The openness of Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Napoli can be reflected by the fact that both sides will feel disappointed they did not get more out of this Europa League quarterfinal first leg. The home side had chances to extend their advantage and put the tie out of reach, while Napoli wasted presentable opportunities after recovering from a dreadful start.
But that it is advantage Arsenal, ahead of the return in Naples next Thursday, is due to the electric start they made to the contest and, in particular, the performances of two central midfielders. Lucas Torreira, once of Sampdoria, and Aaron Ramsey, who will join Juventus after this season, are Serie A past and future. respectively. and both stormed forward against Italian opposition.
It has been rare to see the two play as a partnership this season, in part because of Granit Xhaka — out injured on Thursday — and also because Arsenal manager Unai Emery has been reluctant to use Ramsey in a deeper role.
But this game saw an attack-minded home side featuring Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang upfront and Mesut Ozil in the No. 10 role, plus Ramsey bursting forward and Torreira creating from further back.
The front three rarely combined effectively despite showing willing, so Arsenal’s best moves came from midfielders, who overpowered the exposed Allan and Fabian Ruiz; Napoli’s 4-4-2 system rendered them unsure whether to keep tight to Ozil or shut down Ramsey and Torreira.
The first goal was a delight. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, outstanding at right wing-back, dribbled across the halfway line and slipped in Ozil, who held up play, pivoted and found Ramsey. He returned possession to Ozil, who played a first-time pass to the right for Lacazette. The ball moved into the Napoli penalty area to Maitland-Niles, who controlled, turned and prodded a pass into the path of Ramsey.
The Welsh international swept the ball into the far corner for one of those classic Arsenal goals that features forward running and neat interplay. It was not quite Jack Wilshere against Norwich or Tomas Rosicky vs. Sunderland, but a wonderful move nevertheless, of the type Napoli used to produce under Maurizio Sarri.
There were no passes in the build-up to Arsenal’s second, which also featured a deflected finish, but it underlined the hosts’ aggression and Torreira’s all-round qualities. Pushing up to dispossess Allan inside Napoli’s half, Torreira motored toward goal and shaped to shoot with his right foot before cutting back and striking with his left foot. The hot deflected in off defender Kalidou Koulibaly.
It was a concise summary of Arsenal’s midfield dominance, and Napoli looked shell-shocked. More goals seemed inevitable: Ozil skipped past a dreadful Mario Rui challenge with remarkable nonchalance, while Aubameyang’s pull-back to Lacazette should have produced a better finish than the French striker’s air kick, and Maitland-Niles slipped in Aubamayeng for a chipped effort that did not quite have enough elevation.
But the stroke of halftime brought a warning sign. Jose Callejon broke down the right and played a measured pull-back to Lorenzo Insigne in space between Arsenal’s back three, who retreated toward goal, and midfielders who were too high up the pitch. Insigne blasted over, but it was a reminder that Arsenal lack a positionally disciplined player in the centre of the pitch.
Having looked vulnerable in front of their defence, Arsenal’s problem after the break came behind it. Despite showing little inclination to press in midfield, Laurent Koscielny ordered a high line, which repeatedly threatened to backfire.
Insigne, dropping deep to influence play, knocked a wonderful chip over the back line that narrowly eluded Dries Mertens; any touch would surely have brought a goal. Then a simple pass in behind released Insigne on the right and his low cross was met by the sliding Piotr Zielinski, but he could only divert the ball wide.
Emery tried to tighten things up: Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan replaced Ozil and Lacazette as the Gunners moved from a 3-4-1-2 formation to a 3-4-2-1, which actually played out more like 5-4-1; but more significant was the introduction of Mohamed Elneny for Torreira in a bid to keep things tight in front of the defence.
Afterward, Emery declared he was “50 percent” happy with the score, but he said the tie was 50-50 in terms of who will progress.
“The two halves were very different,” Emery said. “In the first half, we controlled the match with the ball and the positioning, and we could attack the box with players and the ball. The second half is different for us; they pushed more, they took control with the ball and had more possession than us.”
Emery also suggested that Arsenal would take the game to Napoli in the second leg.
“We’re going to prepare the match, the game plan, and the idea doesn’t change,” he added. “We want to win every match, and our target is going to be — away, also — to win the match. But they are very strong at home.”
For his part, Napoli’s Carlo Ancelotti acknowledged Arsenal “were aggressive, really aggressive in the first half,” before insisting his side still has some hope: “The San Paolo will be different. We have to play with a lot of intensity. 3-0 would have been impossible. 2-0 we have a chance, but not a lot.”
Arsenal’s weakness this season has been their away form, but a single goal in Naples would leave the home side needing four. From that point of view, Emery might consider that another attack-minded XI could be the best way to secure passage into the last four of the competition.