After a such a promising run of form, trying to come to terms with how that momentum has ground to a halt in these last two games is a fraught process. I don’t want to go over old ground but there are similarities with the match against Wolves that can’t be overlooked. In the same way that Luiz switched off before half time on that occasion, half of Arsenal’s back line were apparently unaware that the match had kicked off yesterday.
It was a recurring feature of the afternoon for misplaced and sloppy passing but Cédric’s weak pass to Gabriel very much set the tone. That mistake was bad enough and was then compounded by Holding not being tight enough to Watkins and that was that.
Consistency is something that continues to rear its head in all shapes and sizes and as much as the club and fans would be right to bemoan inconsistencies with officiating, they become easier to swallow when you haven’t already pressed the self-destruct button. The club took great strides in January to root out several of the repeat offenders but we’re not quite there yet. It’s an impossible task to stop these careless moments entirely but at the moment, it seems to be the biggest spanner in the works for Arteta.
While we’re on the subject though, I’d just like to succinctly and angrily get my point across just how fucking bad referees have been lately. In general. Mike Dean’s ridiculous red card for Bednarek has already been rescinded after he failed to spot a blatant dive even after consulting the pitch-side monitor and he then went and sent off Soucek for the most blatantly accidental elbow I’ve ever seen. As for the Arsenal game, off the top of my head:
- Saka fouled by the last man, running through on goal
- Lacazette very clearly fouled by Martinez
A red card in the first half and a penalty in the second are difficult to get past and I don’t think either decision was even remotely contentious. Peter Walton of course disagreed, saying “from a subjective point of view, has Lacazette used that [shirt pull] as an opportunity to then lean on the goalkeeper?” and that “VAR is not there to get the correct decision”. While he may not be in the job anymore, it would be a fair assumption to make that many that still are share these nonsense, contradicting thoughts.
We then also had to endure systematic, rotational fouling on Saka which is becoming the normative tactic to deal with him and it’s only a matter of time before he’s seriously injured. There was a deliberate handball charge-down by Traoré(?) that was deemed not bookable, so too for a late challenge by Trezeguet and I’m sure I’m missing a few more. I hate that these incidents play such an important part in assessing a performance but it also feels disingenuous to simply chalk them up as something we have to deal with each game. At the very least, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the last two results have been heavily affected by factors beyond our control.
Therein lies the importance of finding a solution to these silly mistakes, though. The team has to reach a point where they are not dependent on VAR or the officials to do actually do their job – they’re not fit for purpose and it’s not going to change any time soon. It’s sort of like if you had toothache and the only dentist available was insisting on using dynamite, you’re better off using some string instead.
Going 1-0 down in the first minute certainly shouldn’t be the death knell, even if it was against a team we’re in direct competition with. Arteta said that “we controlled every department, we dominated the game completely but we just gave them the goal”. That just about summed it all up, but the domination we were afforded was equally indicative of what Villa afforded us.
If I was a Villa player watching how Cédric and Bellerín played, I’d probably be alright with having less possession because it was pretty dreadful stuff from the pair of them. The substitutions from Arteta also left much to be desired, with Aubameyang once again ghosting through another cameo and certainly not the right fit for breaking down Villa, at the expense of Lacazette and his combination play. Willian’s introduction after Thomas Partey’s untimely injury was another performance I never want to think about again, with a passing map that was almost entirely comprised of Kolasinac-like backwards passes. It also served to undo one of the only things that was actually working on the day, which was Pépé down that left flank. It would be hypocritical of me to say he was wrong to bring on Willian after he had a better performance the other day (by his standards) and that it’s an important part of rebuilding a player to reward them as such, but he simply isn’t serviceable and we can’t keep hamstringing ourselves all the time trying to make it work. Martinelli is a player who Arteta is clearly still figuring out but we’ve surely reached a point where whatever he is doing wrong should only be seen as collateral.
Besides a brilliant freekick from Xhaka, I can hardly remember Martinez being tested and it was our debutant who was the far busier ‘keeper. For all of our “domination”, Villa were unsurprisingly more threatening in the eyes of xG and besides Ødegaard’s late, blazing miss, it felt like a game where the equaliser was destined to escape us. If it’s any consolation, I at least thought Ødegaard had another good performance – missed chances aside – and a double-8 pivot alongside Smith Rowe is a viable option.
At this point, I think I’ve looked at the league table enough for one season. If we can’t be consistent, it doesn’t do much good to play the “what if” game and our luck has just about run out for making something of this season domestically. I’m loathed to say we should only be focusing on the Europa League for the rest of the season because there’s still a great deal of benefit to finish the season as strongly as possible; it lays the foundations for next season after a (hopefully) busy summer transfer window and we still need to maximise our ability to attract top talents, of which reputation plays its part. For now though, the sooner this season comes to an end, the better.