring the two-goal cushion and giving Arsenal an important away goal of their own.

After the half, it was Lacazette’s turn to get in on the action. Aubameyang then made a great effort to control a contested ball down the right where he managed to move it over to Lucas Torreira who drove at the defence before squaring it to the waiting Lacazette. After making a powerful turn in close quarters to get a touch out to his strong foot, the Frenchman blasted his shot past the outstretched gloves of Valencia goalkeeper Neto to give Arsenal the 2-1 lead (5-2 agg).

Valencia did manage to answer Lacazette with a second goal from Gameiro, but Aubameyang was far from done. He managed to secure a brace after poking an Ainsley Maitland-Niles cross past Neto before completing the hat-trick with a true Arsenal goal in the 88’. Substitute Matteo Guendouzi initiated a passing move down the right, feeding Aubameyang near the edge of the box who used a heel to flick the ball back to Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The Armenian immediately returned it to the striker, who then rifled his shot up into the roof of the net, sealing the victory in emphatic fashion for the Gunners. 

Anything but easy

In the end, a 7-3 aggregate scoreline suggests that the advancement was hardly in doubt for the North London club, but the Gunners were far from perfect in their 180 minutes against Valencia. The defensive woes that have plagued them all season are far from being eradicated, and the defence remains susceptible to being pulled out of shape and failing to track back effectively when the opponent breaks up the pitch with numbers. Possession seems to still stagnate far too often in the midfield, leaving players no choice but to turn and play it back towards the defence. 

Despite the brilliant individual performances of Aubameyang and Lacazette, they are still finding consistent chances hard to come by. Emery’s pared back attacking approach, when compared to the intricate passing and artistry of Wengerball, is more adaptable to tempo adjustments but still leaves the side looking a bit flat and predictable on the ball at times. Mesut Özil had something of an inconsistent outing, combining some quality passages of play on the ball with periods where he would drop off the map for minutes at a time. 

Valencia might still have been easy enough to handle with a one-dimensional attack and a defence lacking confidence, but Chelsea will present a very different challenge for the final in Baku. Having struggled mightily through the middle part of the season, Chelsea are riding a recent wave of good form under Maurizio Sarri. Arsenal will be hoping for the same kind of success they enjoyed the last time these two clubs met in a final when it was the North London club lifting the trophy in the 2017 FA Cup.

The full English

For years, the common narrative when it came to Premier League clubs was that they simply could not dominate in European competition the way the Spanish giants and others have in previous years. Whether it was the gruelling domestic schedule that left some teams physically too drained to compete in mid-week fixtures with the very best clubs in the world, or it is the league’s insistence on prioritising holiday season fixtures while other leagues give their clubs a well-earned break, English teams never seemed to perform up to their potential in Europe.

Well, so much for that. With Arsenal and Chelsea both advancing in the Europa League on a Thursday night, that makes it two all-English finals in Europe this season. In many ways, given the level of football we have seen this season throughout the Premier League, particularly in the top six. There are ways in which football in England does lag behind other countries, namely in its accessibility to fans at an affordable rate, but it has become clear this season that the world’s financial juggernaut football league may just be its best.

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