Rolling back the years

Yesterday’s result was as much a consequence of a dumb, tame performance on the day as it was a January hamstrung by empathy and inaction. Arsenal had enough quality on the pitch to see off a poor and depleted Burnley but came up short at key moments and now find themselves down the Top Four pecking order.

The biggest problem was a collective amnesia of times gone by, with Ramsdale stating the plainly obvious that it was simply “meat and drink to Burnley”. Of the 34 crosses Arsenal attempted, only 3 found a teammate. Some level of unimaginative play is to be expected when you have such a dearth of seniority and nous but the likes of Kieran Tierney should know better than to repeatedly do the same thing over and over and over. Ben Mee, Tarkowski and the uncardable, time-wasting Nick Pope had a field day and of all the teams to try and undermine in the box, Burnley are probably the last team you’d pick in the top flight. I struggle to understand why nothing changed at half time and in the end, it just reeked of desperation.

In his defense, and despite his poor form of late, Tierney doesn’t strike me as the kind of player to either be too stupid to realise why that wasn’t a good idea or to rebel against his manager’s direction, which points to it being by design. All the more baffling when Lacazette is the only player in the box with even the slightest chance of winning anything. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t.

Arsenal’s best chances came when they were smart enough to keep the ball on the deck, like Odegaard’s well-executed corner routine to Smith Rowe that was miraculously saved by Pope. Similarly, Lacazette has nowhere to hide after his gaping miss and Smith Rowe was brought off not long after. I get that there were tired players out there and I get that there were players still returning to fitness but Smith Rowe for Eddie Nketiah when you’re chasing a goal is not the change you make, if the last year of form is anything to go by. We know what Eddie brings and swapping one of your few creatives for a poacher is bad enough but for that player to rarely even make his way into the box is another oddity entirely. I don’t know what he was supposed to do, I don’t really know why he’s still being picked and I especially don’t know why you bother bringing players from the U23s to the first team bench who have been playing well if you have no intention of even considering them. It’s back to looking muddled, second-guessing the manager’s ill-devised mechanisms and head-scratching substitutions and it’s further complicated by Arsenal’s recent dealings off the pitch.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles to Roma I can understand. After impressing earlier in the season in midfield, he was once again frozen out*, presumably because he wasn’t happy about being left out after impressing. That’s a big assumption but it’s the only angle that makes any sense to me, especially when the player has somewhat of a history for speaking out of line compared to lapdogs like Elneny and Cédric who are more than happy to be bit-part players. Ainsley’s not happy? Fine. Send him out on loan before finding a replacement. If Arsenal were a truly serious outfit, they would have said to Ainsley “you can leave when we find a replacement because we have a threadbare midfield and we finally have some momentum”. After a summer of long overdue, sound squad-building, Arteta and Edu have taken a few steps back because their gamble hasn’t paid off and Arsenal have ceded ground and momentum. Arsenal appear no closer to signing a striker after the Vlahovic trail has gone cold and signing a midfielder when the damage has already been done seems futile.

  • frozen out. See Mesut Ozil, page 50. See Granit Xhaka, page 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42. See Nicolas Pépé, page 72. See Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, page 56.

The silver lining depends on what the pair wanted from this transfer window. If the right player wasn’t available at the right price, they’ve done well to avoid the previous pitfalls but with the gamble not paying off, their inaction has squandered an opportunity to put some distance between Arsenal and the other floundering four. I still think the ball is in Arsenal’s court; Spurs are Spurs and not only do we believe in the history, but they have to face a full strength Arsenal side, City, Liverpool, United, and Villa all away from home as well as West Ham at home. United can only keep up this luck for so long and under Ragnick, are hardly distinguishable from Ole’s version. Of the four, West Ham appear the weakest at this point and still have European football to contend with but David Moyes shouldn’t be written off. I’m still buoyed by Arsenal’s performance against City and even though we’ve been forced to live off the scraps of that single goal all month, it’s still a bright window into the future.

Expected turbulence

I’m not going to stoop to the predictable depths of tabloid newspapers with oh so witty jokes about playing in white/being tame – I’ll just say that playing in white made Arsenal look Spursy in more ways than one. They also didn’t look like a serious outfit and they deservedly crashed out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle for the second time in 4 years against Forest. The steely spine was replaced with polystyrene and putty. No Ramsdale, no Gabriel, no Partey or Xhaka and no Lacazette for the most part. It was a perfect example of why it’s not always as simple as “play the kids” if the seniors are dross (and if the benchmark of “dross” is unclear, Cédric is King of Dross, living alone in Dross Castle on the Isle of Dross).

In a few cases, it was a rude awakening for the player themselves, the fanbase and Arteta. Sambi is probably the player I feel most sorry for, because he hasn’t had minutes since November and he had an 18 year old playing his second senior game as a midfield partner. We’ve seen what he can do at Premier League level and I think we’ve made a good signing for the future, but it just goes to show not only what an important position the centre of midfield is in shaping the team’s overall play but how long it takes to really learn the position. It wasn’t even that he played badly, but it was what we lost in not having anything that even closely resembles Thomas Partey. As if it wasn’t already obvious, the decision to loan out Arsenal’s next best midfielder after Partey and Xhaka looks all the more strange (and if it isn’t clear, yes I do think Ainsley is a better midfielder than Elneny). In Charlie Patino, while it was nice for him to get his goal on his debut, he ghosted through the game and needs to spend some on loan to do some growing up. That’s not intended to be pejorative but Jude Bellingham is only 4 months older than him and I think we’ll have to wait a few years to see what kind of player he really is.

Nuno Tavares will probably divide the most opinion. My initial reaction was that it was an excessive and rash decision that could have waited 10 minutes. Unlike many out there, Nuno is a player with a future at the club and it’s humiliating to be substituted before half time against any opposition, let alone one in the league below. There’s a flip-side to that, because he perhaps underestimated the level of the opposition and deserved to have some comeuppance. Ultimately, the fallout depends on the player and I hope Nuno has the wherewithal to take it in his stride and at any rate, the loss isn’t on his head anyway. He may have been careless in possession (and had a go at lobbing Leno) but I don’t think it was any less egregious than some of the things I saw from Cédric (and why on Earth was he allowed to take a free kick?). Besides tightening up the left hand side, I don’t think we substantially improved anything in taking him off and he still managed to finish the game with the most interceptions and if the change was intended to buck the rest of the team up, it didn’t work.

