Rotten to the core

Immediate Afterthoughts

Where do I even start? A home loss to a team starting the day in 16th place. Winless in 9 (NINE!), a record stretching back to March 1977 (courtesy of @Orbinho).When Xhaka stormed off the pitch some 5 weeks ago, I said that our problems ran deeper than just one man. The same can be said after the departure of Unai Emery, such is the magnitude of these dire straits.

The sheer range and depth of our problems is just staggering. Confidence, mentality, ability, fight, intelligence, positioning, formation, awareness. It feels endless. If that wasn’t bad enough, we even had to endure Alan Pardew’s stupid, smug, jowly makeup-caked face as he bleated on about our problems.

A deflated but calm Freddie Ljungberg said after the game that the players are low on confidence and that they should be starting games in the same manner that we started the second half. What he can do about that on such an indefinite basis remains to be seen because these players appear to have the collective mental fortitude of a toddler.

In some ways, it’s almost redundant to talk about the game because for all of the brighter moments, there was so much familiarity to the way in which the game unfolded. I’m still going to, for what it’s worth, but this was the first time in a while where I was genuinely surprised by what this team can do. I actually underestimated just how bad things were – I chalked up the game against Norwich as Freddie not having enough time to prepare, with the players still licking their wounds from Thursday’s finale and Friday’s announcement. What we saw last night was confirmation that things are very wrong from top to bottom within the club and no amount of club legends being thrown into the mix seem to be able to stop this hemorrhage. I really thought Emery going and a former player of Freddie’s stature would the catalyst for change, but another barren crowd and mostly timid performance has put that to bed.

The Match

I had plenty of mixed feelings before the game about the starting lineup.

Sokratis coming back in for Mustafi was the “safe” change, reverting back to our “best available” pairing of the season despite Sokratis’ generally woeful form.

Torreira in for Guendouzi was a call for control. For Xhaka’s faults, he can distribute the ball effectively in the right circumstances and having Lucas Torreira alongside him shoulders some of that burden. That’s not to say Guendouzi is incapable of doing so, but it is a more natural responsibility for Torreira. Xhaka ended up having one of his better performances and bailed us out on more than one occasion.

The front four remained unchanged and Pépé’s omission was perhaps the biggest surprise. After Norwich, I was sure he’d start – eased back into a first team starting with a routine home game against struggling Brighton. Hah.

The warning signs were there; Brighton are no pushovers away from home, giving Liverpool a run for their money at the weekend and it was more of the same last night. They created more chances, were far more assured across the pitch and most importantly, they actually took their chances.

The calm before the storm (the early stages)

Although the foundations were laid against Norwich, we did at least attempt to press in the early stages. I’d almost become accustomed to opposition players just striding into our half and making unchallenged passes under Emery and seeing us harrying their goalkeeper and back-line time and again was great to see.

What VAR are doing instead of watching Lacazette’s shirt being removed, I don’t know but as VAR giveth last week, this week they giveth not. Not much changed for the second or third corners but there we go.

Although there were a few promising moves going forward , the defensive frailties were still there and Brighton were perhaps unlucky to not be ahead at one point. It’s hard to say whether it was down to good play by Brighton – they had quite a lot of success on the left wing with some good trickery – or by Arsenal being Arsenal. It didn’t take long for confirmation.

There was a creeping sense of unease as Brighton grew into the game as the Emirates echo chamber took hold. As is so often the case, that pressure materialised into a goal and I can’t say Brighton didn’t deserve it.

For all of his energy, Joe Willock was somewhat of a pariah in the first half, struggling to make an impact with some lax passing and mistimed runs.

It did eventually spark a bit of life and the best Arsenal chance of the half fell to Joe Willock but he was unable to place it either side of the keeper. His poor first half was epitomised in the closing minutes after failing to find Aubameyang, as the captain gave him a right earful in response.

I’m never sure how to react when I see that on the pitch, especially from your captain to a player as raw as Willock. The nature vs. nurture dichotomy is just as apparent in football and we’ve seen it before with the likes of Henry, who was no stranger to publicly airing his displeasure. Willock certainly should’ve done better but Aubameyang’s reaction was one of real frustration. Needless to say, Willock was the sacrificial lamb to accommodate Pépé at half time.

Pépé’s involvement and quality was immediately obvious and you couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t starting. The words on everyone’s lips.

