It’s not often that I’m completely at a loss for words but what I saw this afternoon was such a muddled mess, I’m really struggling. For the second time in four days, the result lay on a knife-edge and where Thursday was the yin, today’s performance was certainly our yang.
Saving the customary omission of Özil, I thought today’s lineup was just about our strongest available to Emery when I saw the teamsheet. His refusal to use Lucas Torreira appropriately in his teams certainly complicates this decision, but that was my take at least.
The frenzied first half started predictably enough – a free header to Crystal Palace in the 3rd minute, which could’ve easily put us behind. That predictability soon went out the window in the 7th minute with Sokratis’ stabbed finish after a crucial knockdown from the much-maligned Granit Xhaka. Pépé really didn’t waste time picking up where he left off after Thursday, with his contributions to the first and seconal goal a welcome change in set piece quality after what has been a frustrating period without a natural provider from these areas. The second in as many minutes came from another unlikely source but to score twice from set pieces against a team with Gary Cahill at the centre is a positive sign at the very least. Whether we made the right choice in opting for Luiz over Cahill is another matter entirely…
There was a degree of fortuity and scrapiness with the goals but I’ll take them any day of the week, if anything for Aubameyang’s sake and sanity that there are actually goals elsewhere in this team. I’ve spoken at length about our over-reliance on individual brilliance (“there’s no ‘i’ in team but there’s five in individual brilliance” isn’t a quip I want Emery to learn anytime soon) so it really was a bizarre juxtaposition to be 2-0 up inside 10 minutes thanks to a goal apiece from our centre-halves.
The early goals seemed to give us an edge and I was pleased to see us winning 50/50s and the like. We were competitive, were playing with pace and actually created some chances from open play, with Lacazette and Pépé coming close and Aubameyang almost finding himself through on goal – on another day, his first touch wouldn’t be his undoing and we’d likely have been 3-0 up. It wasn’t to be though and the predictability of our vulnerabilities came back to bite us. The first real chance Zaha had to run at us, he used to full effect and (eventually) won his team the penalty. I don’t have any complaints with Atkinson’s decision being overturned – Zaha might make the most of it but there’s enough deliberate contact and I suspect many would be aggrieved if someone like Saka or Pépé was on the receiving end. Milivojevic made no mistake but that was to be expected after his consistency at Selhurst Park last season.
Despite all the positivities of the first half, I was a bit taken aback by the half time statistics: we may have had the lion’s share of the chances but we were second-best for possession and total passes. For a team to be 2-0 up at home inside the first 10 minutes to post figures like that is cause for concern. Until this season, the Emirates has been a stalwart of our strength and I would hate if it were to lose that certain “je ne sais quoi.”
The heroes of the first half resumed their usual responsibilities of lax defending and ball-watching with their complicity in the second goal, which was so damning in so many ways. Questions can be asked about why Xhaka – a man who is 99% left foot (except when he’s shooting strangely) – was deputising as a right back, but he’s still got to do better in preventing the cross. The real blame lies with David Luiz however. Saving a cursory glance when it was already too late, Luiz seemed completely oblivious as to Ayew’s whereabouts and his ballwatching was painfully basic. A man of his experience has got to do better but therein lies the problem – we all knew about some of his tendencies before we signed him. He’s good for grabbing a goal, can take some wicked free kicks but when it all comes down to it, he’s a defender and time and again, we’ve seen these kinds of amateur mistakes from him.
The highs of the first half head start quickly unravelled and the chaos we’ve become accustomed to returned. Chances became few and far between and I honestly don’t remember us even creating a chance in the first 30 minutes of the second half. It was at this point that the match really reared it’s head with the departure of Granit Xhaka. We needed change and for the second time, Xhaka was the sacrificial lamb but the real question is whether he’s a a deserving scapegoat (no more ovine/caprine idioms from me now).
I had real sympathy for him as he came off. One of my lowest points as a fan was attending the infamous game where Eboue was hauled off after coming on as a substitute to a chorus of boos. The Emirates was ugly that day – I was ashamed to be there – and I felt the same feeling in my stomach today. “Class is permanent” is one of our unofficial mottos and what I saw and heard today was the polar opposite to that. I’m not Xhaka’s biggest fan but what he was subjected to was absolutely unacceptable. I very much feel like he is the biggest victim under Emery’s Arsenal; seemingly the first name on the teamsheet but to some, the chief architect of our problems. If there’s one thing that can be said about him, he always gives his all and to see him jeered like that and his reaction was sad – I don’t blame him in the slightest for his pained and explosive reaction. It was almost symbolic him ripping his shirt off and then heading straight for the tunnel – I do wonder what the fallout will be from today’s episode. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no place in football for being fickle – you either get behind the team or you don’t bother at all. More to the point, no good can come from that kind of treatment. By all means, rant ’til your throat is hoarse after the game but there’s no excuse for what we saw today. David Luiz was more culpable for the goal in my book, and yet Xhaka is the one leaving feeling aggrieved. Our problems run far, far deeper than one man.
For the second game in a row, Ozil was serenaded – the creative dearth in this side again evident. The clock ticked down and I again found myself wondering if we would even create a chance despite Emery throwing on Saka and more strangely, Kolasinac.
That chance did come around and just as VAR giveth in the first half, it taketh in the second. I’ve been crying out for consistency in Premier League officiating for some time. I never thought VAR would be the answer but for it to not only add even more inconsistency – seemingly swinging from one game to another depending on the relative egos and whims of the referee on the pitch against the ones in the back room – it’s already on several occasions realised the fear of many, that it would kill the excitement, for fans and players alike. Seeing Sokratis score and celebrate in such a manner, only for the buzz to be swept out from under him was devastating, both as an Arsenal fan and a football fan. This feeling was only compounded by the ridiculous nature of the decision, which was nothing more than a 50/50 that Chambers happened to win. If VAR was actually paying attention, surely the body check on Chambers prior to his alleged infringement would’ve taken precedence but that may just be asking too much of them. I know many fans have felt eqully aggrieved this season and although many expected their to be teething problems, VAR seems to be exceeding expectations of frustration.
Another bad day at the office for Unai’s Arsenal, and one which I feel has done lasting damage in more ways than one.