He perhaps most notably became England’s U21 top goalscorer and this has often been used to assert his potential, for reasons I’ve never really understood whenever I’ve watched him. It’s not to look down on players scoring goals for their country but there’s a substantial different between goals at youth level and at senior. What I’m getting at is the player he pipped to this most coveted title is Francis Jeffers and while I would hope Eddie goes on to have a far more successful career than the “fox in the box”, his repertoire is lightweight and that’s precisely why records like this are mentioned in the first place. He didn’t have a bad game yesterday and even showed some things I hadn’t seen before; shooting on his weak foot (from outside the box no less), running at players, doing his best to drop off and help link play. This all becomes a moot point when the one thing he has a real reputation for being good at comes up short in missing Arsenal’s best chance of the game. I’ve never rated him highly and think the club has missed quite a few opportunities to move him on, most notably last summer after Balogun signed a new deal. I understand the benefit of continuing to play him by “putting him in the shop window” but I doubt last night’s performance did much to help inform potential suitors and with only two cup games of the season left, I think his Arsenal career has run its course.

The biggest disappointment was Forest didn’t even have to do much to get the result. They obviously worked hard to frustrate Arsenal and got men behind the ball but besides Spence, there were no standout performers. They were patient and took their chance where Arsenal did not. There are more questions to be asked about what happened after Forest took the lead and Sead Kolasinac’s involvement can only be explained by a motive ulterior to winning this particular football match. That in itself is a dangerous game to play because I’m sure Arteta’s concerns about the depth of his squad had already been communicated and I don’t see much point in short-term sabotage to get his point across. Even in his short time at the club, Arteta has taken a few abstract stances like this that have been difficult to unpack; the undroppable Willian, the endless empty crosses era, everything Özil, playing hot and cold with Ainsley and Aubameyang continues to complicate. On this occasion, his words after the game were at odds with his decisions on the night.

It’s really hurting. It’s a competition that is related to our history and to go out of it today is a big bump.

He’s won the competition himself – at Arsenal – so to come out and say this after the game when you’ve subbed on Kolasinac in the dying moments chasing a lead is back to speaking a load of hot air. I appreciate that the squad is looking threadbare and what we do in January can have huge ramifications on our season but you could argue that Arteta has taken the competition about as seriously as Tavares supposedly had done. If he’d intended to let one of the two cups slide, surely the two-legged tie in an inferior cup against far superior opposition would have been the right call, especially with its proximity to the North London derby. That may be a leap to say he was happy for us to slide out of the FA Cup but some of his decisions were at least defeatist.

It also leaves the camp unsettled ahead of the Spurs game and even with a difficult game against Liverpool in between, I have some concerns about how the squad is going to pick themselves up again. With so much hinging on that result, it’s not exactly going to be a smooth approach. There’s always the chance that ze history will do it’s thing – and we very much believe in the history – but their scare against Morecambe was only a scare and Conte will have a point to prove in his first involvement. A good chunk of that spine will be back, with Xhaka the only uncertainty, such is his style.

It doesn’t feel great to go out from the competition with another whimper but as the French, German, Italian and Spanish World Cup winners of the last 25 years will tell you, it’s not always easy to carry on surfing the wave. I’m sure come Sunday evening one way or the other, this game will still be easily forgotten.

A cruel start to the year

There’s a fair amount to unpack from that 90 minutes of football. Frustrations aside, I can’t remember the last time I saw such a competitive Arsenal side and they absolutely took the game to City. Pep finally got a taste of his own medicine with Arsenal’s scything, dynamic football and relentless work in winning the ball back. His squad of superstars and well-financed match officials couldn’t even engineer a single shot on target from open play until the 93rd minute winner and they needed a highly contentious dive and a red card to get there.

I’m absolutely gutted that there’s nothing to show for this game. At the very least, Arsenal were good for a point and who knows where the game would have ended up had Arsenal got the same run of the green. Across the pitch, Arsenal rose to the occasion; Thomas Partey at long last eclipsing his stellar performance at Old Trafford and delivering when we needed him to, Tomiyasu has everything you could ever ask for in a full back and kept Raheem Sterling deathly quiet for 90 minutes and Saka and Martinelli ran Cancelo and Ake ragged. The goal itself was sublime and Saka continues to prove he can perform against any opposition and with goals added to his game, he’s a scary prospect. All I hope now is that a corner has finally been turned in these fixtures because most teams will be blown away by this new ceiling.

Arsenal were also without their touchline talisman and his auditory onslaught, making the performance all the more impressive. Once fans returned and the famous drinks breaks stopped, I thought he might struggle to have an impact from the sidelines but seeing how animated he still is, it’s hard to say he hasn’t been a factor in recent weeks. What I’m now seeing though, is a well-drilled team that fights in every position on the pitch and leaves nothing out there.

I’d love to only focus on the performance but once again, the Premier League’s officiating proved it’s not fit for purpose. I don’t think there’s going to be any consensus on who’s to blame for what unfolded or what the correct decisions should have been but the very least anyone can ask for is consistency. The problem is, as isolated incidences, it’s impossible to understand how one can be reviewed and one can’t. Clear and obvious is what we always here but Xhaka’s “foul” was the only case which needed a review from Atwell.

As much as I loathe diving – and Silva has absolutely taken a dive there – Xhaka complicated matters by planting that seed of doubt. An outstretched leg and a shirt pull in combination are enough to do that, and as much as I don’t agree with the final decision, he was at least responsible in part. What I take massive issue with is how Odegaard’s was not scrutinised as closely, because as everyone has now seen, Ederson did not win any of the ball and it’s a penalty all day long.

Arsenal’s mad 5 minutes that unravelled the match saw a dive overturned for a penalty, an open goal missed and Gabriel’s red card. In fairness to Martinelli, Atwell was also inexplicably sprinting into the box ahead of him for some unknown reason and while he’ll be devastated to from there, it had its complications.

Besides a glancing header from Dias, City created nothing of any value. Arsenal had to bide their time and weathered periods of predictable City dominance in possession but their patience paid off and their incessant pressing slowly brought respite.

The respite came from Arsenal’s outlets on either wing, with their ability to stretch and panic City breathing life into play elsewhere on the pitch. In previous outings, everything we’ve tried against City has felt helpless but seeing Martinelli and Saka breezing through City’s lines was a crucial building block in confidence. Arsenal were often able to relieve pressure by finding these two from deep, breaking City’s own press in much the same way that City so often manage to.

