Lacazette winner gives Arsenal excellent victory in the hostile Athens night
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
Arsenal take a narrow- but healthy- lead back to the Emirates Stadium next week after what was another impressive defensive display from Arteta’s men. The gunners collected their third consecutive clean sheet in all competitions- the first time we’ve managed this for over a year, marking this as another indication of the Spaniard’s impressive work in implementing a compact tactical structure.
It wasn’t just the clean sheet that was impressive, but more the manner in which we attained it, limiting the Greek side to a mere 0.33 xG throughout the entire 90 minutes, including just one effort from inside the box.
Arteta opted for a strong side- a sign of how seriously he’s going to take this competition- with the likes of Bernd Leno, David Luiz, Granit Xhaka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang surprisingly retaining their places in the starting eleven. The inclusion of Sokratis at right-back (possibly bad news for Ainsley Maitland-Niles) and Aubameyang on the right-hand side was certainly an area that lacked functionality on the night- something for Arteta to think about.
Olympiacos came out of the traps fast, as you’d expect from the home side in an intense European knockout tie. They created a flurry of early opportunities, including their only effort inside the box which was well saved from Bernd Leno, and a header which no-one else on the planet seems to have realised was called as offside. We struggled to maintain possession in the opening 15 minutes, and looked to be somewhat rattled by the intensity of the Greek’s and their rampant fans.
However, once we got a grip on the game, their threat was neutralised and we began to dictate the pace of it. We created our best opportunity of the first half, involving a lovely move between Joe Willock and Alexandre Lacazette, which eventually saw the Frenchman slide wide when it seemed easier to score. This, our only real chance in what was a cagey opening half, where we lacked cohesion and technical security in the final third.
Aubameyang reflected this first half ineffectiveness, and this was partly due to the tactical structure that he found himself in. The Gabonese international thrives on the left, where he plays an inside role, with the left-back providing the width. It allows him to make diagonal runs in behind the defence and take up goal-scoring positions inside the box. Last night, with Sokratis operating as the inverted full-back (inevitably), Aubamyeang was left as the widest player on the right-hand side, the furthest right in the front five in the structure Arteta used. This position certainly not getting the best out of his ability to get into goal-scoring opportunities.
This lack of fluency going forward continued until we eventually made a change, sacrificing Martinelli for Dani Ceballos. The Spaniard gave us increased technical consistency and ball retention in the final third, and we started to pose a threat to Olympiacos, particulalry when winning the ball in advanced areas through a coordinated press.
Whilst they applied pressure through lots of speculative efforts and good deliveries into the box, they failed to create a single high quality chance, and it was our bit of quality that saw us take the lead. Mustafi's expansive pass into Aubameyang started the move, before the Gabonese found the underlapping run of Bukayo Saka, whose superb delivery left Lacazette with a tap in. A fantastic move and goal, and great way to break the deadlock and give us a vital away goal.
We could've added to it, with Lacazette missing a good chance on the break and Sokratis hitting the bar with a header, but a clean sheet and away goal at this sort of venue represents a very good result. We should have too much for them in the second leg at the Emirates next week.
The positional discipline Arteta has installed in the likes of Xhaka and Guendouzi is a key reason for our increased defensive resilience, whilst Mustafi and Luiz are starting to build a surprisingly solid partnership. An underrated Arsenal performance for me, with the xG suggesting we were superb defensively whilst creating 3 big chances away from home. More of this please.