Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Arsenal unimpressive at Vitoria as Unai Emery fails to find respite in Europa League

Premier League club held to a 1-1 draw, although the result should have little bearing on their hopes of reaching the knockout stages

Shkodran Mustafi scored Arsenal's goal in the 1-1 draw with Vitoria Guimaraes in the Europa League. AFP
Shkodran Mustafi scored Arsenal's goal in the 1-1 draw with Vitoria Guimaraes in the Europa League. AFP

Even the Europa League is starting to highlight Unai Emery’s difficulties. If a three-time winner of this competition’s record explained his appeal to Arsenal when they appointed him, Emery’s struggling side were fortunate to escape defeat to a previously pointless Vitoria Guimaraes side.

Arsenal took and lost a lead and Shkodran Mustafi, the scorer of their goal, hit his own post in injury time.

In one sense, it may matter little. Arsenal dropped points for only the second time in a group game in Emery’s reign but will still book their place in the last 32 on Thursday if Eintracht Frankfurt beat Standard Liege.

As Emery made eight changes, most of those responsible for a lacklustre display will not face Leicester City on Saturday and they may be selected in weakened teams in the remaining group games. Yet given the trajectory of his reign, an unconvincing, underwhelming performance scarcely brought vindication of the manager.

For the second time in five days, Arsenal had the worst of a draw. Like Wolves at the weekend, Guimaraes fashioned more chances. Bruno Duarte’s acrobatic equaliser may have come in stoppage time, but it was the least the Portuguese side deserved. His bicycle kick represented another time Arsenal gave up an advantage but, after another right-wing surge from the former Tottenham midfielder Marcus Edwards, Mustafi almost gifted the hosts victory.

Arsenal had seemed set to pilfer the points. Perhaps there was an irony in the identity of their scorer. With Granit Xhaka missing, a continued consequence of his angry response to taunts from supporters, another the fans dislike the most struck.

That Mustafi’s 80th-minute header was Arsenal’s only effort on target illustrated how unimpressive they were. That it came from Nicolas Pepe’s fine free kick was an unwanted sequel for Guimaraes, beaten by two of the £72 million (Dh340m) man’s set-pieces two weeks ago.

Yet both sides had a Pepe and the Portuguese midfielder rattled the woodwork with a long-range shot in the first half. Emi Martinez produced tremendous saves to tip the former Tottenham midfielder Marcus Edwards’ long-range shot and Edmond Tapsoba’s header wide.

With Davidson bending a shot just wide and the unmarked Frederico Venancio heading over the bar, Arsenal were hanging on in a first half when they were the inferior side.

For the first time since May’s Europa League final, Emery began with three central defenders. It did not stem the flow of chances as Arsenal went a sixth game without a clean sheet.

Without Xhaka, left behind in London and stripped of the captaincy, Rob Holding led Arsenal for the first time. The defender was not in the group of Emery’s five skippers for the season, rather underlining the confusion at the club, but he had company at the back.

Yet those central defenders lacked protection as Emery began without a defensive midfielder. Dani Ceballos operated deeper than usual but the experiment was not a success.

Selecting the Spaniard backfired when he limped off injured; perhaps his absence will give Mesut Ozil greater opportunities in the Premier League. But that, again, underlines the issues at Emery’s Arsenal.

Updated: November 6, 2019 10:15 PM

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