Trepidation as to where our goals would come from with Aubameyang’s absence, heightened by Mustafi’s unexpected inclusion and unpredictability, topped off with Mike Dean and his proclivity to be a bastard, give penalties against us and generally act like an egomaniac. You could say I had my doubts. Sheffield United have been this season’s revelation (closed followed by Leicester) and a win always felt like a tall ask. 3 losses in our last 4 home games also didn’t help matters.
Seeing Saka and Martinelli in the starting lineup went some ways in allaying these feelings, just because they’re two players I always enjoy watching. On paper, it felt like the right approach, despite Arteta’s limited hand with Sokratis sidelined through illness and Nelson picking up a suspected hamstring injury in training.
It was a frenetic start, one which didn’t necessarily suit us, and Sheffield were surprisingly open. The times I’ve watched them this season, they’ve always struck me as disciplined and compact, so it was a welcome change but not without it’s dangers. Sheffield have some real quality in their deliveries, and Mustafi’s early nerves led to some wayward passing which only exacerbated my worries. In fairness to him, he did eventually settle and put in a respectable shift alongside David Luiz, who continues to look like an entirely different player to Emery’s interpretation of him. I wouldn’t say we set the tempo, but it at least felt like a home game in our approach.
I wondered if Pépé would struggle against Sheffield for the same reasons. He sometimes has the tendency to “overrun” with the ball, trying to beat one too many players or not releasing early enough. Instead, some of our best play in the first half came from him, skipping through players with ease and giving them real problems. There’s a real dearth of goals in this team – particularly from midfield – but with a few more deadly additions to this team, I think we’ll see the best from the Ivorian. He’s been steadily improving as the season’s progressed and the end product is slowly materialising.
While our midfield shape and balance is considerably better under Arteta, I still have my doubts with how the trio of Özil, Torreira and Xhaka quite slot together going forward. Markedly better defensively, there’s still a real lack of incision going forward. Özil isn’t the force he once was and for all the renewed fight shown since Arteta’s arrival, his end product on paper still leaves much to be desired, with just 3 assists since the start of last season. We need alternative goalscorers and those numbers just don’t add up, regardless of the work-rate and more subtle offensive contributions Özil makes.
While we enjoyed a degree of freedom in our passing and movement, particularly down both wings and “through the channels”, it felt like that was rather the length of our leash afforded to us by Wilder (and given the circumstances of our goal, I feel like that’s a fair assessment). Take nothing away from Martinelli or Saka though; the cross might have looped fortuitously but it was just rewards for the pair, who were dangerous and tenacious all afternoon. I’d thought the first half was petering out, but we saved our best period of pressure for the dying moments. There’s no luck involved in that positioning though – that was a striker’s instinct goal – and it’s why Martinelli is our second-highest scorer this season. I’ve never liked terms like “tap-in merchant” (not that Martinelli is by any measure, he just happens to have scored quite a few goals this season from close range), because it really isn’t a common trait. Some players seem to be born with it, some players have the ability to learn it but most fall short and it’s often the difference between the good and the greats. It’s obviously still incredibly premature to be making prophetic claims about Martinelli’s trajectory, but for me, he’s our brightest prospect and his performance yesterday was just another convincing entry in his repertoire – and that’s saying something given how many exciting academy players are making that leap into the senior team.
Saka also had another impressive afternoon, enjoying plenty of snaking jaunts into Sheffield’s half, while still looking far from out of place defensively. I know he had experience in that position at youth level but it’s another thing entirely to seamlessly assume the role at senior level, especially when he’s been deployed in a range of positions this season. It might be a bit of a stretch, but I’m beginning to question whether we actually need to bring in any more fullbacks. I’d be hard pressed to choose between Bellerín and Ainsley from what I’ve seen this season, and we now seem to have a choice of three left backs. It’s an interesting question of development and coaching when you see two players perform so well in Ainsley and Saka; both athletic, both products of the Hale End academy and both are really seizing the opportunities they’ve been given, rising to the challenge of playing outside of their “favoured” positions. I’d even argue they’re outperforming their naturalised counterparts in some aspects but that’s not an entirely fair comparison given the injuries that have plagued Tierney and Bellerín.
One notable divergence that stood out to me was Ainsley’s distribution. I don’t know if it was circumstantial given how stretched the game was, or if it was by direction but he tried quite a few “ambitious” passes. Rather than going through the motions of playing out from the back, there seemed to be an urgency to release the ball quickly. One advantage of having a retrofitted midfielder at right back, I suppose. Mustafi and Luiz also had their moments, with the former actually having the best of the bunch with a 45+ yard diagonal long ball, which I wasn’t actually aware he was capable of. He’s obviously a confidence player (that’s the only way I can rationalise some of the things I’ve seen him do) but after settling into the game, he rose to the challenge.
I don’t usually like to dwell on “what could have been” with decisions going against us. We know officiating leaves much to be desired but the cocktail of officiating we were served up today – served in a polonium-210 chalice – was a real source of ire for me.
For me, it’s a blatant penalty, the kind you often see given on an almost weekly basis. Atkinson took all of 10 seconds to decide in the eye in the sky, Mike Dean apparently didn’t get the memo for referees to start consulting the pitch side monitors and we were denied. It’s nigh-on identical to the penalties we conceded against Vardy and Zaha this season. Zaha’s was even over-turned by VAR, which was for me, a softer penalty. Whether Pepe would have been dispossessed is completely irrelevant, contrary to some of the inane punditry chatter I had to endure.
I thought about shoehorning quite a lengthy exposé into this piece but I don’t want to bore you to death after a disappointing result, so that will be the subject of an upcoming standalone piece instead. For now, you can mull over the following:
I appreciate that Premier League officiating is no easy task. What I can’t abide with is the staggering levels of inconsistency and prevaricating we see so often. If I hear that officials are being told to use pitch-side monitors, I expect to see that across the board. Some referees got the message, some didn’t. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise though, as Mike Riley sits atop of PGMOL, the organisation behind match officials in England.
For those unaware of what that means, Mike Riley is the same man who deemed this (apologies for the link, the bastards don’t allow embeds) wasn’t a foul, never mind a straight red card, the same match where the Neville Brothers and the rest of those knuckle-draggers kicked the ever-loving shit out of Reyes to their heart’s content. Oh, and gave a penalty for that Rooney dive. PGMOL’s in safe hands, eh?
As solid-ish as our defending had been, a 1-0 lead never felt like “enough” and it came back to bite us. In fairness, it was a fantastic finish – Leno left with no chance – but it was a “second ball” that wasn’t closed down quickly enough. I’ve said that time and again this season and it only takes one lapse in concentration to undo an otherwise fairly comfortable afternoon of defensive work. In the end, we were perhaps even lucky to get away with a draw, if not for some heroic defending and timely blocks.
Speaking after the game, Arteta largely rued our inability to find the second goal, even going as far as saying that “someone putting the ball into the top bin is a difficult [thing to learn from] – it’s part of football”. He was happy with the overall performance, which I think the majority will understand. In his short time at the club, we are still seeing improvements from game to game, and while we’re struggling to maintain leads and close games out, as opposed to struggling to chase games we should be winning, there are still plenty of positives to take from yesterday’s performance.
There’s not much in the way of rest, as we travel across the river to Chelsea on Tuesday evening. It’ll be another tall ask to come away with a win, but there will be many looking to make amends after we narrowly missed out against them on 28th December.
Here’s to hoping we do. Until then.