Even reduced to ten men, Arsenal were commendably still playing their football and to be able to do that against City is no small feat. Throughout the tie, Arsenal were playing some sumptuous football and to have the confidence and ability to do that against City is something to be proud of.

Going forward, it’s a real disservice to think that Arsenal can only overcome these injustices by learning the dark arts. City aren’t the only side to rely on rotational fouling but they’re probably the biggest beneficiaries. The only difference was Arsenal were punished for trying the same tricks that City can get away with. In this instance, the gravity of the tie was clearly too much for the referee and Atwell has a growing catalogue of errors already (as does Jared Gillet, the VAR). Until these types of people are either held to scrutiny or out of a job, this will continue. It at least feels like clubs are at their wit’s end with the standard of officiating in the Premier League.

For Arsenal, all I can say is “please channel that first hour for all future matches” because that was no fluke.

Boxing Day always delivers

Coming away from Carrow Road with anything less than a convincing victory would have been disappointing, regardless of what kind of team Arteta put out. In the end, Arteta went full strength and with the Wolves game on the horizon at the time, I suspect the intention was to tear Norwich apart early and then keep them at arm’s length. In the end, we needn’t have worried but I’m glad Arsenal are getting some rest before City.

Getting an early lead was crucial for managing over-exertion and unsurprisingly, it came from the increasingly-dependable youth. Odegaard to Saka is a combination I hope I’ll never tire of seeing and both players are blossoming and enjoying their football. Although Saka is unlikely to face a worse full back than Brandon Williams this season, he still had some work to do in the first goal to find the gap. This match provided great insights as to why Saka is so difficult to defend against; with the ball never far from his feet, his subtle shift in weight and feints coupled with the defender’s knowledge that he’s happy on either foot means that Saka seems to be constantly toying with opposition, waiting for cues before he commits. As soon as there’s an opening, he takes it and more crucially, so often makes the right decision when he finds his space. I urge everyone to have a closer look at both of his goals to really appreciate the subtleties of his movement and control, because it’s what sets him apart from the rest.

Credit also has to go to his various enablers throughout the squad, with Odegaard constantly looking to feed the ball into him and Lacazette often combining well and providing a buffer to play off. Like Smith Rowe, statistical end product was the only piece of the puzzle still missing (even though the spark he often provides isn’t always captured by commonly-touted metrics) but those questions are quickly fading. So too can be said of Odegaard, who continues to grow into the role and I no longer have any fears that he has what it takes to be the long-term hub of Arsenal’s midfield.

It’s sometimes easy to overlook Arsenal’s progress behind that front line. I’m certainly guilty of this because I’m wired to look at the final third, especially when it was a worry for such a long time under Emery and Arteta. Now that things have settled on that front, I’m really appreciating the talent we’ve found elsewhere. Although Ben White has experience playing at right back, I was curious to see how he would perform after some time away and in many ways, he’s quite a close replacement for Tomiyasu. While he may not be as boisterous, he has a similar kind of presence and his technical security on the ball allowed for a different offensive outlet that utilised his passing range, more than making up for a reluctance to bound forward. Martinelli was unlucky to see his goal chalked off for offside, and that diagonal ball was on from White all afternoon.

He also has an edge about him, which I can’t not love and provided me with one of my favourite “non-football” moments of the season. After cleanly taking out ball and man in Brandon Williams, he stared him down for no other reason than to say “what are you gonna do about it”? Completely unnecessary because it was Placheta who had been mouthing off before, but in the context of the game, it was absolutely perfect. Yet again, Arsenal hadn’t been protected by the referee, with Norwich escaping bookings for two late tackles, one of which wasn’t even given as a foul. Xhaka was booked because he’s always booked but I appreciated his involvement in this instance. Norwich’s antics even riled up the purest boy in the footballing world, with the gentlest stamp you’ll ever see from Saka. I still think he was lucky to not be sent off, purely because there was clear intent, but I’m sure someone will have a quiet word with him because at the end of the day, he’s only being kicked because people can’t get near him. These sentiments were clearly universal and it’s about time Arsenal had a squad with some steel.

Norwich never looked like scoring and in Rob Holding and (hopefully), the impressive William Saliba, I think Arsenal finally have a group of defenders that can compete. I’m even wondering if Arsenal can get away with not signing another right back if they can sometimes lean on Ben White and one of Chambers or Maitland-Niles (but not both).

My only real concerns during the game was when and where the second was going to come from. I was acutely aware of the “risk” Arteta was taking in starting strong rather than resting players and only calling on them if he needed to and the longer the second evaded us, the more exposure Arsenal would have to injury and/or fatigue. That being said, I can live with waiting 30 minutes and seeing Kieran Tierney score is always an experience. He has less weight on his shoulders these days and after a slow return from injury, he’s finally looking himself again. Some of his final balls are still not quite there but in fairness to him, Arsenal missed an earlier second because no one was on the penalty spot (although I suspect if Smith Rowe had been on the pitch, he would have been precisely there). Still, he’s shown before he loves a diagonal across the goal and the timing couldn’t have been better.

From there, Arsenal resisted Norwich’s attempts to get a player sent off and maintained the same slick passing combinations and quality into the second half. I know I’ve already waxed lyrical about Saka already but the second goal is just a thing of beauty, one that Mo Salah would be proud to score. Toying, toying, toying… bang. If he can get that finish under wraps, he is going to be causing teams grief for a very long time because there’s nothing a goalkeeper can do about it.

At 3-0 down and already facing a sure-fire relegation for the umpteenth time, you probably don’t want to see a player like Smith Rowe come on. I’m glad he did, because he also has phenomenal ability that he’s able to flex even in cameos. The reverse, no-look pass to Lacazette for the penalty was effortless and it earned Lacazette a well-deserved goal (and fair play to him for stepping up again and putting it away). Those two are another pair that seem to have a real understanding and seeing these relationships light up all over the pitch is great to see because it’s so integral to progress. Naturally, Smith Rowe also found a way to score because he always scores. I’m hesitant to even look at his numbers now because I’m worried about who’s going to come knocking.

City next. Oh, goody.

Also, small point about Norwich, the yo-yo outfit – if Xhaka is showboating against you, you don’t deserve to ever come up again. I’m bored of seeing them win the Championship and then come back down after anchoring the table all season and their antics yesterday were embarrassing.

