LONDON — “Laca, go” came the cry from the bench. Alexandre Lacazette looked across, a shrug of confusion aimed in the direction of Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta.
That might have been an isolated first-half incident were it not so emphatically reflected across the pitch in a conservative, confused performance that ended with Arsenal’s inability to manage a game coming back to haunt them once again. After the late emptying of the bench had seen Nicolas Pepe exploit the chasms of space that had been staring invitingly at the home team throughout the game the Gunners withdrew into their shell, spooked by a Slavia Prague side that felt they had nothing to lose and everything to gain from going for break before halftime in the tie.
Tomas Holes’ header at the back post earned the Czech champions a priceless away goal and a 1-1 draw. Suddenly Arsenal’s season hangs by a thread following 90 minutes where they could have killed off the tie.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Pepe had been the fall guys for Saturday’s woeful display in a 3-0 defeat to Liverpool, a performance so inept that no player could have complained if they had been exiled to the bench. Arteta insisted his selection was not about making points following a game where Aubameyang had been widely pilloried in the media for what was perceived to be a lack of effort.
Arteta said before kick-off: “We had to pick the right team to try to start the game the best possible way and as well have the options to change the game because Europe gives you the possibility to make five subs and that’s a big thing and we want to use our full squad in the best possible way.”
There was the scintilla of a shrewd idea from Arteta in that analysis of his starting XI but, as has been his wont on more than one occasion this season, the manager contrived to make his task far harder than it needed to be with a selection that did not seem remotely appropriate for the task ahead of them.
Slavia’s line was that of a team who dominate every opponent they play; they have not lost since December in all competitions and are undefeated in the Czech league. Jindrich Trpisovsky’s side press high and in numbers, leaving space in behind that a team with Arsenal’s collection of pacy forwards ought to be able to exploit even without David Luiz’s line-breaking passes. Yet Arteta opted to deploy his two slowest forwards in Alexandre Lacazette and Willian, whose interchanging with Emile Smith Rowe all too often left the Gunners with the central defensive pairing of Holes and David Zima with nothing to worry about.
Only Bukayo Saka looked to be testing the space behind Slavia in the first half, where he spurned the period’s best chance by curling wide off his left foot. Though he was flagged offside VAR would surely have awarded the goal to him had he been able to bend the ball a few inches closer to the far post. That aside Arsenal were cumbersome, cautious and careful, with only Smith Rowe and Saka willing to press a Slavia goalkeeper that seemed incapable of kicking the ball to his left.
In and off itself that is no problem in European competition if your priority is to avoid letting in an away goal but it would have been foolish of Arteta to assume that a defense shorn of Luiz and Kieran Tierney could keep a clean sheet when it had not done so since January.
Equally there is no shame in getting your tactics wrong if you address those problems swiftly and decisively. Not until the 73rd minute did Arteta, who had made a point of the value of having five potential options to change the game, turn to Gabriel Martinelli in place of Willian, who even in hitting a free-kick against the post offered little suggestion he would be able to impact the game in a seriously positive way.
Moments later came the great emptying of the bench as Pepe, Aubameyang and Mohamed Elneny entered the fray. Immediately it was apparent the damage they could have done from the outset. Arsenal attacked with verve and aggression, Smith Rowe cutting the ball along the face of goal for his captain to sidefoot wide from a tight angle.
Aubameyang played like a man determined to disprove any accusations of laziness, debatable as they were after a game where he had been constantly tracking Trent Alexander-Arnold rather than doing the sort of things Arsenal pay him over $350,000-a-week for. He could not quite burst in behind the Slavia defense but judged his pass into Pepe’s feet to perfection.
This was a game that continually handed escape routes to Arsenal before Pepe’s goal. Lacazette won the ball in midfield but bearing down on the Ondrej Kolar never looked like he would do anything other than miss before he curled the ball against the crossbar. Moments later he spurned another excellent chance, a rare occasion where the No.9 was actually in the penalty area when required.
Yet Arsenal’s response to the game finally turning in their favor was the same fear that had engulfed them against Tottenham, when they contrived to turn a man advantage and a 2-1 lead into a siege on their own goal. Or it was a repeat of the chaos that they managed to extricate themselves from against Benfica. Arteta would insist otherwise and said he had no concerns over how his team defend a lead.
“The game was under control,” he said. “We got the goal we wanted but we missed some big chances as well. We played two or three balls we shouldn’t do and we put ourselves on the back foot and conceded the corner. They put bodies in there and it can happen. It changes the feeling after the game.”
Still at halftime in this tie they sat deep as though they were an inferior side clinging on to a win they scarcely deserved. The same spaces were behind the Slavia defense, perhaps even more, but panic set in.
Arteta was exuding it from the bench. Hector Bellerin was on the receiving end of a scream of “hostia” when a cross came in from his flank. Pepe was subject to a robust dressing down. Arsenal’s manager seemed as convinced as anyone on the opposing bench that Slavia were going to score. His players proceeded to turn his nightmare into a reality, Lukas Provod being allowed to dance into the area and fire a shot at Bernd Leno’s near post before the resulting corner saw Holes overpower Cedric Soares, the smallest player in the home team who was tasked with defending the back post.
This is not irretrievable for Arsenal though Slavia will surely learn it is unwise to leave huge tracts of land behind them in Prague if Aubameyang and Pepe are on the pitch. Yet it is hard to trust them when they find it so easy to slip into a spiral of self doubt and fear. If they are to reach the semifinals they will not only have to overcome Slavia on a ground where they have only lost to Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan in the last two seasons. They will also have to slay their own demons.