Ouch. There is little more that can be said about Thursday’s Europa League round of 16 clash with Stade Rennais, as Arsenal succumbed to the ugly 3-1 defeat in their first leg encounter. The recently restored confidence that came rushing back following the previous round’s disappointing first leg has taken another hit, just as Arsenal face a supremely important week of football ahead.
First will be a massive battle with Manchester United, with the top four in the Premier League potentially at stake, before the return leg at the Emirates next Thursday where the Gunners will hope to do what they failed at yesterday: beat Rennes. In a week’s time we will likely know with some certainty whether Arsenal still have a chance at Champions League football next season, but first, Unai Emery and the players must deal with the fallout from yesterday’s embarrassing display,
A dream start
Was it a cross or was it an intentional shot? Whatever it was, Alex Iwobi opened the scoring for Arsenal in a dream fashion, netting just 180 seconds into the match. The strike, a fizzed, curling effort that fooled Rennes goalkeeper Tomas Koubek and found its way into the lower right-hand corner, had fans remembering when Thierry Henry used to do such things for fun in his Arsenal glory days. The goal represented an ideal start to the round of 16 clash with Rennes, and Unai Emery could scarcely have drawn up a more perfect way to begin the two-legged affair.
Though things would quickly go south for the Gunners, the goal served to validate the recent performances of Alex Iwobi, who has put in the hard work this season to shed the inconsistent label he has carried for much of his senior career. Though his final product, both pass and shot, still need work if he is to become the genuinely dangerous creative force he can be, goals like his opener on Thursday should give him a shot of confidence heading into a vital stretch of games over the next week. As basketball legend Michael Jordan once said, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, and Iwobi continues to show that he is willing to keep trying.
The moment that changed everything
When Sokratis Papastathopoulos went into the referee’s book with a little over 10 minutes to run in the first half, very little thought was given to the consequences. After all, the Greek defender has had a reputation of playing on the line of aggressive legality throughout his career, and he is usually good for one bookable offence in most matches.
However, his caution would eventually come back to bite him and his team alike, as just seven minutes later, his involvement in a tangle with Ismaila Sarr lead to referee Ivan Kruzliak showing him his second yellow of the evening with little hesitation.
The bewildered Sokratis pleaded with the match official for leniency, possibly arguing that a stray elbow from the Senegalese forward had knocked him back, potentially forcing him to pitch over, clipping his mark on the way down. With Sarr being denied a clear scoring opportunity by the tumbling Sokratis, Kruzliak was left with little choice in the matter. Harsh as it may have seemed, Sokratis had flirted with that line and lost, leaving his team more than a half to play with just 10 men on the pitch.
Smelling blood in the water, Rennes wasted no time capitalising on the gaff, with Benjamin Bourigeaud recovering the rebound from his failed free kick to fire a vicious strike past a helpless Petr Cech to level the score at one apiece. The energy and composure seemed to drain out of the Arsenal players following the rapid double blow to their match plan, but they managed to make it into the half without allowing further damage to be done.
Sokratis’ erratic display has severely hamstrung Arsenal for the second leg, as not only will they be looking to claw back a two-goal deficit given away in the second half, but they will have to do so without one of their most reliable central defenders in the mix, as the hulking Greek will likely have any suspension he is handed upheld under appeal.
His aggressive nature has earned him many a quick admirer in the stands and beyond here in his first season with the club, but after leaving his teammate a mountain to climb in his absence next week, perhaps he will regret not staving off the red mist a little more following his first caution of the evening.
It could have been worse
As poor as Arsenal looked in the second half, it could have been a whole lot worse if Petr Cech hadn’t made several huge saves to keep his team within striking distance. Rennes were hammering shots from distance that put Cech under plenty of duress, with eight of their 19 shots finding the target. The hosts made good use of their man advantage in the second half, spending long stretches of time on the ball to deny Arsenal the chance to fight their way back into the match.
Rennes edged Arsenal in the possession battle, finishing on 51% while attempting 454 passes to Arsenal’s 437. The Gunners had their second sub-par passing performance in a row following last weekend’s North London Derby where their accuracy was well down into the 70% range before barely reaching 80% on Thursday.
As Arsenal pushed on in desperation to score another goal to make the job easier in the return leg, the defence was pulled further and further out of shape and left Rennes with plenty of space to exploit on the break. With their pace in attack and comfort playing on the counter-attack, they quickly extended their lead with an unlucky deflection off of Nacho Monreal to take the lead. Later came an infuriatingly easy goal after Arsenal were caught way too far forward after losing possession, leaving Sarr wide open at the back post to nod an unmarked cross home for the third goal of the evening.
Given the disarray Arsenal displayed in the second half, perhaps they will still feel lucky that the damage remained at 3-1. If not for Cech’s heroic efforts and some squandered chances from excellent opportunities for Rennes to extend the lead further, Friday could very well have included a pre-emptive moratorium on Arsenal’s Europa League campaign.