Extend Martinelli’s contract – A Post-Match Summary

For the first time in a very long time, Arsenal played exactly how I’d hoped and expected them to play. With the exception of some ever-so-slightly nervy moments early in the second half when Granit Xhaka slipped back into his Jekyll and Hyde routine, it was fun to watch because it was controlled but devastating. It was a simple enough task on paper but that should have been the same brief for the Everton game (and to a lesser extent, United) and look what happened there. I hate repeatedly going over old ground but those games left a sour taste and rolling teams we really should be rolling is only the first step in regaining some trust.

I’m not going to shed a tear over smashing a depleted Leeds side and even then, Arsenal’s starting XI was younger anyway.The fact that there were were rumours of racial abuse from the home support makes the win all the more sweet and after Rob Holding alerted officials, I suspect it was more than just rumours. It’s not like they’ve been afflicted by COVID cases and the match still went ahead – Arsenal received no such sympathy against Brentford. They’re simply suffering from the inevitable “Bielsa Blowout”, and as much as I’ve liked Leeds and their brand of football since coming back up, it’s no surprise that their players haven’t been able to keep up with the demands of Murderball.

It quickly became apparent from the first whistle what kind of game we had on our hands and you suspect there might be space to exploit when Granit Xhaka is in the opposition half with light years of space. Genuinely a bizarre sight to see. While it always felt like a matter of “when”, not “if”, I was still surprised it took as long as it did for Arsenal to take the lead. Saka and Lacazette both wasted good opportunities and Partey was also denied when he opted to shoot at Meslier’s near post with a ‘safe’ effort. When Martinelli got his first sight of goal, it was a different story with the finish as clinical as ever after dogged work by Lacazette to immediately win the ball back. The second left him with far more work to do and while far less easy on the eye, was just as impressive as the opener against West Ham. Xhaka did well to find him and the pass was weighted perfectly, but Martinelli’s first touch let him down slightly and left the ball under his feet. Not being at full speed, Drameh was able to close the gap and put him off balance. With another closing him down and Meslier rushing out, Martinelli created a problem for himself because he’d closed off some shooting angles so what does he do? He just dinks it over the ‘keeper. I can’t stress enough how difficult that finish is, running at those kinds of speeds, with a player either side and an onrushing keeper but the guy has so much quality in his finishing. In the space of 3 games, we’ve seen a deft, very precise one-touch finish over his shoulder against Newcastle, a first touch and finish that Henry would have been proud of and a dinked finish that only the very best in the Premier League can pull off. It’s impossible not to smile watching him terrorise teams.

The barrage didn’t stop there and Lacazette and Saka both managed to have another stab at goal, with the latter squirming his shot in after a slight deflection. After some poor luck in front of goal in recent weeks, it was long overdue in the end and Arsenal ended the half with the most shots on target since Opta started collecting such data.

After half time, the silliness started and Granit Xhaka and his thick skull decided that his fragile ego had been hurt. After needlessly winding Leeds up by blocking a free kick and facing some backlash, he went in high and late on Raphina and was lucky not to see red (although far less lucky than one Harry Kane). We’ve seen it time and again from him and if he can’t keep his cool even at 3-0 up, when can you? It’s who he is and for all his qualities, this issue is one that is never going away. Arsenal generally haven’t had the rub of the green this season but it’s fair to say they got away with one there. While you’d like to think a red card wouldn’t have been enough to throw away 3 points, Elland Road is not the venue you want to imbue some false hope because even without the red, Leeds benefitted from the supposed injustice.

I don’t think there’s much to read into with the penalty concession. Ben White probably wanted to prove a point in going back there (and I’m sure was also subject to some words of encouragement from the locals) and we’ve seen it plenty of times before with young defenders – much rather he gets it out of his system in inconsequential games like this than when it matters.

In the end, it wouldn’t have been right without a Smith Rowe goal and even coming off the bench, he was able to read the pulse of the game and have an impact. The ball from Odegaard was far from easy, and the delicious, almost painful delay in the final ball is also what orchestrated the opportunity. Reeling players in is what creates the space elsewhere and he has the technical security and intelligence to do this on a more regular basis.

After the game, Martinelli couldn’t resist mentioning how he wanted a third before quickly getting back on script about all of the “good teamplay” rhetoric that we’re used to hearing. Arteta was happy to acknowledge the importance of points on the board, with the “pressure” it puts on the others and I couldn’t agree more. It might feel like “enjoy it while it lasts” but with many of the postponed fixtures featuring teams that also have European commitments, it’s only going to get harder to maintain consistency for them. City’s title last year was massively helped by their unique squad depth, which set them apart from everyone else amidst long term squad fatigue and COVID outbreaks. If Arsenal sneak into the Top Four by the end of the season and benefit from managing the pandemic better than their rivals I won’t be losing sleep over it.

Surprisingly good?

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a bit surprised to be acknowledging Arsenal’s place in the Top Four so soon after some unmentionable performances but that as is where we find ourselves. I’m under no illusions that this could very well be a short-lived stay with games in hand all over the shop but points on the board is cash in hand.

With this obese median, the reality is that there are quite a few teams at the upper end that are still wildly inconsistent themselves and no Premier League game is a given this season. West Ham may have taken some big scalps but their scarcely-rotated squad may just be beginning to show signs of wear, and that is only going to get worse with the Christmas fixture congestion and the ongoing fatigue that comes with European football.

On the night, Arteta and the players got everything right and it was a continuation of joint-league-leading form at home. The front three stole the show and all dropped flawless performances but there was a cohesion to everything Arsenal did on the night and West Ham were second-best on every front. Arsenal dominated and led before any contentious decisions could mar the performance and I’m once again left hoping that our worst times are now behind us. Seeing performances like that make you question how it’s even possible after the performances at Old Trafford and Goodison Park but that remains Arteta’s biggest riddle.

I don’t usually think it’s right that forwards are given more credit than the rest (see Ballon D’Or nominations by position) but on the night, West Ham were especially miserable because of the threat Arsenal posed in the final third. Saka had one of his best ever games in an Arsenal shirt and even with West Ham doubling and even tripling up on him, he was still the biggest threat because of the unpredictable use of his varied qualities and Masuaku will be especially glad to see the back of him.

