Arsenal‘s late-season collapse completed against Chelsea in Baku during the Europa League final. Two months ago, the Gunners seemed like they were on their way to next season’s Champions League. Now, after shipping four goals in the second half, they will miss out on Europe’s premier footballing competition for the third consecutive season.
Baku Defeat Completes Late-Season Collapse for Arsenal
Every Chance in the World
Arsenal held their Champions League fates in their own hands in the Premier League until the final few matches of the season. Following their 2-0 victory over Manchester United, they had every right to feel as though they could qualify for Europe’s biggest stage through that route.
However, their porous defence, lack of mental strength and poor away form combined to thwart that avenue. Coming into the Europa League final, the Gunners also had every right to feel they could qualify for the Champions League that way.
Arsenal were beaten by Chelsea back in August by a score of 3-2. However, they got their revenge in the home encounter by a score of 2-0. That, combined with comfortable victories over Napoli and Valencia, showed that on any given day Arsenal could overcome Chelsea.
But, just like with their late-season collapse in the Premier League, they gave away their chance at next season’s Champions League when the moment came.
Lukewarm First Half
Arsenal lined up predictably in the same 3-5-2 formation which allowed them to defeat Chelsea in the league. The Blues countered with an also familiar 4-3-3 to which Maurizio Sarri has stuck religiously.
The two sides played out a fairly even, if largely uninteresting, first half. Neither created any truly dangerous attacking moves, although Arsenal claimed the best chance of the half in the ninth minute.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Ainsley Maitland-Niles combined well down the right flank to create room for a cross. While the wing-back couldn’t connect with his target, Alexandre Lacazette, the ball fell kindly for Aubameyang just inside the box.
He is known to miss his share of chances and did so with a volley this time. He had more time than he knew and should have taken it.
Arsenal also had slightly better buildup play in the first half compared with Chelsea. While the Gunners found open space on their left flank through Sead Kolasinac over and over, the Blues were largely stymied in the middle third.
However, Kolasinac just couldn’t find the killer ball from the dangerous positions he created. Just like the rest of his teammates, the wing-back has seen his form drop considerably following a period of really excellent play midseason.
Maitland-Niles was a bright spot on the pitch. He dealt with Eden Hazard fairly well and contributed positively going forward from the right flank. The 21-year-old did well to combine with Aubameyang, Lacazette and Mesut Ozil to try and break the Blues down.
Then again, there were plenty of signs that all was not right in the Arsenal team. Sokratis Papastathopoulos had to clean up a few dangerous balls and Petr Cech gave the ball away a few times with his passing as well as one very poor clearance.
After the interval, there was a noticeable difference between the two sides. While in the first half neither really grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, Chelsea very much took the initiative in the second.
Following some seemingly innocuous buildup play, Emerson found Olivier Giroud with a cross. While the ball was not particularly clever, skilfull or unexpected, it was extremely effective. Laurent Koscielny was too slow to react and allowed Giroud to get on the wrong side of him.
Giroud did what he does and found the back of the net with his head. Just like the cross, it was not so much spectacular play from the attack which made it effective but poor play by the defence. It was a goal which could and should have been prevented with a faster reaction from the defence.
Almost the same can be said of the second goal.
Chelsea did nothing terribly clever to work the ball in to Eden Hazard on the fringes of Arsenal’s box. They just exploited the space that was in front of them and kept alert.
They noticed that none of the defenders were paying attention to Pedro, who made a run towards the penalty spot. Again, nothing terribly clever there, but the outcome was an easy goal with Nacho Monreal the offending centre-back who should have tracked his man better.
For the third, it was Maitland-Niles who found himself out of position when Giroud, who was in space in Arsenal’s box, prepared to receive the ball. The striker just made sure his body was between the ball and the defender and a basic mistake from the young man gave away the penalty.
By this stage of the match, even with Alex Iwobi’s wonder strike, the match was gone. This lead to the players trying the spectacular to win the ball off of Chelsea rather than defend as a team. The result was chaos.
Players were lunging at the ball left and right in desperate and fruitless attempts to win the ball. For the fourth and final goal, Sokratis Papastathopoulos committed himself too early while Matteo Guendouzi found himself just too far away to help while Koscielny was caught between two minds.
While the final goal should be applauded for its skill and beauty, it was again made easy for Chelsea by Arsenal.
Reflection of the Season
After giving up a goal which was a result of poor reactions and poor positioning, Arsenal simply collapsed in Baku. This is a perfect reflection of their larger late-season collapse.
Akin to the season as a whole, the issues were with the defensive play as well as the player’s mentality. For each goal at least one defender made a simple mistake, making life easy for Chelsea’s attack. Then, they could not cope mentally and conceded the game.
So, Arsenal got the same reward at the end of the Europa League final as they did on the last day of the Premier League season; Europa League football for another year. Once more, they were so close on both fronts with Champions League football a real possibility at some point.
Some of the things which need to change can be changed fairly easily. Laurent Koscielny would not have played instead of Rob Holding should the latter not had his season curtailed due to injury. Calum Chambers is coming off of a good season with Fulham and would have played instead of Nacho Monreal if not out on loan.
This would go some ways to eradicate the defensive issues which plagued Arsenal’s defeat and season, namely a lack of pace to recover from defensive errors. It can also be done without dipping into the transfer market.
However, a change in mentality is not as easy. And it is this which must change for Arsenal to truly progress as a club.
Looking Beyond the Late-Season Collapse
The club, whether they like it or not, will have to look at another season in the Europa League as a positive. It will give more opportunities to academy products like Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith Rowe and Joe Willock to continue their progression.
By working with young players in the first team, Unai Emery and the coaching staff will be able to instil a certain mental strength in the players. After all, there is a huge mental difference between a top-level athlete and an amateur, and that mentality cannot be bred without top-level competition.
In footballing terms, this means first team minutes for young players. Then, in January after the relative ease of the group stage, these young players could go out on loan to get even more experience.
Arsenal’s situation also presents a much more realistic chance at silverware next season. While Champions League qualification will again be the main goal, trophies are always desirable.
However, one more season away from Europe’s top competition also presents huge negatives. One is, of course, lesser prize money. For a club rumoured to only have £40 million available for transfers before player sales, that is a big deal.
There is also the issue of not having the allure of Champions League football to attract players in the transfer market. Top players demand the top competition, so the transfer team at Arsenal will have a more difficult job this summer.
Then there is the issue of losing players. Should Barcelona make a move for a player like Alexandre Lacazette, Arsenal would be hard pressed to keep him should he wish to leave. Plus, the financial restrictions also mean that the large fees from such sales would be very tempting.
At the end of the day, the late-season collapse is a self-inflicted wound. It is also one which will rule the way the club will conduct its business for another year.
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