It was another one of the those time during the final whistle where the points was more important than the performance. Too many times have we sat in this position thinking of dropped points and lost games but could still pride ourself with the wonderful attacking display which amounted to no points. Too many times have we sat in this position and wished that we could play badly and won. This time, we did.
Apart from a spell of 15 minutes in each half, we were never in full control of the match. The possession statistic of 58% to Arsenal, further highlighting how this was an evenly fought match. There were changes made to the starting eleven, some forced by injuries, while others were dictated by the forthcoming North London Derby. Aaron Ramsey and Robin Van Persie were not risked and only came on later in the tie to complete the match.
We settled quicker than the Greek Champions and took an early lead in the 8th minute. Alex Song, playing in the unusual but not altogether alien role of centre back, found Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with a great long pass. The youngsters took it on the chest, ghost past a few defenders and wasn’t afraid to take the shot on his weaker foot. The ball end up at the back of the net, huge relief all around and cue wild celebration.
AOC did really well in the 68 minutes that he played in his Champions League debut. Providing the pace and ingenuity to create space for himself and making the right exchanges with his team mate. Comparisons with Theo Walcott will be unavoidable. Perhaps the biggest difference is the ability of AOC to understand when to drive forward and when to play the pass. It’s the gauntlet thrown at Walcott now.
Worth remembering that this is a player whom a lot of fans questioned. Eyebrows were raised when we paid a significant price for a 18 year old English lad whose only experience was League Two football when almost everyone was crying out for an experienced player to be signed. It’s good to see Arsene Wenger’s decision being justified. It is still early days but the signs are very encouraging from AOC.
We got the second in the 20th minute when Andre Santos raced down the left and crossed for Marouane Chamakh. An Olympiakos defender managed to block the shot but the rebound went straight back to our left back. Cutting inside, the Brazilian let fly with his weaker right foot and found the back of the net.
It was a much improved performance from Santos this time around both attacking and defending sense of the word. Perhaps, the improving fitness is helping his cause. He as decisive in his tackles and won his fair share of challenges. The competition between him and Kieran Gibbs will only help to improve both players as well as the squad in general.
The lead was pulled back to one just 7 minutes later. Olympiakos working a short corner brilliantly. We were caught ball watching and not aware of the danger. No one came to close down on the short corner and were left with a 2 v 1 situation. David Fuster had all the time in the world to find his way into our penalty box to head home without a single Arsenal player nearby. We ditched the zonal marking. I think we still employed that system against Bolton but not for this European tie. No one picked up the late runner from outside the box.
There were a few more moments of shakiness when defending. However, the blame does not lie with the defenders. The midfield trio of Emmanuel Frimpong, Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky were guilty of not protecting their back four. Most of the time, they are found in a cluster of each others and failed to spread the defensive shield. Olympiakos found space rather too easily in the middle of the park.
I’m only assuming that stand-in manager for the day, Pat Rice, had some harsh words for his players at half time. That we need to be tighter defensively and not allow the opposition so much time on the ball. I say that, because we came out in the second half with a much improved performance, especially when defending. It was far more comfortable in the second half than the first.
There were chances to add to the score in the second 45 minutes but we failed to find either the incisive pass or shot. Andrey Arshavin had 2 chances to put the tie beyond Olympiakos but fluffed both chances. Once again, instead of the attacking dominance, we are acknowledging another steady defensive performance.
Song was as stout as they come. Cleared his line when needed to and won every single challenge cleanly. If we had better choices in the defensive midfield role, I would have him play in centre back without any second thoughts. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Frimpong was his usual busy self but I find the way he rush into challenges very disconcerting. Not winning the ball is one thing, he doesn’t realise that he was without back-up and by getting passed by, he’s leaving huge gaps for the opposition to exploit.
Per Mertesacker seems to be growing with each passing game. His reading of the game is one of the biggest asset for the German international. I’ve lost count of the number of times he stuck out his seemingly telescopic legs to cut out a pass. His preference to pass the ball wide first time is something worth recognising. That would help launch attacks far quicker and doesn’t give time to the opposition to regroup.
Ultimately, we had a bad day in the office in terms of general performance. It was good in sporadic stages. However, as in any games, a win is the aim before every game. That is something we achieved and got our first win in the group stage this season. Now, there’s the small matter of local pride on Sunday.