Martinelli was his usual self but there was somehow.. more. He must be a nightmare to play against because he never stops running and harrying, and there’s only one thing on his mind when Arsenal are in possession. He seems to have reigned in some of his urges because he’s less singularly focused (for the better) but his understand of the final third is still his biggest asset. The resemblance of his finishing to a certain #14’s is obvious but for someone of that age to be taking a single touch – in full stride – and then stroking the ball away so casually is a joy to watch. He also seemed keen to put on a show for his family in attendance judging by what he did to Soucek. It might seem like just a bit of impudence but sometimes, you need to make it clear that you’re fearless and strike some fear into the opposition because you only need to look at the space Saka makes for others by pulling in such a crowd to stop him.

I never felt like Arsenal were on the back foot, a calmness seldom enjoyed these days, and the only time I was slightly uncomfortable was after the red card and penalty miss. That is at least typical when teams go down to 10 men anyway. The sense of calm was largely thanks to keeping Antonio a quiet man, and he barely had a sniff of goal all game. If White wasn’t snapping at his heels, winning the ball high up the field, Partey, Tomiyasu and Gabriel were all capable of running with him and breaking his momentum. The same can also be said of Declan Rice, who despite coming on leaps and bounds this season, was bypassed and nullified throughout.

There was also a welcome acceptance to the art of shithousery, which is long overdue. Steve McManaman was quick to lambaste the players for crowding Anthony Taylor after the first coming together but it’s often the case that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. For a long time, I never liked how often teams would crowd referees. Ferguson pioneered the technique, and Mourinho was also dependent on it, but Arsenal’s decade of meekness constantly left them at a disadvantage. While Lacazette has always seemed to be well-versed in the art, last night was a shift by the collective to fight for any affliction and maximise advantages. It may have come too late to see McArthur or Lascelles see red, but some of the antics from yesterday will hopefully demonstrate how avoidable some of our recent embarrassments are. Martinelli naively suffering from cramp only a few feet from the hallowed turf, wrenched back to his feet only to be tactically plopped down again on the “right” side. I’d have rathered that had happened with Thomas Partey in the North London derby but it’s better late than never. I also suspect our clamouring had a part to play in the eventual penalty decision, granted at our 3rd or 4th time of asking. It seems to have divided opinion but I still can’t understand how that’s a penalty and the challenge on Saka wasn’t, so frustratingly similar to Luiz’ against Wolves last year. On balance, it was still “understandable” that it was given and that’s where the game is at nowadays. While I didn’t agree with it at the time and still think it’s a weak defence for our involvement in the Super League, I’m reminded of Josh Kroenke’s sentiments about being “left behind”; if we don’t play the game on every level, we’re the only ones who suffer.

In Lacazette, there’s a player who has always understood what’s been asked of him, even if he hasn’t always been physically able to do so. I think Arsenal’s best performances under Arteta have come when he’s been in the side, and there’s no one better at linking play than him. He also seems well-equipped in establishing clear relationships and I can’t recall a better example of him disrupting lines than against West Ham. With such an intelligent runner to work with, the goal that broke the deadlock was as simple as it gets in the end. As far as the captaincy goes, it was unsurprising that Arteta reverted to his senior citizens but I suspect this may just be until the end of the season as he gets a better grasp on some of the longer term options. For now, if Lacazette can stay fit, he seems up to the task.

I’m also especially happy with the win after hearing David Moyes’ bizarre take on vaccination and diversity – he’s never won against Arsenal and I hope that wait continues.

To and fro

While Arsenal’s goal difference was given some welcome respite, the starvation we’ve been subjected to this season left me wanting more and Arsenal could have won by 8 or 9 goals against a poor Southampton side. The first 20 minutes were as miserable as the lowest points against Everton and United and I feared the worst when Southampton were able to box Arsenal inside their own half with ease, barely allowing them to string together two passes.

Those fears ended up being short-lived, with Arsenal breaking the deadlock after beating Southampton’s press for the second time and that’s largely thanks to some brinkmanship from Ramsdale, which was the basis of his impetus. In such times when there are no clear leaders, especially when we find ourselves once again questioning what exactly is going on with the man with the armband, those that continually step forward are the ones I’m most thankful for. It wasn’t just his influence on the ball either, because Ramsdale was called into action a few times before Arsenal even got their break and the story may have been different if Southampton actually converted one of their early chances.

Arsenal’s peculiar relationship with confidence is difficult to unpack; after the predictable stomp at Anfield, I’d hoped that steering back on track against Watford would put Arsenal in good stead for their trip to Old Trafford but what followed was 180 minutes of capitulation. The hallmarks of low confidence were just as evident against Southampton, but the onslaught that followed once Arsenal had some breathing space and barb to their game was sort of astounding. There’s plenty of factors at play here, because Southampton have their own problems and playing away from home is always a factor now that crowds are back but it feels like the floor and ceiling of this phenomenon is too volatile to ever allow for consistency.

I’m happy for Lacazette, but despite the all-important opener, he looked bereft of ideas in front of goal and has seemingly all but forgotten he’s actually a centre forward. In fairness to him, he’s spent large periods of the season in a far deeper role and prior to this match, had only managed 5 shots all season. There’s also a question whether literally any other right-footed player stuck there would have also scored, but his contractual situation appears to be making that question less important with each match day.

Still, the rest of the team grew together from there on in and adding a second barely 5 minutes later was crucial in allowing Arsenal to actual enjoy their football again. There was some good fortune in the build-up, with Tierney’s highly-calculated mis-control and deflected cross but he was quickest to the second ball and Martin Odegaard was arriving in the right place at the right time again. For a player who struggled to live up to the expectations at the start of the season, he’s been one of the few consistent performers in the past few weeks and adding goals to his game was something that often escaped him during his loan. He started the game uneasily and struggled to find players running into space in the opening quarter, but I’m still glad that he had the ambition to try. I also have no doubt that he has the ability to actually make those passes but it’s somewhat understandable given the game-state at the time.

It was another fruitful game for Martinelli and Saka, with both desperately unlucky not to score after both were denied by opposing posts. They’ll be happy with an assist each and they’d done the hard part in finding space for themselves in tight spaces. With Gabi’s resurgence, it’s now beyond doubt that Arsenal’s creative burden is at the behest of its youngest players and the only question left is whether Arteta can find a way to accommodate him and Smith Rowe together. The answer seems obvious and on paper, a front three of Smith Rowe, Martinelli and Saka is hugely exciting but I can understand why Arteta won’t be heading there just yet.

