Thank heavens for Wojciech Szczesny. Since the eccentric 21 year old bolstered his way into Arsenal’s first team last December, nights like the one suffered in Greece this evening have become a rarity. Two separate calamities from two different back-up goalkeepers however reminded us of the fragility of Arsenal’s squad.
Wenger will remind critics that this evening’s match resembled a damp squib from his perspective, with his Arsenal side having previously excelled in order to book a premature spot in Friday’s draw for the last 16. More so, first place was guaranteed long before kick off this evening and so fringe players and hungry fledglings replaced those in need of a rest. An accumulation of 19 league points from an available 21 coupled with an unbeaten stroll to Champions League progression has largely been born out of a line-up consistent in both personnel and quality. Those unable to pries their way into the first-choice eleven were given an opportunity this evening. Yossi Benayoun, one of few who left the Karaiskaki Stadium with credit after superbly scoring Arsenal’s goal, lined up alongside the forgotten friends of Arsenal’s squad- Marouane Chamakh, Andrei Arshavin and Sebastian Squillaci. Adding some youthful artistry and determination into a somewhat sterile line up came in the form of Frimpong, Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Despite Thomas Vermaelen and Andre Santos providing some first-choice stability, Lukasz Fabianski and his deputy Vito Mannone helped rid this performance of any assuredness with two goalkeeping performances once synonymous with the modern-day Arsenal. Not helped by an equally recognizable mix-up between Johan Djourou and Squillaci, Fabianski was beaten within 16 minutes when rounded by Djebourr. With Olympiakos still in contention for a qualification spot themselves, the home side was disciplined in pressing Arsenal and tenacious in the tackle. Insecurity soon crept into Arsenal’s play, exemplified initially by Fabianski exposing himself before conceding the opener, and then a number of defensive calamites that followed.
Fabianski, who like his replacement Mannone, has been vocal in his desire to be given more of a chance in the first-team, had to hobble off soon after conceding having collided with Vermaelen. The young Italian was thus given the chance to enter the fray having ousted one more error-prone goalkeeper in Manuel Almunia. Mannone’s own error for the second Olympiakos goal would certainly of been worthy of Almunia however as, having charged 15 yards to head the ball clear, aimed to hook clear the ensuing goal-bound shot whilst retreating back to his goal-line. Rather than clearing his lines, Mannone was defeated by the movement of the ball and looked on in amazement as it trickled past him and into the back of the net.
Though youth may be used to excuse such a haphazard piece of goalkeeping in an undoubtedly intimidating stadium, Mannone’s error was basic and visibly haphazard. The inefficiencies of a back four Wenger promised would be experienced were highlighted with a concession of errors either created by the shakiness of Johan Djourou, or the unorganisation of Sebastian Squilacci. What must concern Wenger is a number of these defenders, and indeed goalkeepers, are a mere injury or suspension away from taking their place in the first team. Déjà vu must have been terrorizing the Frenchman as errors which triggered Arsenal’s torrid end to last season and start to this were common place. 18 year-old Oxlade-Chamberlain and 20 year-old Coquelin arguably looked the most assured players on the pitch, continually let down by Chamakh and Arshavin, the both of whom again failed to justify their places in the side and exposed a lack of attacking options Wenger should address in January. Though more pressing of a concern would have been the ankle injury sustained by Santos, ruling him out of Saturday’s visit of Everton and leaving Wenger with perhaps no choice but to field a back four entirely made up of Centre-Halves.
Despite Benayoun’s wonderfully executed to reduce Olympiakos’s lead, Arsenal will be mightily disappointed with their failure to add to this moment of class. Though the result, which was made worse with Modesto’s last minute tap-in, was essentially irrelevant, the performance will concern both fans and those players expectant of better. A winning mantra recently instilled by the influential displays of the likes of Van Persie and Arteta was all but forgotten in a night that will not live long in the Arsenal memory.