As it stands, the challenge looms large, but far from impossible for a team that possesses truly elite firepower on their day. A fast start and far better defensive tenacity could go a long way towards the Gunners regaining their confidence in the second leg, and the pressure is well and truly on Unai Emery as he tries to eek that bit of extra performance out of his players next week.
A comedy of errors
Unai Emery was rightfully commended for the way he helped pull Arsenal out of their lowest point of the season, a first leg loss to BATE Borisov in the previous round of the Europa League, with three convincing wins in a row followed by an extremely competitive draw with Tottenham at Wembley Stadium last weekend. However, when it comes time to dole out blame for the way the Gunners fell apart on Thursday in France, the Basque Head Coach is one of several who must answer for their perplexing decisions.
Despite being put into a no-win situation with the Sokratis red card, Emery made a strange decision in the second half, withdrawing goalscorer Iwobi, not to replace him with a defender to cover for the loss of Sokratis, but with central midfielder Matteo Guendouzi. The young Frenchman had an absolute mare in his return to his homeland, giving the ball away cheaply on at least three occasions in dangerous positions in his own half before an absolutely shocking display of tracking back on Sarr’s final goal of the evening.
Having been on the pitch for just minutes before the goal, there was absolutely no excuse for the way he loafed back into position, not even picking up the pace when the ball went wide left into acres of space for a cross into a dangerous area in front of him. As energetic as the 19-year-old can be at times, this is not the first instance in which he has shown a lack of awareness and urgency when tracking back, and it is something that Emery must address if the teenager is to become as good as he can possibly be.
In such an ugly affair, Guendouzi should hardly be singled out for his blunders, as Sokratis, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nacho Monreal had their nightmare moments as well. Aubameyang had a horrible time trying to control the ball for most of the evening, with his first touch seeming to all but desert him. Monreal was saddled with an own goal for his role in the ball deflecting in for Rennes’ second, and there are some who feel he should have recognised the lack of support he was getting from his midfielders on the third and done more to get out to cover Sarr off.
Whenever a top club loses to a mid-table Ligue 1 side, the performance is never pretty, but Emery and the players should rightly feel that they left a lot of plays out there on the pitch that they usually make.
On track for revenge and a decent audition
Heading into the first leg, there were few compelling storylines to link two very different clubs that typically compete on vastly different levels in Europe. However, the buildup was not without drama as Unai Emery returned to France to face one of his least admiring former players in Hatem Ben Arfa. Likened to Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil for his inconsistent application of his considerable talents, the Frenchman had a contentious relationship with his former manager at PSG last season, where he found it difficult to break into starting consideration in Emery’s plans.
With his industrious display that saw him hawking around the Arsenal penalty area for much of the match, Ben Arfa proved just how much it meant to him to try and embarrass Emery, which was only confirmed by his post-match comments. He spoke of revenge after the match, explaining in the process that he had expected to win by at least two goals on the night, even slipping in a sly dig at the ball of nervous energy he had grown used to seeing on the touchline last season.
With the job done in the first leg, Ben Arfa will be hoping to make the humiliation complete next week at the Emirates Stadium, where a solid showing by Rennes could see Arsenal and their “Europa League specialist” manager unceremoniously turfed from the competition for good.
In addition to the drama surrounding the relationship between former coach and player, Arsenal fans were treated to a first-hand view of a potential summer transfer target in Ismaila Sarr. With many citing wide forward as an area the Gunners must address this summer, Sarr represents a tantalising option with his elite pace and trickery on the ball, two things that have arguably lacked this season on the Arsenal flanks. Though the initial impression was far from favourable, as Sarr struggled to leave a mark in the early going while going to ground easy several times under fairly standard challenges, he came alive in the second half after Sokratis’ sending off.
The Senegalese international finished with two key passes and his goal, Rennes’ third of the evening, but it was the way his pace consistently caused problems for Nacho Monreal down the right side of the Rennes attack that had many take notice. At this point, Sarr’s game lacks a bit of the diversity of skill set that makes the best wide forwards a true multi-dimensional threat in the modern game, at just 21 he has shown flashes of a genuinely great player underneath.
Should he make the move to the Premier League, he will hope to follow in the footsteps of compatriot Sadio Mane, who quickly parlayed his opportunity into a big money move to Liverpool, where he now enjoys a starring role in Jurgen Klopp’s title-challenging side. Initially, it appears that Arsenal favour a move for Lille’s Nicolas Pepe a bit more this summer, but with several clubs monitoring the breakout star currently having one of the best seasons in Ligue 1, the Gunners should be prepared to move on to other options if they cannot land their man. Sarr, for his part, may have just proven he is worth the look.