The defeat in Greece was, in most respects, completely meaningless. However that doesn’t mean it wasn’t disappointing to see Arsenal get turned over given our recent form as a club. It also served a reminder of the dark days of the not-so-distant past, when our defence looked shaky and we were prone to spectacular goalkeeping mistakes.
Our first team defence, which had been beginning to look settled, is now going to be without its’ left back for the foreseeable future as Andre Santos picked up an ankle injury. We now have no fit full backs, either on the left or the right. Despite being our best centre back, I suspect Thomas Vermaelen will fill as a left back, with Johan Djourou as the right back. Laurent Koscielny can then move back into the centre to play with Per Mertesacker.
It also means we’re one injury away from Sebastien Squillaci playing regularly again. Having said last week he had a good game against Manchester City, Olympiacos saw the return of the Squillaci that we thought had played his last game for Arsenal. Per Mertesacker might have some critics, but he is such a massive improvement on Squillaci.
Staying with the defence leads to the issue of goalkeepers. We saw both Lukasz Fabianski and Vito Mannone in Greece, and both of their performances have made fans love Wojciech Szczesny that little bit more. It almost seems unfathomable that Szczesny was behind Almunia, Fabianski and Mannone in the Arsenal goalkeeping pecking order at this time last year.
For the first Olympiakos goal, Fabianski was a bit hasty in coming off his line and the striker easily rounded him. Before getting injured, he was almost lobbed after a poor clearance. If we thought Fabianski didn’t inspire confidence, the way in which Mannone conceded the second goal took things to a completely different level. Initially, the Italian did well in clearing with his head, I don’t blame him for going out to clear when Squillaci was meant to be defending it. However with the ball going back towards goal, Mannone seemed to forget that goalkeepers can use their hands in the penalty area. It’s fair to say his attempted volleyed clearance wasn’t overly effective.
Honestly, when I saw the second goal I couldn’t help but laugh. In many ways it was football comedy gold. However if that happens in an important match, or if Wojciech Szczesny gets injured, it won’t be a laughing matter.
In fairness to both Fabianski and Mannone, it’s difficult to be thrust into an atmosphere like the one in Greece having played very little football this season. They were always going to be lacking match sharpness that can be very important for goalkeepers when making judgements. However, the harsh reality of top level football is that you can’t afford to need time to get up to speed in a game.
Going forward, we didn’t create as much as I thought we would with the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Benayoun and Arshavin occupying the three attacking positions behind Marouane Chamakh. All three of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Benayoun and Arshavin showed glimpses of danger, but we couldn’t sustain a solid amount of pressure to really test the Greeks. Benayoun’s goal was extremely well taken though, and as we head towards the busy Christmas and New Year period, I think he’s going to have a big part to play in the forthcoming weeks as we’ll need to rotate.
Overall, it’d be wrong to read too much into the match as the players were always going to have the safety of being top of the group in the back of their heads. They were never going to truly exert themselves, and with Olympiakos needing a win to have a chance of going through, it was going to be hard for the team to match the intensity of our opposition. However some of those in blue on Tuesday could have been playing for their Arsenal futures, and they didn’t give as much as they could, or should, have done.
We don’t need to dwell too much on Tuesday night, and there are still plenty of positives. It will have been a good experience for Emmanuel Frimpong, Francis Coquelin, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ignasi Miquel, we’re still through at the top of the group and the majority of the first choice XI at the moment had a well-deserved week off.
The next match on paper doesn’t look like a special one, with Everton visiting the Emirates on Saturday. However the club are using the match to mark our 125th anniversary, making it a game we won’t want to lose. Everton have had their traditional slow start to the season, however they’re never a team you look at in the fixture list and assume that you’ll get three easy points.
With Manchester City facing Chelsea, at least of the clubs around us will drop points, so we need to win to keep the pressure on. If Chelsea lose, we could climb back into the top four, and that would represent an excellent bit of work from the club, and would be a good checkpoint from which to push on to finish higher in the rest of the season. If Manchester City lose, they’re still too far ahead at the moment to realistically think about challenging them, but someone has stop them threatening the 2004 Invincibles. If Chelsea don’t do that, then who better to do so than Arsenal next week?
A win against Everton would be the best preparation for that.