Never mind 2020 being a bad year for the world. The 19/20 season truly is the gift that keeps on giving for Arsenal Football Club. You could not make this shit up. Two games back, three players injured, two of which seriously. The first two I’ve no qualms with but the circumstances of the third and the rest of the story are so utterly maddening, it’s difficult to come to terms with them and think rationally.
I’m incredibly reluctant to make excuses for performances that fall short of the mark but on this occasion, it would be dishonest to not highlight the significance of a player scoring a last-minute winner when they arguably should’ve been off the pitch an hour earlier. I have every intention of covering where we fell short today from a footballing perspective but I can’t idly ignore the systemic treatment this club has endured for the last 20 years at the hands of match officials. The tired rhetoric that Arsenal “don’t like it up them” that has been propagated over the years and allowed to fester is partly responsible. The likes of Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis, Troy Deeney and on this occasion, Rio Ferdinand as he sprang to Maupay’s defence. In that time, we’ve seen Eduardo and Ramsey suffer broken legs, we’ve seen Debuchy’s Arsenal career cut short, we’ve seen the likes of Reyes and Wilshere’s ankles whittled away by “proper” British players and now we’ve seen Leno suffer what appears to be an ACL injury. The common denominator isn’t unfortunate, freak accidents but systemic, targeted approaches set forth by managers to disrupt our style of play. While we may not play the same free-flowing football that forced teams to adopt this kind of approach in the first place, we are still suffering.
It was also the second time this season that a player has committed 6 fouls without reprimand against Arsenal. Both games were officiated by Martin Atkinson. By comparison, it’s only happened twice this season for all other teams combined. (Credit: @Orbinho)
I’ve spoken at length at the pitiful standards of officiating in the Premier League and even in these two games back, we’ve seen City’s defender man-handling of Nketiah go unpunished while Luiz walks. Today, Lacazette is booked while Maupay escaped, despite our goalkeeper being stretchered off in agony. It’s even more comical when you realise that Maupay was even trying to claim a free kick for Leno handling the ball outside the area, as well as doubling down during his post-match interview to stoke the fire some more.
There were some disappointing scenes amongst the Arsenal ranks both immediately after the incident and at the final whistle. I found it completely alien to see players exchanging some casual high and low-fives with Maupay after the incident; thinking back to the likes of Keown or Vieira and trying to imagine them doing the same thing if someone had so carelessly injured a player. Rather than setting things straight on the pitch, we conceded late and only then did emotions boil over again, which begs the question – why couldn’t we play with that kind of intensity and character?
Drawing a line under that and taking the match at face value, the scoreline sullies the taste left by an otherwise improved performance. The problem is, this squad of players – whatever iteration lines up – finds ways to not kill games off at one end and switch off at the other.
Seeing the likes of Pépé and Lacazette come into the team was a sign of ambition to create chances and although Brighton are not in any way comparable to Man City, it worked for large parts of the game. There was a frustrating tendency to hit hopeful balls into a box that was dominated by players noticeably taller than most in Arsenal’s ranks, but we were at least able to create some half-decent chances. On another day, Saka’s curling effort dips under the crossbar with Ryan well beaten, Lacazette’s header nestles in the bottom corner and Aubameyang beats the offside trap (which admittedly looked level but Michael Oliver didn’t spend long deliberating over that one). Lacazette also come close with a stooping header and Aubameyang had his fair share of efforts but as we’ve often found this season, it took a moment of individual brilliance to break the deadlock rather than a well-orchestrated team goal. By this, I don’t mean to say that every goal should be akin to Wilshere’s against Norwich but the dependency on such moments to bail us out of games has been a recurring theme this season.
Credit where it’s due – it was a brilliant goal by Pépé and he’d had the beating of many throughout the game. With a legitimate referee, he would have found many more openings if players had actually been disciplined accordingly but it is what it is. It’s not the first time he’s bailed us out this season and despite being played out of position, he produced when we were in need of a spark today. He still finds himself further out wide than he would probably like, but we have to remember this is still very early days in Arteta’s system as he continues to tinker.
We saw glimpses today of what Arteta may be hoping to develop, in having two highly capable players in Saka and Pépé on either side of the pitch who can actually beat players. Deeper into midfield, the likes of Guendouzi and Ceballos were once again lacking in this department and even if it’s makeshift until more personnel can be brought in during the summer, this may be how Arteta is hoping to “unlock the door” in front of goal. More interestingly, Saka found himself deployed more centrally and didn’t look out of place (nor does he anywhere).
There’s also a summer quandary as to whether Martinez has what it takes to lead from the back until Leno’s return, which appears to be some time away. He’s our longest serving player and while we’ve got a good idea of his kind of level in the Europa League, it’s another matter entirely to assume the role of first choice keeper. It can sometimes be the making of a player, to suddenly have an opening and get a run of games under your belt but I haven’t seen enough of him yet to make that call. He was immediately forced into a smart save after coming on and was commanding in the box amidst Brighton’s “aerial superiority”, which is very much what you want. There’s certainly nothing he could’ve done against either goal; the first saw us caught sleeping on a set piece as it was scrambled in after a simple manoeuvre while the second was actually a well-worked goal from a Brighton perspective.
Going forward is now a dim prospect. The Champions League is surely now dead and buried and anyone who thought things would pick up after we’d been inevitably dispatched by City has been brought back down to Earth.
Arteta said afterwards that “…the challenge we all have at the football club, [is] to rebuild to something that is worth the club we are representing”. Rebuild is a phrase we’ve heard bandied around for some time and it’s difficult to discern what would actually constitute a “rebuild”. There are obvious deadwood candidates that need to make way in the summer and there are some harder decisions to make on the futures of several players who could help finance this rebuild. For now, it just feels like we have to play the season out and hit the reset properly in the summer. We head to Southampton on Thursday and will be an equivalent test to the Brighton game, but here’s to hoping we don’t have an equivalent result.