If there’s any consolation from yesterday, it’s that we can finally put to rest the notion that Aubameyang not playing centrally was the root cause of our problems. Besides maybe the first 20 minutes of the game, we were second-best and just as devoid of ideas as we’ve been for the rest of the season save for the opening game against Fulham.
The mountain of unfavourable statistics continues to grow – we’re now over 8 hours without a goal from open play in the league and the last one came from one Nicolas Pépé back on October 4th. Taking only yesterday’s game into account, the figures are incredibly bleak and like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime as an Arsenal fan, and something you’d be hard pressed to see on a regular basis at any Premier League team:
- Saka (3) completed more passes to Aubameyang than Willian, Pepe and Willock combined (2).
- The player with the most completed passes to Aubameyang was Bernd Leno with five.
- Granit Xhaka completed zero passes to Joe Willock and just three to Ceballos. Willock didn’t complete a single pass to Xhaka, just two to Ceballos and none to Aubameyang.
- Holding passed once to Gabriel. Gabriel made no passes to Holding.
(Credit to @Orbinho, as damning as ever but it really is incredible to see the depths of our dysfunction which affect us from top to bottom)
It’s been clear for some time that our main limitations are down to the midfield. Thomas Partey was one piece of the puzzle but as myself and many others voiced at the time of his signing, there were plenty of questions as to whether just the one midfield reinforcement would be enough. It’s looking increasingly like it isn’t, as brilliant and commanding as he’s been since signing. What’s more interesting is even when he was on the pitch for his debut against Leicester, we still found a way to avoid passing him the ball and the same inability to form coherent passing combinations was evident yesterday.
While I was glad to see Joe Willock given a deserved start, there were times when I was baffled because he simply had no options ahead of him after breaking forward into space on a few occasions. It seems to be far too often that players are forced into making sideways or backwards passes, not because it’s the safe option but because it’s the only option. Few were willing or able to make runs behind or commit any real numbers to attacks, which wasn’t made any easier by the kind of energy Leeds show every time they play at Elland Road.
I’ve no doubt Aubameyang’s international break took its toll, having played 90 minutes in each game – AFCON qualifiers no less, rather than pitiful competitions like the Nations League – and was even forced to sleep in the airport after complications delayed the Gabon team from getting into The Gambia. What we saw against Leeds was a lack of sharpness and a reluctance to make nearly as many runs as we’re used to seeing from him. One notable absence was also David Luiz, who is arguably our most capable player in finding these runs. He wasn’t without chances and lashed wildly at one such chance, but it was another case of non-existent service exacerbated by some kind of fatigue. He had a strong case for a penalty that was denied and given some of the lunacy we’ve seen this decision, you could say we were unlucky to see the incident go unpunished but it was hardly relevant in the context of the match.
Even before Pépé’s red card, Leeds had ended the half with the lion’s share of possession and shots. His dismissal obviously didn’t help matters and it was especially disappointing given his circumstances; to fight your way back into the starting XI in the league, after speaking to French press at length about your lack of opportunities and then to go and do something as silly as that boggles the mind. For Arteta, and the managers before him who have been reluctant to use him on a regular basis, you can sympathise and understand their rationale for leaving him out so often when you see things like that. The dismissal goes well beyond the realms of its effect on a single game and his path back into the team – and any semblance of a return on our substantial investment – is even more chequered than it was previously.
It seems strange to say but I’m now confident in saying the tip of our spear is a 19 year old. Although I can just about forgive Aubameyang for a lacklustre performance after the extensive air miles and complications, Saka featured in all three of England’s games over the international break – including a Man of The Match performance – and still hit the ground running against Leeds. He’s the only player who’s been even remotely enjoyable to watch going forward this season and he’s one of few who always seem eager to try and “make something happen”. That’s a lot of responsibility but he still seems entirely unfazed by the magnitude of our issues.
It was he who created the chance for Aubameyang’s penalty appeal and our best chance of the game also fell to him. While it was a shame to see him come up short when he was through on goal, he’s rarely found himself in such situations and Meslier made life difficult after Saka had decided to take an extra touch. Unless you’re a freak of nature like Haaland, this kind of composure takes experience to get the knack of. There’s also a glimmer of light amidst our own stock, with Martinelli finally returning to full training but that’s a lot of weight on young shoulders.
There are other faint slivers of hope under the layers upon layers of shit and frustration, like somehow managing to get another clean sheet and having players like Gabriel and Bernd Leno around to bail us out of trouble – as well as some sort of woodwork voodoo magic. The team can still take some credit for keeping Leeds at bay while playing almost half the game with 10 men and almost snatching a winner – it was only the 3rd time in 101 games under Bielsa that Leeds suffered a goalless draw – but life isn’t going to get any easier for Arsenal.
Our next game is against Wolves, which is never easy these days and we then travel to the Toilet Bowl for an event that I’m basically dreading with every fibre of my being. While the fixture has been our salvation in the past after runs of poor form, their result at Old Trafford and their position in the table is at the forefront of my concerns. I don’t even know how you begin to prepare for that given our existing problems but we at least have a few games to turn things around again.
I can hardly wait…