Arsenal learning knockout football lessons from Europa League master Emery
NAPLES, Italy -- The final hour of this tie was played out amid what, by this arena's standards, was near silence. As the last 20 minutes drew in, the population of Stadio San Paolo's famous "Curvas" thinned out to a fraction of their capacity.
Think about what those two sentences mean. They mean that Arsenal came to one of the most feared venues in Europe, faced down a Napoli side that had been strongly tipped to overturn a two-goal deficit, and killed this quarterfinal stone dead against all expectation. It was the kind of performance they are rarely trusted to produce and perhaps it was a vindication, too, of their biggest piece of summer recruitment.
Make no mistake, this was Unai Emery's night. The Europa League specialist came up with a master class and it could prove to define his tenure. Arsenal knew what they were getting when Emery, unproven at the highest level but lavishly decorated on the stage at which they now found themselves, was appointed to replace Arsene Wenger. They need to get back into the Champions League and Emery, three times a winner in this competition with Sevilla, had the pedigree to lead them there via this knockout route.
Now they face his old club, Valencia, on paper a less intimidating prospect than this Napoli side, for a place in the final and -- almost from nowhere -- Emery's team will be favourites to land the trophy they craved.
"I'm very proud of my players and of our work because I think we showed they have the habit of playing against good teams and good players, and show big personality to play," Emery said.
How did they do it? Emery had promised to attack Napoli, to go for the goal that would effectively wrap things up, and it was no bluff. He stuck with Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front, cajoled his players into a high press and saw them suffocate Napoli from the opening moments.
If Carlo Ancelotti's side had been allowed a bright, brisk first 10 minutes, their confidence might have rocketed. Only Juventus had beaten them here this season; Arsenal had, in this competition alone, lost at BATE Borisov and Rennes. Instead, the hosts were penned in, barely allowed out of their own half. The tempo had been set, and so had the tone.
"[In] a big atmosphere, we started very well," Emery said. "We didn't consider the possibility of failing."
It showed. When Napoli did get out, Petr Cech made a big save from Jose Callejon and Arkadiusz Milik awkwardly fluffed a free header. But they were skittish on the pitch and in those cavernous stands, and the stage seemed set for the kind of thunderbolt Lacazette produced. The Frenchman said afterward that he had been practicing free kicks in training; this one, whipped past a wrong-footed Alex Meret from 25 yards, was deadly, and from then on the outcome was never in doubt.
Napoli huffed, puffed and wasted half-chances during the remainder but lacked any semblance of conviction, while Aubameyang was denied a goal of his own by a fine Meret save. It was too late for Ancelotti, a triple Champions League winner but yet to oversee a Europa League title, to respond effectively and it was little surprise to hear him grilled intensively by local media after such a bland exit. He did, however, have praise for Emery's Arsenal.
"They play well in front and defend together," he said. "Not a team that play fantastic football but they are a really intelligent team. They did a good job, deserve the victory and I hope the best for them in the Europa League."
It was gracious and fair. Emery admitted he had wanted Arsenal to be better on the ball but their positioning, their squeezing of space and their discipline were immaculate and a far cry from some of their loose domestic performances against lesser foes. They have raised themselves time and again when big-name opponents come calling this season; it is a legacy of Emery's prowess in knockout football, and his ability to devise a plan that counteracts a rival's strengths while allowing Arsenal to show flashes of their own.
That might not make for scintillating fare, but it is on the verge of taking them where they want to be -- the place Emery was appointed to lead them. Street smarts have not always been Arsenal's strong suit but here Cech was happy to waste time from an early stage, eventually picking up a yellow card, and there were moments such as the outstanding Laurent Koscielny's removal of a boot to stall things as Napoli sought a fightback before half-time.
It was canny knockout fare from start to finish, and the only black spot was an injury to Aaron Ramsey, who departed with a hamstring injury shortly before Lacazette's winner. "I don't know," was Emery's response when asked whether Ramsey, who will join Juventus in the summer, may have played his final game for the club.
Emery hopes they have three more left in this competition, starting with his return to the Mestalla. "I grew up a lot in this competition," he said. Led by the example of their head coach, it seems Arsenal have too.