It’s also nice having another player who can actually take half-decent corners. We’ve always known that Martinelli attacks dangerous areas with his crosses but it’s another thing to do it from dead-ball situations. After his compatriot was denied earlier, it didn’t take long for him to have another stab and Gabriel now has more Premier League goals than Harry Kane this season.

The Captaincy

Just in time for Christmas, the ghost of Nicolas Pépé made an appearance.. and I guess Aubameyang is Tiny Tim left out in the cold in all of this. By the sounds of it, he only has himself to blame and at this point, it’s difficult to see how he retains the captaincy. In many ways, it may well do everyone a favour because he’s never been convincing as a captain and he’s been at his best in the role when he’s been scoring freely. Those days look like they’re now behind him and if he can’t lead by example elsewhere, there doesn’t seem much sense in protecting him any longer. It may sow some disharmony initially, but contrary to the exaggerated reports of a “bad attitude” he arrived with, I don’t think he’s the type to throw a tantrum or harbour resentment for the rest of his time here. Who takes over is anyone’s guess, because the squad is full of characters – my only hope is that Arteta doesn’t take the easy road and pick someone else from the old guard, because they haven’t been leading or performing consistently enough to deserve it.

It won’t take long to find out what Arteta’s decision is, and after West Ham slipped up today against the cave trolls, Arsenal somehow find themselves back in contention with the Top Four and an unlikely win against West Ham would make it easier to forget the eyesores against Everton and United. I’ll believe it when I see it, but it just goes to show how precarious this middle pack is.



Arteta’s stock, hard-earned after months of promising performances and manicured PR, has been napalmed in two fell swoops. It’s made worse by how hard it is to find ways in which he hasn’t been the architect of his own downfall; bringing on a player in consecutive games who’s out of contract and is refusing to resign, last season’s top contributor in front of goal has been sat languishing on the bench for however long and he’s performed a complete U-turn on meritocracy. It’s also hard to remember a time where there hasn’t been a player indefinitely sidelined for no clear reason, made all the more difficult to understand when certain players are seemingly untouchable.

Yesterday at least saw the first deviation in trying “something different” on the Aubameyang front, but why stop there? If you’re serious about clamping down on mediocrity and rewarding those that deserve a chance, why has Ainsley Maitland-Niles been sidelined after a Man of The Match performance when, by his own admission, Thomas Partey has been a 4/10 for most of the season? It doesn’t take a beautiful mind to work out that Arsenal’s midfield is just as big a problem, if not greater than whoever leads the line.

Before Thursday’s kickoff against United, Arsenal were on the cusp of breaking into the Top Four. I think the fact that this was even possible is more indicative of the gulf in quality between the Top Three and the obese median than any real progress – as much as it would have been nice. Arsenal’s momentum up until that point was propped up by some convincing wins and many results that were closer than they should have been. You only need to look at Arsenal’s current goal difference when stacked up against last year’s to get an idea of how stark the problem is.

The losses to Liverpool, City and Chelsea may have left their mark, but it’s simply not an excuse to say that they’re write-offs when teams like Brentford and Brighton go and take points from the big boys. West Ham aren’t even in the same discussion, because they’ve gone toe-to-toe with the Big Three this season and are a long way from plucky underdogs these days. Arsenal fans will soon come to rue the hope that West Ham will “fall off” with the burden of Europe, because as we ourselves are finding out, a lack of fixture congestion doesn’t necessarily equate to results. With the Big Three caveat aside, it is still fair to say that Arsenal’s defense has improved but that is the bare minimum expectation when you spend the best part of £100m on new defenders and a goalkeeper. What we’re now realising is that spending this amount at the back doesn’t make up for gross dysfunction further up the pitch.

After that damning midweek self-diagnosis, part of me was quietly hopeful for something different from Thomas Partey. He probably wasn’t overjoyed about being reunited with Granit Xhaka so soon, because even if he’s ostensibly fit enough to play, it’s more than a stretch to say he’s “match ready”. With two viable alternatives that should be ahead on the pecking order, it didn’t do Thomas Partey any favours but that still doesn’t excuse another incredibly lacklustre and worrying performance. Something has to change quickly for him because the position is simply too important to accommodate passengers.


Something has to be said about Mike Dean and VAR, as tired as I am from mentioning the egotistical prick’s name. I struggled to see how a foul and a red card could be more obvious than Lascelles’ clothesline or McArthur’s rake but Ben Godfrey gave us just that with the most telegraphed assault I’ve seen in a while. While it’s plausible Dean didn’t see it in real time, you only need one look on a monitor to realise what he’s done with the most unsubtle “check-look away-boot to the face”. It’s even more laughable that it won’t be retroactively punished because they were “aware” of it in real time. It’s worse than ever and there’s no end in sight as long as people like Mike Riley are running the show.

Bukayo Saka was also kicked from start to finish and he received about as much protection from Mike Dean as he did from his own teammates. After recently watching Arsène Wenger: Invincible, you’re quickly reminded of how night and day these players’ mentalities were. I was crying out for someone like Lauren to come out of retirement frothing at the mouth, with a Keown coming in from the other side like a deranged ape. I don’t think there’s an age factor to defend Arsenal’s apathy either, because we’ve seen as recently with someone like Matteo Guendouzi who, for all his faults, was fearless. These profiles exist and though they may come with baggage, it continues to be a facet of our recruitment which is being overlooked. Tierney and Holding definitely have “it”, and I think Ramsdale does but there needs to be more (I hope it goes without saying that Xhaka thinks he has it but most certainly does not). Thugs like Lascelles, McArthur, Godfrey, Burnley’s startling XI with the exception of Cornet and the rest need to realise that if they’re going to try and kick our talent off the park, they’re going to come off black and blue themselves. Something has to change quickly here or we’re going to end up seeing a Hale Ender end up like Ramsey or Eduardo.


As for how Arsenal have handled gamestates recently, while the last two fixtures have been the most obvious and by far the most painful, it’s not like this hasn’t been on the cards. Arsenal lost to United with Michael Carrick in charge, amidst an awful run in form for them. One non-incident sparked United’s revival and Arsenal went into their shell. It was the first match in a long time where I didn’t know what to write because I didn’t know how to hinge what I saw on the day on the wider context. Everton are another deal entirely with managerial changes already being mooted and their last Premier League win before yesterday was against Norwich. In September. They even better our scoreline.

