Emery’s faith in Mustafi raises alarm and widens holes in Arsenal defence

Manager once again turned to his blundering centre-back and the attackers had to atone for his team’s defensive failings

Before this match Valencia had always had Arsenal’s number. They had won all three previous ties between the pair and then, in 2016, took £35m off the Gunners for Shkodran Mustafi. That is what people in north London might refer to as being properly mugged off and if it did not exactly make this a grudge match, it at least reinforced the need for Arsenal to win for their own sense of worth, before anything else. That was true for Mustafi more than anyone.

Although the first meeting between these clubs ended in a penalty shootout defeat for Arsenal after a 0-0 draw in the 1980 Cup Winners’ Cup final, it is also remembered for one of the great performances by an Arsenal centre-back, as David O’Leary subdued Valencia’s World Cup-winning striker Mario Kempes. That is the sort of precedent by which Mustafi is judged and before this game the jury’s view of the German had reached its dimmest, with the evidence of his three years’ service leading many to conclude he is among the worst recruits in the club’s history.

Unai Emery’s recent pleas for clemency cut little ice in the wake of Mustafi’s blunders amid a three-game domestic losing streak. The manager had not even sounded convinced himself, as his contention that Mustafi has been “very consistent” was accompanied by the observation that “sometimes he can play very well”. Which almost contained the admission that sometimes he can play very badly.

When the starting lineup was announced, Mustafi’s inclusion on the right side of a three-man central defence drew an audible sigh from some in the home crowd and, no doubt, a grimace of joy from that strain of Arsenal fan who is happiest when raging at the team’s failings.

Arsenal fans could only hope their team’s attacking would hide the holes in their defence. They started well. Mustafi even won applause in the sixth minute when he took down a high ball near the touchline and offloaded it without incident to Ainsley Maitland-Niles. But it did not take long for Arsenal’s defensive flaws to resurface. No surprise, in fairness, given the skimpy cover from their midfield.

Alarms were raised even before the 11th minute, when Valencia opened the scoring by exposing negligence at a corner. Rodrigo found space beyond the back post to head across goal and Mouctar Diakhaby nodded into the net from two yards while Mustafi, Granit Xhaka and Alexandre Lacazette watched and wondered what was happening.

Arsenal were flimsy and incoherent but, sometimes even when like that and even without Aaron Ramsey to link midfield and attack, they can rely on bursts from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Lacazette to atone for other failings. So it proved. Lacazette soon put them in front with a pair of finely crafted goals. The second was most satisfying because Arsenal made a centre-back on the other side look clownish, Facundo Roncaglia twirling in laughable confusion as Xhaka’s delicate cross flew over him to the head of Lacazette. The goalkeeper, Neto, was cackhanded, too.

Arsenal had the lead but could never relax. Heads shook when Mustafi barged into Carlos Soler and expressed his customary bewilderment at being penalised for an undeniable foul. There was a sharp intake of breath as the German waited for a high ball to come down near the edge of his own area with attackers bearing down on him. He kept his eye on it and hoofed it clear to loud cheers. The successful completion of a basic defensive chore inspires relief at Arsenal these days. Laurent Koscielny’s ovation near the hour was harder earned, the Frenchman thwarting Gonçalo Guedes with a superb diving header.

When Lacazette perpetrated two uncharacteristic misses, wasting wonderful chances to make Arsenal comfortable, anxiety mounted. But in the last minute, in a team that does not yet make sense under Emery, the galumphing menace that is Sead Kolasinac produced a cross of sweet finesse, leaving Aubameyang to make this win more heartening. But not to mask the imbalance and sense of lurking chaos that inhabits this team. Arsenal may reach the final next week, but not before more scares.