The goal came from an unlikely source – a near-post header reminiscent of Olivier Giroud and not something I thought was in Lacazette’s locker. I’d even been thinking it was strange that he’d had been on the end of a few near post-headers in the first half but this was the best of the bunch, even if it was half-bundled in via the post/keeper/defender/Kolasinac. I really thought that would be “game on”, and although there was a resurgence, it proved to be ultimately short-lived.

Contrary to our tendencies under Emery, instead of resting on our laurels after a goal, we did manage to keep up that pressure for a time. Even after the goal, seeing Kolasinac frogmarch the ball back to the centre-circle was a good sign of fight and I thought we had actually – finally – woken up. I’ve been critical of him on more than one occasion this season, not for anything overly damning – more his unpredictability and inconsistent quality in the final third – but there was so much to like about his tenacity and drive.

The game got all a bit nuts after that. Pépé grew into the game more and more, Sideshow Bob put the ball away with aplomb only to be ruled offside (eventually), there were tackles flying in all over the shop. The question was whether we could capitalise on this ascendancy.

I stupidly thought it was going to be one-way traffic. Like teams of old who would relentlessly build momentum when chasing games, throwing on 4-5 forwards and going for it. It was Brighton who found the quality as this team again fell victim in conceding against the run of play. Credit where it’s due, it was a good header. The build-up was another entry of Sunday League defending though and we couldn’t have made it easier for them. Returning to the starting lineup, I thought Sokratis would be sharp as a tack but the way he was drawn out of position so far by Brighton was just so, so basic – the kind of ball-chasing you see in an under-8s game. I really thought that was hardwired into professional footballer’s brains.

(Funnily enough, the same could be said of the other game of the night, as Jonjo Shelvey beat the offside trap while the Sheffield back-line stood there with their hands up. Play to the whistle…)

As we found ourselves chasing the game again, Brighton controlled the play, retained possession and defended as a unit. They even came close to extending their lead if not for Bernd Leno. Gabriel Martinelli had another brief spell and was the closest to bringing the game level but he didn’t have much time to make an impact. He is one who will be struggling to understand why he’s not starting at this point because both Lacazette and Aubameyang were poor last night, with the Frenchman’s form – irrespective of goals – being a real cause for concern. This team struggles to score goals, especially from open play as our last 3 goals have all come from set pieces, so I can understand the frustration if they feel like they’re not getting service but I just didn’t sense a willingness to make things happen themselves. Instead, it was more sulkiness, clashing with teammates and wasted opportunities.

Where do we go from here?

When it rains, it pours and our December schedule looks nothing short of painful on paper.

West Ham (A)9/12
Man City (H)15/12
Everton (A)21/12
Bournemouth (A)26/12
Chelsea (H)29/12

As we found to our misfortune last night, how things look on paper is rarely what you end up with – I’m sure looking at the teamsheet and opposition last night, few could have predicted that result. That being said, it’s not looking great.

Freddie should still be thinking about what his best lineup and formation is. It may have eluded Unai Emery, something which really exacerbated the confusion we see on a weekly basis, but for me, that’s a priority. Picking the most in-form players, in their preferred positions. That means dropping Lacazette, starting Torreira (again), molding a front-line around Özil and finding a defensive partnership that works. Luiz-Mustafi and Luiz-Sokratis are both busts, neither of which I ever want to see again so why not give Chambers a chance in the middle? We can’t get any worse there so I don’t see harm in trying.

Looking forward, Pépé and Martinelli have to be starting. Pépé’s ability to beat players and work chances in the box – even his set-piece quality – is something we clearly need. Martinelli is one of the few players who shows real fight every time he’s played and while I don’t want to see his confidence dragged down to the depths of the rest of the team, I feel like a run of games is nothing short of what he’s deserved and really could turn our fortunes around with a few goals. “Competition for places” is a phrase bandied around a lot and with good reason – players can never be complacent about their position in a team. If you’re in the starting lineup, you need to earn that spot every week with your performance on matchdays and in training and there’s more than a few who look a little bit too complacent for my liking.

Looking further up the chain, KSE are another kettle of fish and since we are powerless in doing anything about them, I prefer to leave them out, however frustrated about them I feel about them and their continued involvement with our club. I do wonder what’s going through Raul, Edu, and Vinai’s heads, though. For starters, I’d love to know their reasoning for waiting until after the international break because that really hasn’t helped matters. We have no idea as to what kind of timeframe Freddie is working on – he’s obviously refused to disclose any details, but he is at least taking every game as it comes. Away to West Ham on 9th December doesn’t leave much room to work with, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Until next time.

Photo courtesy of Football.London

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