Credit: /u/ID1453719/

When it’s all laid bare, it’s not pretty. And this is with Arsenal playing once a week, after spending more than anyone else in the transfer window. And the new signings are actually good (or at least are an improvement). Arsenal’s output is well below the sum of its parts and yet, this is par for the course for a manager who is still learning on the fly. Learning on the fly isn’t the kind of descriptor that you’d want to hear when you’ve undertaken coaching badges and understudied one of the best managers of the modern game, but it’s the feeling I get from Arteta. Smith Rowe’s introduction last year against Chelsea was like winning the lottery, and Arsenal have been markedly better since. Without him, Arteta may well have already lost his job because Arsenal sadly don’t have anyone else like him lying around. Arteta has flip-flopped between back 3s and 4s depending on opposition and who he’s been able to sign. Now that he has his players, he’s playing to his system… but it’s still not working.

I’ll be beating a dead horse in saying what doesn’t work but it has to be said because it doesn’t change. Arsenal are without a functional centre forward, but I’m far from convinced that signing a new one would change a great deal. They’re largely dependent on individual brilliance and goals from set pieces; without their contributions, I’d be very interested to see Arsenal’s true position in the table. There’s still an unerring rigidity that hinders any kind of creativity in the final third, which not only makes Arsenal painfully boring to watch but entirely predictable to play against. Scoring goals has the bizarre effect of turning the side into a hermit crab, and they don’t seem capable to resist the inevitable pressure.

After all the hard work and allure of progress, it’s been eviscerated in an instant and even grinding out some results again will leave an uneasy feeling that it’s still temporary. It’s startling how quickly things can look grim when only 180 minutes of football ago, Arsenal were fighting to cement their place in the Top Four but this may just be Arteta’s chickens finally coming home to roost.


In some ways, the fixture could draw parallels to Arsenal’s tame attempts against Liverpool last week. Newcastle were set up to frustrate and there was a clear agenda in trying to snatch a goal, but as Eddie Howe will soon learn, this is a futile way to try and win football matches. This isn’t to slander Arteta’s approach last week; instead, I think he was simply trying to mitigate Liverpool’s quality with what he had available. In Howe’s case, his overly-cautious approach meant Arsenal had little to worry about and the only reason his side were level at half time was luck rather than fortitude. There’s a difference between 3rd-placed Liverpool and 20th-placed Newcastle and there were times during the first half yesterday where you’d be entitled to worry but in the end, Arsenal’s result belied the performance because 2-0 was kind on Newcastle.

With Odegaard coming into the side, I expected more incision – especially in the final third – but the low block coupled with the dreaded lunchtime kickoff apathy made for barely palatable viewing. Arsenal have been in this situation before when teams come to the Emirates looking for a draw but for a team that is still far from dominant, Newcastle’s reluctance to engage also hurt the home side. In stark contrast to Arteta’s increasingly customary “fast starts”, Arsenal struggled to move the ball with any kind of pace or conviction and besides a select few players, they weren’t at the races. After the game, Arteta was quick to point to the slowness in build-up, a lack of threat in behind and a failure to occupy certain spaces and I can’t disagree with anything he said. Given the side’s turnaround early into the second half, it’s also reassuring to see his analysis align with what we as fans saw because this hasn’t always been the case. That’s also not to say he was simply regurgitating some sort of post hoc filler, because the changes we saw after the break were far from random.

After the first half wastefulness, an injection of pace and a small piece of tactical ingenuity in flank swapping was enough to flummox Newcastle and despite his eventual injury, Saka’s cleverly worked and well finished opener was enough to give Arsenal breathing space for the rest of the game. Said injury also paved the way for a long overdue but welcome wonder-goal from Martinelli. On the face of it, “wonder-goal” isn’t necessarily the first thing that springs to mind but such was the quality, the difficulties involved in applying that finish, the timing of the run and the circumstances, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration. He’s been fighting for minutes all season and this was one of the few times he knew he actually had some headroom and he didn’t exactly waste time getting bedded into the game. There were other options available from the bench but the fact that Martinelli got the nod would suggest he’s been going about his business in the right way in training. As a player, one of the hardest things I found was getting your “touch” right after coming off the bench and Martinelli managed to put that away with his second touch, some 93 seconds after coming on and that alone is impressive to me.

After his culpability in Liverpool’s second, I wondered if that was it for Tavares’ spell in the side but he was once again given the nod ahead of Tierney. Nuno may be frustrating when he takes notes from Thomas Partey’s Book of Improbable Shots but it’s easily forgiven when you see how much grief he caused Newcastle. Where energy was mostly lacking in the first half, Arsenal had a constant; he was bounding forward any chance he got and was constantly looking to disrupt Newcastle’s stale low block. It would have been easy to leave him out and given Kieran Tierney’s fan-favourite status and the quality he can bring, it was a seemingly natural segue to reintroduce a player some have billed as the future captain. I think Arteta deserves some credit on that front because it would have been an easy decision to make but he was able to look beyond the defining mistake at Anfield and despite his seniority, Tierney hasn’t been himself this season.

In the end, Arsenal’s opener can be largely attributed to Tavares’ war of attrition, with Krafth first landing himself in the book because he couldn’t compete with the Roadrunner. Less than 10 minutes later, Arsenal were ahead when Nuno, Smith Rowe and Saka combined to find that opener. I don’t want to labour the point too much but I think it’s important to stress how much of an impact bookings have on defenders’ minds, especially when they have maniacs like Tavares running at them for 90 minutes. Once you’re in the book, you don’t have a professional foul to fall back on if they beat you and invariably, it’s only natural to end up giving the opposition some extra space.

As redemptions go, the same can also be said for Lokonga, who also struggled at Anfield despite impressing in the first half. His diagonal to Saka was one of the few shining moments of the first half yesterday, and on another day, that may well have been converted. He’s never been one to shy away from his responsibilities and despite his torrid second half at Anfield, he was able to take it in his stride and make a stamp on the game when others weren’t able. I also wasn’t aware he could actually do that, so that’s nice. For the price we paid for these two and Tomiyasu (who had another stellar performance despite his complete inability to actually cross a ball), Arsenal’s summer business looks better with each passing matchday. The same can be said for Ben White, who despite being in an entirely different transfer bracket, was an important cog in our approach on the day.

