Napoli vs. Arsenal: A few thoughts on the 1-0 win

   The Gunners qualified for the semifinals of the Europa League by edging Napoli 1-0 in the second leg on Thursday. Only Juventus had previously managed to win at the San Paolo stadium this season.

Napoli vs. ArsenalPhoto credit: Getty Images

   Emery made one change to the side that defeated the Italian side 2-0 a week ago with Xhaka replacing Ozil in the starting lineup. Both teams adopted the same tactical approach as in the first leg. Arsenal pressed high up the pitch to force turnovers. Their high defensive line worked well as the Gli Azzurri were caught offside 5 times in the first half. The Gunners were under siege in the second half because their fitness levels dipped. Napoli mostly relied on balls over the top to crack the Arsenal defense in the first half. After the break, the Gli Azzurri resorted more to crosses because the Gunners switched to a low defensive line.

   It’s quite ironic that Ancelotti was among the candidates to replace Wenger last summer. Napoli’s performance on Thursday was very Wengerian: the hosts enjoyed 67% of ball possession and had 20 shots to just 7 for the Gunners. One typical flaw of the late Arsenal teams was their inefficiency at both ends of the pitch. The Gli Azzurri proved wasteful in front of goal while the Gunners had very few chances but scored on a set piece. Maybe the board will see this result as vindication for choosing Emery over Ancelotti.

  1. Emery’s gamble paid off

   The Spanish manager helped Lacazette recharge his batteries by leaving him on the bench against Watford. Three days later, a fresh Lacazette scored the winning goal against Napoli by curling home a free kick in the 36th minute. The French striker also showed good work-rate, winning 2 of 2 tackles according to whoscored.com. The only blemish in Lacazette’s performance was his weakness in the air as he won only 1 of 6 aerial duels. Seeking to protect Arsenal’s lead, Emery replaced Lacazette with Iwobi in the 68th.    

  1. Ramsey’s race against the clock

   The Wales midfielder was replaced by Mkhitaryan in the 34th after pulling his hamstring. If it’s a strain, Ramsey might be fit for the final, assuming the Gunners knock out Valencia in the next round. But if it’s a tear, this could have been Ramsey’s last game with Arsenal.

   That injury is a blow for Emery because of Ramsey’s unique profile in the squad. Ramsey is a versatile player who can play both in central midfield and in the hole. Emery will therefore have fewer tactical options in midfield since Xhaka, Torreira and Iwobi don’t have Ramsey’s flair for goals while Ozil and Mkhitaryan don’t play in central midfield. Mkhitaryan is the most likely alternative for the No. 10 role in away games. Emery might also have to rely more on Guendouzi and Elneny in central midfield to rest Xhaka and Torreira.  

  1. Monreal was the weak link at the back

   Like in the first leg, Napoli targeted the left side of the Arsenal defense. Insigne made a run in behind Monreal to chase a ball over the top in the 26th but could only produce an air shot. Then Milik ghosted past Monreal to head Zielinski’s chipped pass wide in the 28th. The Spanish defender nearly scored an own goal by diverting a cross from Mario Rui in the 80th.

  1. Maitland-Niles had a rough game

   Napoli focused on the left side of the Arsenal defense in the first half before testing Maitland-Niles in the second half. Insigne rounded the academy graduate in the 47th to cut the ball back for Ruiz, who fired over the bar. Then Insigne made a run in behind Maitland-Niles in the 60th to control a long ball, but his tame effort didn’t trouble Cech. Mario Rui also got the better of Maitland-Niles in the 73rd to make a low cross for Milik. Fortunately, the Napoli forward could only connect with his thigh.

   Maitland-Niles worked hard, winning 2 of 4 tackles and making 2 interceptions, according to whoscored.com. He also led Arsenal starters with a passing accuracy of 85.7%, compared to 79.4% for Kolasinac, 60% for Torreira and 77.4% for Xhaka. But at the top level, winning key duels at both ends of the pitch is what really matters.

  1. It wasn’t Aubameyang’s night

   Aubameyang scored the winner against Watford but lacked a bit of freshness in Italy despite having 3 of 3 shots on target. The Gabon striker tried to be too clever in the 17th and was dispossessed by Koulibaly who launched a counterattack and created Napoli’s first scoring chance. Aubameyang finally had Arsenal’s first shot on target in the 30th with a tame volley from 20 yards. He should have doubled the lead in the 48th when Mkhitaryan squared the ball back. Completely unmarked, Aubameyang took his chance from 9 yards only to be denied by Meret. He escaped marking again to meet a corner at the far post in the 58th but his tame volley was easily saved by Meret. Emery might rest Aubameyang against Crystal Palace this weekend after starting him in the last 3 games in all competitions.  

  1. Cech’s experience made a difference

   The Czech goalkeeper made 2 big saves to keep a clean sheet. He stopped Callejon’s shot with his leg in the 17th and made a reflex save in the 80th to prevent an own goal by Monreal. As a former Chelsea player, Cech remembered a few lessons from Mourinho and was booked in the 74th for time wasting. For the next round, Cech will have to work on his distribution. His passing accuracy dipped to 34.2% against Napoli. Obviously, Cech doesn’t fit Emery’s style of play but he’s the only player in the squad who has won the Europa League.

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