Arsenal were largely expected to get the better of Vitoria De Guimaraes on Thursday; they had, after all, done precisely that a fortnight earlier, albeit with the benefit of two Nicolas Pepe free-kicks.
However, that home meeting at the Emirates proved more instructive than many might have imagined in terms of difficulty, and by the end here it was the Gunners who were hanging on for the point, despite having taken a late lead.
Afterward, much of the discussion centred upon Arsenal’s almost complete inability to complete passes into the box (the exception was Pepe’s flighted free-kick, which was headed in by Shkodran Mustafi). While that is, in some ways, a function of Unai Emery’s emphasis on building through the wide areas, Nigeria international Mikel Agu deserves quite a bit of credit for his showing on the night.
The 26-year-old was positioned at the base of Vitoria’s 4-1-4-1 system, and as such had no direct opponent in Arsenal’s 3-4-3. Instead, during the game he focused on sliding into covering spaces for his teammates and blocking passing lanes into the forward players.
His understanding with centre-back Edmond Tapsoba was very strong in the former regard. Nominal Arsenal forward Gabriel Martinelli often peeled off into the right channel, and the Burkinabe defender tracked him all the way, confident that Agu would drop into the space in the event of a ball played inside.
When moves broke down, he functioned essentially as a vacuum cleaner, hoovering up a number of loose balls. His use of the ball in these situations was usually urgent, and on one or two occasions he might have been better served taking a touch or putting his foot on it for a while. There were instances of this notably in the eighth minute and the 71st minute; the former, especially, saw him opt for an overly ambitious outside-of-the-boot pass that was intercepted inside the Arsenal half.
That aside, his distribution was tidy without being spectacular. It is worth noting that, in build-up situations, Vitoria seemed to actively avoid playing through him, instead opting for more direct passes into the final third. Unsurprisingly, the most active recipient of his passes was captain Federico Venancio, to whom he would often cushion loose balls.
However, on some occasions he displayed good vision in possession to play more progressively, especially in the latter stages of the game. One such pass inside the Arsenal left wing-back led to a corner, and he was involved in the move that led to the equaliser in somewhat similar fashion.
He also showed great anticipation in stepping up to win second balls and initiate second-phase attacks. In the 10th minute, he read a clearance, was first to it before Nicolas Pepe close to the near-side touchline inside the Arsenal half, and ended up winning a free-kick off the Ivoirian to maintain pressure. On the hour mark, he again stepped in quickly to keep the attack going, chesting the ball off to Marcus Edwards on the right.
If there were question marks over his performance, they involved his handling of players dropping into his zone either side of him. Bukayo Saka spun away from him a little too easily on one or two occasions, as did Martinelli coming short. His judgement of how and when to be tight could do with some improvement.
Agu also is not the best under pressure, especially from his blindside – on one occasion in the 27th minute, he looked panicked when a pass came into him unexpectedly, and his turn away from pressure was awkward and lacked fluidity of movement. In this regard, he could do with scanning better before receiving passes, and staying more switched on at all times.
All in all, it was an understated performance that was nonetheless crucial to the point gained on the night. Agu is an interesting player, at least within the context of the Nigeria national team set-up, in that the Super Eagles’ defensive midfielders in recent times have all been ball and man-oriented in their coverage.
A player like Agu whose attention seems primarily focused on defending zonally and who is comfortable in space is a quite intriguing prospect.