BATE Borisov 1 Arsenal 0
What on earth have Arsenal become? Or what are they even trying to become? These questions cut raggedly through the cold air as Unai Emery’s strange team toiled against Belarusian opponents who have been on a winter break and not played a competitive game for nine weeks. Bate Borisov still managed to more than nullify the best this current flawed Arsenal incarnation could offer and inflict a defeat that was as worrying for its style as for the result.
In a competition that Emery is desperate to win for the dual prize of a trophy and the ticket back into Champions League, a tournament in which he has a personal history of triumph, Arsenal suffered a chastening evening with no redeeming features. Low on creativity, high on the kind of sudden defensive lapses that cried out to be exploited for an enterprising opponent, their excursion ended with an extra blow as Alexandre Lacazette was sent off for catching Aleksandar Filipovic with an elbow.
Arsenal must buck up their ideas to salvage the tie next Thursday at the Emirates before they can begin to think more seriously about how far they are capable of going in this tournament.
It speaks volumes for the scale of change since Arsenal visited the Borisov Arena in last season’s edition of the Europa League that out of the 18-man squad who came during Arsène Wenger’s final campaign, only four travelled this time. Most of last season’s headline players here – Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere – feel part of a different era.
The really complicated bit is that last year's crop, who won 4-2 here, were unmistakably the B team, players who were struggling to get into Arsenal's Premier League selection. This was Emery's selection more or less at full strength, barring injuries and illness, and they found the going extremely heavy. Shaping a new Arsenal identity is not a particularly simple task in a squad that still has a transitional feel. This game finished with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and until his red card Lacazette chasing the game, with the loan signing Denis Suárez from Barcelona trying to make an impression in weird circumstances. Alex Iwobi and Sead Kolasinac were the pick of the bunch for Arsenal but overall they lacked precision and direction in too many departments.
In a place famous for its tractor factory the pitch looked as if it might have been mown by one. Emery insisted the conditions would never be considered an excuse and his team duly started with a flash of speed and focus working the goalkeeper in the second minute. Iwobi and Kolasinac combined to set up Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose shot was smothered by Denis Scherbitski. Little did they know that was about as good as it was going to get.
If it gave a first impression Bate were not in the best possible shape – in fairness the Belarusian champions are in pre-season – that was soon shattered as the team from Borisov began to run with energetic intent at Arsenal’s defensive weak spots. The bubbly Maksim Skavysh enjoyed the freedom to drive forwards at a variety of angles and put pressure on the visitors.
Petr Cech held his ground to save an angled shot from the forward, who was adept at creating as well. Twice he followed direct runs with a pass for his teammate Nemanja Milic to try to stab in.
Arsenal struggled for a foothold, not able to control the midfield area against opponents who had the old maverick Alex Hleb ambling around like an elegant yet elderly deer. The 37-year-old had postponed his retirement for this tie, a sentimental decision for sure, but his teammates’ enthusiasm around him made it feel worthwhile and his soft foot shuffle was still in tune after all these years.
Just before the break Arsenal's defence was punctured and for a moment it felt as if this little spaceship stadium in the middle of the Belarusian forest might take off. The Bate supporters were a picture of euphoric disbelief as Stanislav Dragun lost his marker and showed the aerial strength to glance in from a free-kick.
Throughout an underwhelming first half the clearest Arsenal chance fell to Lacazette from a scooped Kolasinac cross and the Frenchman looked a little sheepish at putting the ball over the crossbar when unmarked. He found the net after the break but the effort was ruled out for offside.
Bate were not content just to hold what they had as Cech made two vital second half saves and attention now sharpens for next week’s second leg.
Without the suspended Lacazette, Arsenal will still hope to have enough quality at home to turn this around next week. They might have Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey back to help knit the gameplan together. It all feels like backs against the wall time in the Europa League that supposedly means so much.