Olympiakos 2-1 Arsenal: Dead Rubber Can’t Lift Spirits

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When a team is struggling, there’s no better tonic than a win. Going to Olympiakos and coming home with three points would’ve breathed some life into a team that seems to have flatlined. Moreover, Montpelier’s draw with Schalke meant that a win would have seen us top our Champions League group.

Such an achievement, regardless of the implications for the knockout draw, would certainly have given the team some much needed confidence. Unfortunately, despite the many changes to our starting XI, what we saw on Tuesday night was more of the same turgid Arsenal we’ve come to expect in recent weeks.

It seems pointless to go into great detail about the match itself because it followed a similar pattern to most of our recent matches. Once again we were toothless in attack, managing only three shots on target. The opposition out-worked us when they didn’t have the ball, and punished our mistakes when we gifted it back to them.

I’ve never known an Arsenal team under Wenger to play with such nervousness, but that’s what our poor start to the season has engendered. Arsenal’s passing game never flowed. We repeatedly gave possession away cheaply and it put us under unnecessary pressure. Although there was a brief period after Rosicky scored that it seemed possible we could win this match, the second half was dominated by the hosts who deserved their three points.

Tomas Rosicky was clearly the bright spot for Arsenal. While his well-taken goal wasn’t enough to secure a result, his quality was sufficient to instill some hope that he can help turn the tide domestically. He gave us the ability to transition from defense to attack with pace by carrying the ball through the midfield. We haven’t really had that since Diaby limped off against Chelsea. Without him we were more static and pinned back in our half more easily.

Other than Rosicky, only Jernade Meade came away from the match deserving of any praise. He showed poise and tenacity beyond his tender age. When you’re playing in this Arsenal defense it’s easy to look bad (especially when the defense includes Squillaci), but Meade never looked overwhelmed or outclassed.

On Tuesday night, Aaron Ramsey’s poor season seemed to come to a crescendo of awfulness. He couldn’t pass. He couldn’t keep the ball. He couldn’t tackle cleanly. And when presented with a glorious chance to give Arsenal an early lead, he couldn’t even make solid contact with the ball. He capped his night by committing an error that lead to Olympiakos’ equalizer. (While that may be harsh, his participation in that play was registers by whoscored as an “error leading to a goal.”)

Consider these facts from the match provided by whoscored (who use Opta stats). Ramsey had the worst pass percentage of any outfield player except Chamakh. He was successful with only 76 percent of his passes. Worse still, Ramsey was dispossessed twice and committed four turnovers. At the moment, he simply isn’t making good decisions with the ball, especially when he’s under pressure. And that’s leading to counter attacking opportunities for the opposition. The Welshman’s air kick in the first half was evidence of a player bereft of confidence. While I hope he can rediscover it, I don’t think he should be playing for us at the moment.

But Ramsey had plenty of company in the poor-performance department. Gervinho is a player I once rated highly. I was convinced that he would come good for us once he had a chance to settle in. But he was diabolical again on Tuesday night. Many will point to his assist as evidence that my conclusion is erroneous. But one half-decent cutback doesn’t excuse wasted opportunity after wasted opportunity. He repeatedly dribbled his way into trouble or brought an attack to a screeching halt. On the occasions where we were able to counter attack, Gervinho was completely incapable of picking even the easiest of passes to send his teammates in on goal. On one counter attack, Gervinho dribbled the ball straight into an Olympiakos center-half when he could’ve played a simple through ball to Chamakh with acres of space ahead of him.

At this point I simply don’t see what Gervinho brings to the side. And considering the fact that he’ll probably be even less effective when he comes back from the ACN at the end of January, it’s hard to see us getting much of a useful contribution from him this season.

One thing I did take away from this game was a sense of just how wrong some of our purchases have been over the past few seasons. Gervinho and Squillaci are obvious examples, but I actually found myself feeling sorry for Marouane Chamakh. It’s not Chamakh’s fault that his skill-set is a total mismatch for our playing style. It’s not his fault that he doesn’t have nearly the quality to play at a club like ours. And it makes me wonder how a player like him wound up at Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in the first place.

Look at Chamakh’s contribution on Tuesday night. He had the worst pass success rate at a hideous 47%. He was also dispossessed four times and managed to commit three turnovers. At one point he received a lovely ball over the top at the edge of the Olympiakos penalty area that should have sent him through on goal. Chamakh managed to put the ball out for goal-kick with his lead-footed first touch. The television commentator couldn’t help but wonder aloud what Van Persie might have done with that same chance. (I think we know the answer.)

But there was one stat in particular from Chamakh’s night that stood out: Chamakh won eight aerial duels. No other player on either team won more than three. And that’s what Chamakh can do. He can hold up play. He’s a target man. He can head the ball in from a good cross. He can knock long balls down for his teammates.

Sadly for him, that doesn’t suit Arsenal’s style whatsoever. Arsenal attempted ten crosses in the entire match, and two of those were attempted by Chamakh. Of the other eight, only two crosses successfully found a teammate. Olympiakos, by comparison, attempted 31 crosses. Clearly, whatever resources Chamakh has at his disposal, are wasted at Arsenal.

There were indifferent performances by other Arsenal players on the night, but none worthy of further analysis. I did find myself annoyed with the manager for his selection of substitutes. If you’re going to put kids on the bench, then you need to be prepared to use them late in the game. Instead, when we needed goals late, Wenger simply swapped one young fullback for another, and left his final substitution unused. If he didn’t trust his subs to provide a boost late in the game, then I don’t understand why he brought them in the first place.

Ultimately it was another disappointing night for Arsenal in what is proving to be a very difficult season. Thankfully this is a match that will be quickly written off and forgotten. However, while it’s nice that we have qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League, it’s becoming clear that this team will accomplish nothing if we don’t turn things around quickly.

Arsene Wenger is correct that this is not the time to concentrate on the transfer window. Now is the time to worry about getting back to winning ways. Tuesday night looked like it might have been an opportunity to do just that. But despite the changes to the side, it was more of the same for Arsenal in Greece. I can’t wait to see how we handle Barcelona in February.

– ES

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