There’s probably some boring VAR nonsense that may or may not warrant a discussion. I thought Odegaard was lucky to not be punished for a clumsy and blatant tug but Newcastle had been looking for opportunities to go down all afternoon (see Callum Wilson ad finitum). In the sniveling snippet I saw from Eddie Howe, the issue he cited wasn’t with the Odegaard challenge but instead the legimate shoulder charge from Tavares that preceded Arsenal’s second. It’s a nice narrative to cling to, the old “it could have been 1-1 but ended up 2-0” but the reality is you’re never going to get those decisions if you’re looking for it all afternoon. It’s also hilarious to take issue with that, not only when you’ve played with 11 men behind the ball all afternoon but when you fail to neglect Lascelles’ challenge on Martinelli which is a penalty and red card every day of the week in my book. Anyway, Howe has got enough on his plate and given Newcastle’s new ownership, I couldn’t give a shit about their tears.

With Old Trafford looming, I’m glad Arsenal are back on the straight and narrow and despite their change in leadership, now is still a good opportunity to put some daylight between us and them before they get their affairs in order. They might be a stupid beast but their finances mean they’re a stupid beast you can never ignore and they still appear to be the most likely vacancy in the Top Four race, which is still well and truly on. As far as I’m concerned, they’re still long overdue a humbling and I’d love nothing more than for Arsenal to inflict the same kind of misery that Liverpool managed two weeks ago. We can dream…

Tri-yearly humbling

Yesterday’s humbling result always felt like it was a possibility given Arsenal’s recent track record at Anfield but for the recent run of form to come to such an abrupt end still hurts. After their disappointment against West Ham, you don’t have to be Nostradamus to expect some bite from Liverpool and in the end, it was more of a mauling – even without more heroics from Aaron Ramsdale. The first half may have given an illusion of competition, but I suspect that feeling would quickly ebb away over the course of a second viewing, because it was clear that Liverpool had plenty more to work with and they still deservedly went in at half time with a lead. The first goal was always going to be crucial, the second was the point of no return and it was cascades from there on out.

Arsenal’s young squad has managed to get by in recent weeks by starting quickly and using a lead to control games – there or thereabouts. There have been wobbles but they’ve usually been offset by spending larger parts of the game on the front foot, which is easier to do when you are ahead. While there were half-chances to take the lead at Anfield, a Liverpool opener had been coming and with so much quality available from dead-ball situations, you always run that risk with players like Trent Alexander Arnold. In typical Arsenal fashion, the day’s villain was naturally the first goalscorer and despite a growing number of occasions where Mané has escaped red cards both against Arsenal and elsewhere, I think it’s besides the point on this occasion.

After half time, something had changed and Liverpool did what they do better than anyone in pressing relentlessly and capitalising on lapses. I thought the variety in Arsenal’s first half distribution had given them something to think about, with Aubameyang and Saka both finding space to run into on a few occasions and I’d naively hoped that we would be able to hang in there playing Liverpool at their own game. I don’t have an issue with Tavares’ marauding run and lapse of concentration, because he was only doing the thing that’s put him on the map in the first place. Where other teams may not gamble in leaving a player in that pocket, Liverpool can afford to do so and when you have a player of Jota’s quality there, anything is possible. He also put Ben White and Ramsdale on their arses in the process and sometimes you just have to put your hands up and applaud the quality, because what he did was reminiscent of Ozil’s superb goal against Ludogrets.

Where Arsenal have been able to survive mistakes in recent weeks, Liverpool are a team that punish and Anfield is Arsenal’s most unforgiving venue. I don’t know what to make of that, because while Arsenal went through a period of inevitability with these fixtures (and probably still are given the combined 11-0 scoreline against the league’s Top Three), I don’t feel the same as I used to. Continuing to play with such a young squad was always bound to throw up some speed bumps and the characters within the squad don’t strike me as the types to now balk at the fixture when it comes around again. There was a naivety in some ways, both from Arteta and the players and they fell victim of the Hot Shot fallacy; Ramsdale has bailed us out a few times so he’ll continue to do so (in fairness, he still did); Tavares and Ben White will bound forward and open up the park – both did and both were dispossessed; the two Hale End starlings will find a way – both lacked the confidence and the ability in the final third to make an impact because Liverpool aren’t your average team. Even Thomas Partey, who usually rises to the occasion and has experience playing and winning at Anfield at the highest level, was kept quiet and ineffective by Fabinho and Thiago and looked just as junior and out of his depth as Sambi.

By their own admission, they preyed on Arsenal’s naivety, with Trent Alexander Arnold saying “the first 15-20 minutes of the second half was as good as we’ve played pressing wise this season. Completely ran all over them.They continued to play out the back but we were all over them, they were just seeing red blurs all over the place.”

There’s often a fine line between bold and stupid, but it would seem they didn’t take kindly to a fresh-faced team like Arsenal playing with fire. Be that as it may, I think I still prefer Arsenal playing and losing as they mean to go on rather than sitting 10 men behind the ball and trying to snatch a goal on the counter-attack in the fashion that earned Arsenal’s last win against Liverpool. That might sound nonsensical to prefer a 4-0 loss over a win but I don’t think pandering to what the opposition can do to you is conducive to long-term progress and hoping that you’ll snatch a game isn’t sustainable. The same can just as easily be said of Arsenal’s problems in the final third, which, while papered over in recent weeks thanks to some wins on the board, are still evident.

Goals scored14th
Open play goals19th
Big chances19th

It’s no coincidence that if you’re not creating many big chances, you’re not going to score many open play goals and the same can be said for possession. Not controlling games is distinctly un-Arsenal and despite managing to do so periodically, rarely is it sustained and that’s what you need if you want to get those numbers to look serious again. To make up for a blunt spear tip, Arsenal’s shrewd acquisitions at the back have dampened the effect but it’s clear where Arsenal’s next round of transfer business will be focused because these metrics will catch up with us.

Arteta thankfully has a kind fixture to roll into for a reset in bottom-placed Newcastle but going forward, he is running out of “whipping tokens”. The side is young today and Liverpool are seasoned, ruthless and in a three-horse title race. Despite what the table suggests, Arsenal are still a long way off and the best thing to take away from the game is to watch how Liverpool scored their 3rd and 4th goals because that looks like the next big hurdle this team needs to overcome.