We should probably start by pointing out the tie isn’t over.
Of course, Arsenal should not be in this position: 1-1 nursing a late away goal and needing one more than Slavia Prague in the second leg to progress. We can probably ignore the prospect of keeping a clean sheet next week in the second leg of this Europa League quarter-final, given they have not managed one in their last 15 games, since a drab 0-0 with Manchester United at the end of January.
Three clear cut chances were spurned on Thursday night. Maybe four goals in their column might have flattered on the scoreline, but certainly not on balance. Arsenal were far from great, and their opponents were not deserving of a big defeat. But football carries no moral code for performance and Arsenal know that better than anyone right now. Nevertheless, there are another 90 minutes (at least) to go – enough time to right any perceived wrongs.
But not all that is done can be undone, and it is hard to look beyond the very first notable act of a frustrating Thursday evening in north London as one that may be tough to come back from. Faced with his most important match of the season, Mikel Arteta opted to leave club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the bench. This was much more profound than axing him for the North London derby for getting stuck in traffic. That was a breaking of protocol, this was just tactical. According to Arteta, Arsenal’s best chance of a desired result was without him.
With 12 minutes to go, Arteta put Aubameyang on. His first meaningful touch was a scuffed shot wide of the far post after Emile Smith Rowe’s cross from the right. But on 86 minutes, he pounced on a defensive lapse to regain possession and put Nicolas Pepe through on his blind side (right) for the Ivorian to go on to give Arsenal the lead, though they could not hold onto it.
“It was some big decisions to leave some players out,” said Arteta after the match. “But we decided to play the team who had the best chance to start the game and have some key players there to change the game when we need it. Once they came on they had a real impact which is very necessary in this competition and they did what we expect them to do.”
In the context of Aubameyang, praise does not get fainter. The drive to get him to commit to Arteta’s long-term project was expensive and arduous. An already distorted wage structure was stretched further off the back of a public goodwill mission that anointed him as the on-field driver of a new chapter at the club before he eventually put pen to paper. And here he was just over six months later, a backup performer on a stage he was supposed to be headlining.
And what was most harmful for the 31-year-old was that, well, it was not unjustified. The man he replaced – or rather, the man who first replaced him – had an admirable 78 minutes. Alexandre Lacazette may lack the dexterity of Aubameyang, but he covers for that with endeavour.
His assumption of No 10 duties over the last few months saw more natural dips into midfield on Thursday. When he was not scrapping aerially and on the deck, he was creating space for others. A to the left away from goal allowed Bukayo Saka a gap to fill, which should have resulted in an Arsenal goal in the first half.
Lacazette then missed the next best opportunity with just under 30 minutes to go. One created from his one-person press on the last Slavia Prague defender that saw him win the ball and set off on a 60-yard dash that deserved more than the rattling of the crossbar. There was even a moment in the first half when Granit Xhaka pressed the goalkeeper, Gabriel Magalhaes stepped into midfield in anticipation of a hoofed clearance he might need to context and Lacazette dropped into the backline alongside Rob Holding.
None of this comes naturally to Lacazette, but underpinning it all was a willingness to do what needed to be done. A sense of duty that has not gone unnoticed by his younger teammates – Saka and Smith Rowe, in particular, have publicly lauded his contribution to their development this season – and, evidently, his manager.
Of course, Arteta is not without fault here. Because, really, Lacazette is the safer of his two options. For all Arsenal’s defensive lapses – chuck the inability to clear under no pressure minutes before letting a corner find its way to the back post for Slavia Prague’s 93rd-minute equaliser to the list – a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal is matched by a lack of ruthlessness in their XIs.
But this is how the Spaniard chooses and no matter the stature of the individual, they need to dance to his tune, no matter how rhythmless it may seem. And it seems the player who cannot seem to get it is the one who was supposed to lead it.
“I cannot talk with everybody individually every week,” said Arteta when asked how Aubameyang took the news that he was to start on the bench. You’d think the one person you’d consult ahead of such a big game would be your captain, especially if you were going to start without him.
“We try to be transparent and communicate with the players as clear as possible. For them to understand the role in the game they have. When he [Aubameyang] came on he showed the right attitude and the right commitment.”
We don’t need to evoke Lacazette and dip uncomfortably between the lines to find a deeper meaning here. In a fixture that carried Arsenal’s Champions League hopes, Arteta put faith in those he felt could stick to their jobs, ones he believed would commit wholeheartedly to his game plan. And when he put those names on paper, his captain was not one of them.
The beauty of all this is next Thursday will supersede this Thursday as Arsenal’s most important match of the season. A win in the second leg will make the first obsolete, and whoever gets the job done from the off will know they have Arteta’s unwavering trust. Even if one of those is Aubameyang, it may not cover for the fact that Arteta doubted his captain just a week earlier. Trust is two-way, and it may be some time before both sides are fully onboard with the other.