Arsenal 1-2 Östersund (agg 4-2) Miserable Gunners lose but progress after all
Arsenal are through, Ostersund are out. But it is a magnificent performance from the Swedish side. The biggest credit I can give them is that I genuinely thought at half-time that they could pull off the upset, such was the quality of their play.
A silly error at the beginning of the second half took away their momentum, but it’s still probably the best result in their history.
Humiliation was narrowly averted but, as an audition for Sunday’s League Cup final against Manchester City, Arsenal’s fringe players delivered the footballing equivalent of forgetting all their lines and then falling off the stage in a big heap.
Yes, they did ultimately ensure their place in the last 16 of the Europa League by an aggregate 4-2 scoreline but, having fallen 2-0 down against a club who have been in existence for less time than Arsene Wenger has been Arsenal manager, the wobble was spectacular.
In isolation, a 2-1 defeat on the night was also still among the worst results in Arsenal’s entire history. Ostersunds, after all, are making their debut in European competition and had played this fixture amid limited training due to freezing conditions back home and a break since December in the Swedish league.
It all raises significant questions ahead of Sunday’s final. Alex Iwobi, who hobbled off injured, Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Mohamed Elneny all started here and are realistically in competition for two remaining starting spaces but did nothing to advance their case.
If the sight of numerous empty seats suggested that Arsenal’s fans were either supremely confident or just disinterested in the prospect of facing Ostersunds FK, the 4,500 supporters in the away section told you everything about the enormity of this fixture for their opponents.
It effectively meant that 10 per cent of the population of Ostersund was at The Emirates for what was comfortably the most glamorous match in their history. It created an unusual atmosphere.
The surroundings might all have been familiar to the Arsenal players but most of the noise was for their visitors. The feeling of an away fixture was perhaps also compounded by Arsenal’s generous willingness to play in all blue in the knowledge that Ostersunds FK’s only two kits – red or white – would have clashed with their own home strip.
Arsenal’s initial mindset could also not have been more welcoming. The players seemed somewhere trapped between those who felt they needed only to turn up to win and those who were genuinely nervous.
Complacency appeared to most afflict the experienced players furthest forward. Avoiding injury had perhaps been a priority for those who had a realistic chance to play at Wembley on Sunday and, consequently, the likes of Wilshere, Iwobi, Welbeck and Mohamed Elneny were initially anonymous.
The wider problem was then a centre-back partnership in Rob Holding and Calum Chambers between two players who have long seemed to be struggling with their confidence followed very mixed spells up in the first team.
Add in Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac’s desire to push forward from full-back and Arsenal could scarcely have made themselves more vulnerable.
Ostersunds FK quickly sensed their opportunity and, while the possession statistics might have been in Arsenal’s favour, the best chances were being created by their opponents.
Captain Brwa Nouri was a persistent threat breaking from midfield and, after a move that also involved Jamie Hopcutt – an English midfielder who played previously for Tadcaster Albion in the Northern Premier League – Arsenal were cut wide open.
Nouri, though, just miss-controlled the final pass to spare Arsenal. Ken Sema also had an early sight of goal but his low shot was saved by David Ospina.
Arsenal had been warned but did not heed the danger signals. Holding had wondered forward into a midfield area when Arsenal lost the ball, allowing Hosam Aiesh to gratefully sprint into space between Chambers and Kolasinac before shooting past Ospina.
More dreadful defending followed as soon as the game restarted, with Ken Sema turning Chambers with embarrassing ease before himself shooting past Ospina.
Wenger had included two senior defenders in Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal on the bench and, whether directly instructed or not, they immediately rose to their feet and began warming up.
Only 23 minutes had been played. Arsenal did then recover some semblance of rhythm for the rest of the half but still scarcely threatened, with Wilshere shooting wastefully over from their best chance following Mkhitaryan’s freekick.
Wenger had clearly decided that his team lacked midfield presence and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who with Elneny had provided such scarce defensive protection, was replaced by Granit Xhaka.
Arsenal did immediately improve and, after Bellerin’s cross was only partially cleared by Ronald Mukiibi, Kolasinac finished emphatically to restore a two goal aggregate cushion.
Wilshere then released Welbeck, whose attempted chip finish was comfortably gathered by Ostersunds goalkeeper Aly Keita. Arsenal had regained some composure but they were still further lapses.
After a towering Hopcutt header, Mukiibi missed an opportunity to further narrow the deficit and, while Elneny and especially Welbeck wasted chances to end the tie, Arsenal never once looked comfortable.
They will take their place in Friday’s draw but this all still somehow felt like a further chapter in the recent football fairytale of Ostersunds FK and their inspirational English manager Graham Potter.