Saka shines but Arsenal give Freddie another night to forget

Date published: Thursday 12th December 2019 8:39 - Ian Watson

“I try to see what the players can do and not focus on what they cannot do.”

Freddie Ljungberg would have to squint hard to see more than the odd positive trait from his Arsenal players in the 2-2 Europa League draw at Standard Liege. A point was enough to top the group because Eintracht Frankfurt, it would seem, have a similar lack of backbone to the Gunners. But the visitors’ performance, as individuals and as a unit, was generally too wretched for even Ljungberg to take an optimistic view.

In a team crammed full of players with a point to prove, only Bukayo Saka and substitute Gabriel Martinelli made their case to Ljungberg. Emile Smith Rowe showed glimpses of quality but many of the more senior players in the XI appear to think it is not worth wasting their time trying to impress the interim boss if another is due shortly.

The senior spine from back to front – Alexandre Lacazette, Matteo Guendouzi and David Luiz – ranged from bad to worse. None of that trio started the win at West Ham on Monday night, Arsenal’s first victory in 12 games, and on this performance nor will they be back in the XI for Sunday’s meeting with Manchester City.

Ljungberg picked Luiz at the heart of a back three, a defensive shape Arsenal fans have grown to dread. The interim boss might feel he had little choice such was the Gunners’ injury list ahead of the trip to Belgium. With barely a full-back to speak of, Ljungberg employed Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sako as wing-backs, with both far more comfortable further up the field, as Maitland-Niles has all-too-readily admitted.

Luiz’s one job on a problematic pitch: keep it simple, and guide Konstantinos Mavropanos through his first appearance since the final day of last season. With barely 10 minutes played, first Luiz then Mavropanos gave away possession in the same phase of play to present the hosts with their first shot on target. That incompetence came five minutes after Luiz had tried a shot from the halfway line despite the Liege keeper remaining close to his line.

The message that a freezing cold Thursday night on a ploughed pitch at Stade Maurice Dufranse was neither the time nor the place for showboating evidently hadn’t got through to Luiz as half-time approached. With neither side able to retain possession, Arsenal’s most senior player in the XI thought it appropriate to attempt a no-look 30-yard pass through the heart of the hosts’ defence. When he turned back around to face play, Luiz would have seen Liege coming back at Arsenal and his hopes of a Premier League recall going up in smoke.

If Luiz seemed barely bothered, Guendouzi at least offered the illusion of intent. But that was all it was. The French midfielder, more senior to many of his team-mates in terms of experience if not age, embarrassed himself inside 30 seconds by hitting the deck while holding his head despite Paul-Jose Mpoku tickling an area somewhere south of his red face. Mpoku made a fool of him again not long after by turning and escaping from Guendouzi on the left before his cross was eventually cleared. His early experiences were enough for the midfielder to come to the touchline to plead with Ljungburg for more help on the Arsenal right while he and Maitland-Niles struggled to deal with former Spurs youngster Mpoku.

Whatever Guendouzi had, Joe Willock caught a dose. The 20-year-old looked utterly confused for most of the evening, never sure whether to drop deep to receive the ball or pull away to let Luiz drive forward. Luiz, evidently, offered little guidance. Defensively they operated entirely independently of each other aside from one occasion midway through the second half when Willock and Guendouzi combined to gift Selim Amallah the ball inside their own box with both feeling it wise to stand off the Liege midfielder. Another deflection later, and Arsenal found themselves 2-0 down.

With Eintracht Frankfurt winning against Vitoria Guimaraes, Arsenal dropped to second in the group though the more pessimistic travelling supporters – if that’s not all of them by now – would have been more concerned at the prospect of Liege going on to get the five they needed to knock Arsenal out entirely. It would have been stunning, yet hardly surprising.

Fortunately for Ljungberg, Saka stepped up. The 18-year-old produced Arsenal’s only two moments of quality in the second half, first planting a wonderful cross on to Lacazette’s head to give Arsenal a lifeline they barely deserved, before bouncing a wall-pass off Martinelli and curling a fine right-footed finish into the far corner to haul them level. With Frankfurt folding, Arsenal fluked top spot in the draw for the last 32.

If Ljungberg prefers to look for the positives, then Saka and Martinelli should feature prominently in his thoughts ahead of the visit of the champions. But Arsenal really need a manager who will take a dimmer view of the flaws in this squad.

Ian Watson


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