Preview, injuries and contracts
Not for the first time, when action was needed, Arteta did just that in dropping Matteo Guendouzi – not only from the starting lineup, but the squad entirely. I’ve no idea as to the reliability of the rumours about Guendouzi’s “trashtalking” during the Brighton game but given his on-field reaction in the closing minutes and the youngster’s proclivity for stoking the fire whenever possible, there’s probably some truth to them. L’Équipe have also reported that Guendouzi had expressed a desire to leave but we’ll take that with a pinch of salt.
There’s still a discussion there, though. If the rumoured valuation is true – somewhere in the region of £40m – there’s been a growing justification to green-light such a deal. He’s a divisive figure and one whose development has certainly plateaued, if not regressed since the start of the season but you also have to take his future stock into consideration. This is a squad in need of a serious rebuild and resting our laurels on what the player may or may not become seems like a gamble when our problems are far more immediate. Looking back on the Klopp project at Liverpool, and under Brendan Rogers, they got to where they are today through a series of intelligent transfers – both outgoing and incoming. While Arsenal’s recruitment strategy is a long way off in these regards, this could perhaps be one of the more obvious decisions. You also have to remember we paid peanuts for him in comparison.
Guendouzi’s as good an example as I can think of for someone who has become a bit too big for their boots. It can often happen with players of his age who suddenly find themselves with opportunities but I think it’s fair to say he’s taken things for granted at times.
We also saw several contract situations “resolved”.
- David Luiz inexplicably securing an extension. His mistakes have cost us points this season and there doesn’t seem to be a remedy to allay the terminal trajectory of his performance levels in the twilight years of his career. He can still pass a ball, he’s yet to score one of those ridiculous free kicks (and this is actually one of the few areas we have some quality options in anyway) and he seems to be a good person to have around behind the scenes. I get that it’s often more expensive to sign a replacement player than to resign an existing one, but Luiz’ exorbitant wages and our acceptance to persevere (read: endure) the man is a difficult one to swallow.
- Cedric Soares. We’ve very kindly given an almost 29-year old who’s yet to feature for the club (through injury) a 4 year contract. This is a player who, quite patently, was not wanted by Southampton but we’ve deemed his services a worthy investment. “Levels” is thrown around sometimes and when you consider the likes of Soares and Luiz, it’s a bit of an eye-opener.
- Mari’s move being made permanent (although it emerged this was always going to be the case and the “loan” was simply to play around the “rules” of FFP)
- Ceballos secured until the end of the season. A relationship that hopefully ends at this point.
- We made fun of Wenger for saying players returning from injury was “like a new signing” but Leno only being out for 6 weeks was a collective sigh of relief.
We also lost Gabriel Martinelli for the rest of the season with a knee injury sustained in training.
As we saw in our first two games, we had no trouble starting brightly and even spurned two opportunities for an early lead. Saka offside by half a yard and Aubameyang uncharacteristically missing from a one-on-one situation. With the ball still bouncing, and running at pace, it wasn’t a routine finish but he’ll still be disappointed to miss from there and his 50th Premier League goal continues to elude him. It was a tidy ball over the top by Tierney and it wasn’t the only time Aubameyang found space in behind, with Martinez also managing to release him. I can see what Arteta wants him to do – and it worked to an extent – but he was twice foiled trying to square the ball. I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have a more naturalised winger playing there so Aubameyang can be the one being squared to but this is the system we’re sticking with for now.
We didn’t have to wait much longer to break the deadlock and credit to Eddie for his perseverance, which he can consider just deserts for working hard throughout the lockdown and earning a place in the team ahead of Lacazette. Given our luck in the first two games, it’s all the more sweet when it swings back in our favour.
I was also impressed by the maturity of his play in general: prepared to drop deeper to receive the ball, able to vary his approach when on the ball and also a useful device to win the ball back from the front. The way he won the ball back a few times reminded me of Danny Welbeck and it’s something we’ve often missed this season.
After a scrappy free-kick and powerful follow-up shot from Lacazette, it was 3rd time’s a charm for Willock to spring on the spilled effort and it was a tidy finish, showing again that he does have an eye for goal. It might be his first goal in the Premier League but he’s managed to get 5 goals this season, which isn’t a bad rate of return for someone his age and he definitely could’ve had more. He’s a player that naturally draws comparison to Aaron Ramsey, for both the position he often plays and that uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. He also draws similar criticism; sometimes disappearing in games and struggling with consistency. I think he’s got a lot more in his locker than we’re seeing at the moment; there was a world of pressure placed on his shoulders in the darkest days of Emery, with unreasonable expectations for a 20 year old teenager to fix our midfield problems. His goal against Liverpool was one of the goals of the season and while he’s still got a long way to go, I’m excited to see how he would perform in a more coherent midfield.
Some other takeaways:
- Saka. This guy is an absolute star; strong, ambitious – always looking to beat the man in front of him, versatile. His contract should be our number one priority. Give him what he wants.
- We’re better with Xhaka. This should go without saying by now but he brings some assurance that no one else in the current squad does.
- Holding and Mustafi were solid. Dealt with nearly everything that came their way and afforded Southampton only 3 shots on target. An away clean sheet to go with it.
- We have a lop-sided midfield: fruitful down the left, with Tierney/Saka/Aubameyang often linking up well. Pépé once again feeling isolated and steps need to be taken to get the ball to him more.
The performance wasn’t perfect and we got a bit lucky but it’s a start, it’s an away win and a clean sheet, with two of our homegrown youngsters providing the goals. I’m also from Pompey so doing over Southampton is always nice.
We travel to Sheffield on Sunday to maintain our slim hopes at a chance for silverware in this torrid season/year. They’re still above us in the table, and it’s not an easy ground to go to, so I’m sure there’ll be plenty more to talk about.