Bailed out by Project Youth

I hope that performance was a wake-up call and reinforced what we already know: our midfield isn’t good enough, certain players are not good enough and we need to improve considerably if we’re to survive the next month of football.

I’m not one to revel in misery and it’s another 3 points but that second half performance gave me thousand yard stare flashbacks and cold sweats to some (most) performances under dear, old Unai. Waves of opposition pressure, no incision and backs to the wall.

Arteta said after the game that “we were a bit with the handbrake at times”, words which were so often music to my ears under Wenger because it usually meant we’d just shithoused our way to a win.

shithoused /ʃɪt-haʊzt/:

winning by any means possible

This occasion was no different and without two interventions from Bukayo Saka, we may be ruing our dragging transfer market heels.

The Match

Losing someone of Tierney’s quality in the warm-up is less than ideal; since he came into the team proper, he’s never looked back and has been one of our most consistent and important players. The problem is compounded when you’re forced to replace him with a player with seemingly endless limitations, in one Sead Kolasinac.

Still, it didn’t stop us exploiting West Ham’s weakness on the left side and despite the banks of players they stacked behind the ball, it was the source of our opening in what was otherwise a dull first half. Receiving the ball on the turn, Saka weathered the pressure and slipped Aubameyang in behind. It was a great pick out on his weak foot and an emphatic finish but in hindsight, I’m conflicted.

The fact that Aubameyang has that in his locker – the ability to pick out Lacazette with a glance of the head on his weak foot, to make and time that run in the first place – is one of the reasons why both Emery and Arteta continue to play Aubameyang on the left. It also turned out to be a cause célèbre, as it has done in the past, when Arsenal are in need of a goal. To see Aubameyang endlessly firing balls into the box, often on his weak foot, just doesn’t sit right with me. It obviously doesn’t happen every game but this “death by crosses” is still something that rears its ugly head too often.

Despite taking the lead, West Ham were hell-bent to keep men behind the ball before they eventually realised we’re Arsenal and mostly can’t defend. That realisation being a simple clearance causing the ball to end up in our net barely 10 seconds later. Game on.

The goal was painfully full of schoolboy errors, the most Emery-esque incident from the most Emery-esque performance we’ve seen since Arteta took charge. Bowen received the ball on the half way line and there was seldom a time that an Arsenal player was within 5 metres of him before teeing up Fredericks who fed Antonio.

Xhaka and Kolasinac as our co-conspirators were more than happy for that to happen and Holding failed to stay goalside of a player who never left his line of sight. Gabriel even pointed to alert Holding to the danger which should have been immediately obvious, but he was too slow and ended up second best. Regardless of the non-existent pressing, if Holding is positioned where he should be, that goal doesn’t happen.

Going into half time with their backs up, Moyes’ rethink saw a resurgent second half performance from West Ham in which we were dominated for chances created. Leno was saved by the bar and while he denied Antonio well from close range, was also prone to some inconsistent handling. With Emi Martinez no longer breathing down his neck, he has the same weight of responsibility as when he was single-handedly keeping us in games last season and if not for some crucial blocks by Gabriel, he may well have been punished.

The real crux of the problem remains the midfield and for the solitary few who may have still been under the illusion that it’s good enough to make the Top Four, that second half was the writing on the wall.

For this to be addressed, we need others to make way and how Sead Kolasinac still has a job as a footballer, never mind one playing for Arsenal is absolutely beyond comprehension. He can Cruyff turn, he can pass backwards and sideways (but no more than 10 yards and on his left foot) and he can barrel up and down the flank. Even in his most useful role, utilised by Unai before he got figured out, was to bomb on the left wing overlap and bombard the opposition box with low quality crosses.

Besides this extensive brochure of utility, I pray that his days at the club are numbered. As we’re pressed to shift non-homegrown players and as one of our uninjured defenders, he surely has to be top of the list but time will tell. Given our fixture list in the next month, I’d really prefer it if we didn’t leave our business to the last day of the transfer window and had some time to properly bed the signings.

Thankfully we’re not up in arms about this though, because we were bailed out by two youngsters who have started the season as they mean to go on.

Eddie Nketiah I’m sure feels like 19/20 was a strange year. He went to Leeds United expecting play time and while he grabbed a few goals, he didn’t get the chances that he perhaps deserved. Leeds would argue that their promotion is evidence enough that it was justified, but I’ve no doubt that Eddie could have reached a goal tally in the double figures. It would probably be fair to assume that it knocked his confidence, and while he was often used by Arteta, he hasn’t yet managed to transform his blistering youth form at senior level.

The international break saw him score a hat-trick for the England U21s, so the goalscoring ability is there. It’s often just felt like a confidence issue, because the positioning is always there too. Yesterday was another impressive cameo, least of all because of the goal – it was his ball retention, hold-up play and exchanges that I was most impressed with and the goal was just the icing on the cake.

Ultimately though, it was Bukayo Saka who was the decisive factor and the difference between the two teams. The first goal came to be because Saka found space to receive the ball. The second saw him take advantage of that space and we saw something I didn’t actually realise was in his locker. Receiving the ball wide and facing no immediate pressure, his first thought was to drive forward. Credit also has to go to Ceballos for making the diagonal run, and even though this move was telegraphed, the pass caught everyone off-guard. It reminded me of Cesc Fàbregas, who would so often bamboozle defences with such “feinted” passes, where the power really comes from the disguised body shape and in this case, clever use of the outside of his left foot.

Having a “footballing brain” is a term which carries weight, and so few have it. Theo Walcott was often criticised, nay mocked for his wanting in this department and it’s often the difference in having end product and not. We’re all grateful for Theo’s century at the club but with the pace at his disposal, it should have been plenty more. It’s also what is making Saka stand out from the rest at the moment because for someone so young to have such awareness and the technical ability to make the most of it is a scary prospect.

These are our next 6 games:

  • Leicester (A) – 23/09 (EFL Cup)
  • Liverpool (A) – 28/09
  • Sheffield United (H) – 3/10
  • Manchester City (A) – 17/10
  • Leicester City (H) – 24/10
  • Manchester United (A) – 31/10

At the very least, it’ll be a useful barometer of what to expect this season and whether we can carry our form from last season against other top sides and Manchester United. From the 5 league games, I’d settle for 2 wins and anything more would be a bonus.

Until then.

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