Risk and reward sit either side of the thinnest divide. As the minutes ticked down this began to feel like another addition, perhaps the most critical one, to the case that Arsenal are not quite ready to succeed with the playing style Mikel Arteta desires. They had been superior to Olympiakos in every department bar the part of one’s brain that dictates when, and how, to weave intricate passing moves from the back. When Youssef El-Arabi finally punished them with an equaliser shortly before the hour, raising the spectre of last season’s second-leg heist, there was an obvious danger they had been too clever for their own good.
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Every Europa League tie carries a profound sense of jeopardy for Arsenal given their domestic toils. They eventually pulled clear in this one and earned the convincing win that, repeat offences to one side, their fluent performance merited. This is a better team than the one that nosedived against the same opponents in February 2020: here they could prove it via a bravura header from Gabriel and a long-range blast from the substitute Mohamed Elneny. It should be enough to avert disaster at the Emirates next Thursday.
“I’m really pleased with the result, with the goals we scored and the way we played in big moments,” Arteta said. “But as well we have to be very honest with ourselves that we gave three [chances] to our opponents and they scored one. To go to the next level we have to be more ruthless and kill games.”
Arsenal had deservedly led through a 34th-minute thunderbolt by Martin Ødegaard, who had missed a presentable early chance but put his left foot through the ball from 25 yards and sent a ripping strike past José Sá. It flew straight down the middle but the home keeper was beaten by the sheer force. There was little doubt the visitors had more goals in them: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had already been thwarted when Sá brilliantly pawed his deflected header on to the bar and Olympiakos looked ragged under examination.
On Saturday, Burnley had not looked much sturdier before Granit Xhaka handed them parity on a plate. Arteta wants Arsenal to play out from defence but, as he accepted in what was at times a carbon copy of the weekend’s post-match inquest, they are yet to perfect their decision making. No pennies had dropped between the two games: a loose pass from Ødegaard before his opener saw Bruma squander Olympiakos’s first opportunity with a tame shot at Bernd Leno. As half-time neared, David Luiz presented the ball to Giorgos Masouras deep inside Arsenal’s area and was fortunate to see the winger balloon horribly wide.
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If it is careless to err twice, how does one describe the third time? Dani Ceballos had just replaced the excellent Thomas Partey when he received a short pass from Leno, who had clear options to his right but played him horribly into trouble. An alert El-Arabi pickpocketed him and, with Leno backtracking fruitlessly, curled the ball into the bottom corner from 20 yards.
El-Arabi, who jabbed in the dramatic late winner last time around, would have compounded matters if Héctor Bellerín had not bravely deflected another shot just wide. Arsenal took charge again, though, and the quality of their goals was unimpeachable. Gabriel bullied the stand-in centre-back Yann M’Vila when Willian hung in a deep cross and, via a tremendous run and leap, arced in an unstoppable finish. Then Elneny, who had recently come on, took aim from distance as space opened up in midfield and found the corner via Sá’s left hand. “He’s been training so hard to improve his shooting range,” Arteta said.