Less bad is good

At the very least, it’s nice to be writing from a slightly kinder position than the post-Burnley shambles. The sense of impending doom has been plugged for the time being after we managed to avoid a record-breaking 5th consecutive home defeat and the slender rays of hope are what I intend to cling onto as we continue to weather the storm. It also produced a true open play goal rather than some poxy, shot-corner routine to cheat the stats, so that was nice. The only problem is that plug feels almost as redundant as applying an industrial roll of duct tape to the Titanic.

It’s been a long-running joke among Arsenal fans that supporting this club has had a seriously detrimental effect on our health. The “Banter Era” had its moments; William Gallas’ post-match on-field protest, Sczcesny’s timeouts, Wilshere smoking, Eboué the substitute substituted, 8-2, “we created some good chances”, “like a new signing”… I could go on and on. That’s ignoring the title charges that slipped away and the slow but obvious demise under Gazidis’ blind stewardship.

What we’re going through now feels even stranger, bordering on satirical at times. Former player put through on goal, renowned for inconsistency and wastefulness? Of course he effortlessly dinks it over the keeper. 6 red cards since Arteta took over, twice as many as any other team in that period. Of course, what’s one more red amongst foundations? For the second time in two games, with both falling just as we were flirting with the ascendancy.

The saving grace on this occasion was forgiveness, which was impossible to avoid given Gabriel’s immediate rise to the challenge. On this occasion, his inexperience made him pay the price for his eagerness but it’s part of learning the trade in his case. He was already beginning to remind me of Koscielny, with the occasional line-breaking run with the ball at his feet, to the aerial dominance and determination in not being beaten, but there were striking resemblances to Koscielny’s baptism of fire in the Premier League. He not only had two red cards in his first season but gave away plenty of penalties in that period, topping the table for that particular statistic at one point. It won’t do Mikel Arteta much good, but when one of our few performers suffers a rare lapse in concentration, there’s only so much you can lament but at least this particular incident is less than the sum of its parts. After already being exposed once by Walcott’s pace, I suspect Gabriel was keen to get tighter to avoid a repeat but in doing so, his over-eagerness got the better of him.

He also wasn’t helped by having yet another dysfunctional midfield in front of him, in Ceballos and Elneny. For all of their infrequent good performances, this was yet another example that neither are players that can shoulder that responsibility on their own, much less as a partnership. While Elneny has shown some renewed spirit and competency under Arteta, it’s not quite enough to have one stand-out performance (even if it was against United) and the fact that his loan spell ultimately led him to the Turkish Süper Lig should point to his wider reputation. For Ceballos and the seemingly see-sawing consensus, the jury is still out but when he pulls stunts like he did in the Southampton box instead of giving an easy lay-off, it’s not a good look. At the same time, you could just as easily chalk that up to desperation and there would have been few complaints if his con was successful.

The first half domination at the hands of Southampton left me feeling sympathetic to some of the teams we would so routinely give the same treatment. They played with all the confidence of an in-form team with a regimented system but I was still surprised by the ease at which they were able to play in our half, which was in stark contrast to the home side (although that concept has gone out the window thanks to COVID). With form comes confidence, and so it was equally obvious and lacking in our case. The half chances that fell to Pépé might have been hit with more conviction, rather than simply getting them on target first and foremost – just as Lacazette’s toe-poke against Burnley. After a burst from Saka, the one-two was on with Eddie but he instead chose to play the safer pass back to Ceballos, who then proceeded to blast over from 25 yards instead. Even the Ceballos dive was the “safe” option.

It’s natural and excusable for endeavour to be lacking – to a degree. Retaining possession instead of playing a high risk through-ball. Taking an extra touch instead of shooting when the opportunity first arises. Where that idea beings to unravel is when you don’t have the ball, which was the case more often than not. An unwillingness to want the ball, a lack of movement. Losing the lion’s share of “50/50s” (contrary to what the name suggests). I still didn’t expect our goalkeeper to come out after the game and say it how it is, but to see certain individuals in the team using their voice to good effect and make Arteta’s job just a little bit easier was nice to see.

While some of them might seem a bit “blunt” from Leno, it was nice for some honesty and the club’s hierarchy could learn a thing or two from him. Most notably, I liked that he acknowledged the most glaring problems for what they are:

If you look at how we sometimes walked around on the pitch, then the only fault lies with the players.

We get red cards, make mistakes, are disorganised. These are things that we have clearly addressed a thousand times. In the end, that’s a lack of focus among players.

You really can’t say fairer than that, and it’s at least reassuring to see players making a stand.

There are also others who continue to make a stand where it really matters – on the pitch – and that was once again Bukayo Saka. It breaks my heart to see a player like Saka so routinely shouldering responsibilities that shouldn’t be his to shoulder, and this was just the tipping point.

I can’t stress enough how much I liked that pre-assist. It’s almost criminal that his defiant, jinking run isn’t counted in any metric but there we go. None of this going to ground as soon as you feel contact bollocks (especially funny given we depend on set pieces for goals usually). He just road the challenges and drove. And this was after he’d had the shit kicked out of him against Burnley only 4 days ago and for most of the first half. Build the team around him, keep his spirits up and just let him fly. I’m chomping at the bit to see him link up with Martinelli again, if I’m honest. Gabriel was also quick to apologise for the part he played unlike a certain someone, but there we have it. Credit also has to go to Eddie for the lay-off, and Aubameyang for proving he can still put them away with ease when you give him the chance to.

As I said, these are slender things but it’s a start and we’re at least going into the Everton game with something.

Until then.

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