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Just when it looked like Arsenal had been saved by their most expensive ever hit-man, the “little mafia” somehow managed to shoot themselves in the foot. Now, suddenly, Mikel Arteta’s position as the Godfather of all this mayhem is beginning to look rather less Untouchable than it seemed.
With the prospect of a top-four finish in the Premier League all but killed off in the crossfire of that disastrous defeat to Liverpool at the weekend, Arsenal’s entire season now hinges on their ability to go to Prague next week and undo the late damage here.
It gives Arteta precisely a week to pull together the entire Arsenal family.
He went with the strong response to the abject performance on Saturday night against Liverpool by showing nobody is untouchable.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the skipper, dropped to the bench alongside Nicolas Pepe.
They had been the key figures in what Sky pundit Gary Neville described as the “little mafia” in that 3-0 defeat and Arteta was laying down the law.
The trouble is, there is little wisdom in dispensing with the mafia only to watch their replacements behave like miss-men when you desperately need a hit-man.
Alexandre Lacazette was the worst culprit.
A defensive slip on the half-way line in the 62nd minute and he was away. 15 yards clear of the nearest defender and even the goalkeeper committed himself early by going down. The Arsenal striker’s clip over his body hit the underside of the crossbar.
Then minutes later, Bukayo Saka picked him out four yards out at the far post unmarked and his attempt to turn the ball into the net flew high over the bar.
Saka had been just as guilty in the first half when he broke the offside trap in the 29th minute and somehow pulled his shot wide.
That said, he remained Arsenal’s most potent player and minutes into the second half burst through on goal only to be fouled just outside the box. Willian curled the free kick against the outside of the post.
Yet Arteta waited until the 78th minute to decide the exile was over. Almost immediately, the intensity lifted.
Aubameyang flicked his first attempt wide but in the end it was £72m misfit Pepe that struck – teed up good work from Aubameyang, pouncing on some sloppy defending – to give Arsenal the advantage on home turf with only four minutes of the 90 remaining.
All it needed now from this “little mafia” was some good, old-fashioned mob-handed defending.
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But Arteta’s side could not even do that.
Cedric Soares lost Tomas Holes at the far post and when he headed back from a tight angle all Bernd Leno could do was push the ball into the roof of the net.
Arsenal players pointed fingers, argued among themselves and tempers were raised. Arteta clearly has his work cut out, though he insisted he had made the right call with his team selection.
“It was a big decision to leave some of the players out but we played the best team to start the game and still have some key players to come on and have an impact later on,” he said. “The players stepped in and did absolutely everything.
“What was missing was that when you create big chances you have to score them. We made it more difficult.
“Did I talk to Aubameyang about dropping him? I cannot talk with everybody individually every week. He showed the right attitude when he came on.
“But then we have to manage the game, the last four or five minutes, much better than we did. It’s not what we expect.
“Still, I totally believe we can go there and win the game or I wouldn’t be sitting here. We just need to score goals.”
Arsenal player ratings: Leno 5; Cedric 7, Holding 7, Gabriel 6, Bellerin 6; Xhaka 6, Partey 7 (Elneny 78); Willian 6 (Martinelli 73), Smith Rowe 7 (Ceballos 88), Saka 8 (Pepe 78); Lacazette 5 (Aubameyang 78).
Unused subs: Ryan, Heln, Mari, Nelson, Nketiah, Lopez, Azeez.
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