Momentum

Momentum is a funny concept. Besides looking at the form table, there’s no way to really quantify it but unlike some of the false dawns in the last 3 years where metrics and results haven’t quite aligned, Arsenal taking 20 points from the last 24 isn’t thanks to a run of luck. Yesterday was the first time in a long time where I felt Arsenal played like a truly dominant home team playing against a team they knew they should be beating.

Arsenal of old…

The win might have felt hard fought in the dying stages but the reality is on another day, Watford would have been given a hiding – especially if Kevin Friend had the slightest idea what he was doing and Ben Foster wasn’t playing a blinder. While Aubameyang’s somewhat predictable penalty was still well saved, the save at close range from Gabriel’s header would go into any decent keeper’s highlight reel. Arsenal’s 6 fouls were condemned by 4 yellow cards, some of which were perfectly valid. I wouldn’t have an issue with this if Watford were punished in kind, but their 19 fouls drew only 4 yellow cards including the second yellow. The strangely rotund Danny Rose was able to perform a flying clothesline on Lacazette without punishment and given it wasn’t a denial of a clear goal-scoring opportunity, the double jeopardy rule for penalties and red cards wouldn’t have applied. He was also able to cynically trip Saka much in the same way that say Tomiyasu carded but once again got away with it, and getting away with it just about summed up Watford’s afternoon.

We needn’t have worried though, because it turns out karma is delicious. Feigning injury and putting the ball out of play to try and regain some territory and have a breather really isn’t grounds for complaint, as much as the Premier League’s elder statesman was keen to deflect from his side’s agricultural approach to football. And if you’re still unconvinced:

If I’m scraping the barrel for silver linings to Friend’s incompetence, it’s a real testament to Tomiyasu and Lokonga’s diligence and maturity that they were able to play out the rest of the game without issue after picking up early bookings. Had Watford been given equal treatment, the game would have afforded Arsenal more breathing space with virtually every Watford player walking on eggshells.


With the contentious issues out of the way, I’m just happy to have watched another near-perfect performance and save for the off-colour Aubameyang, there were no players out there didn’t deserve plaudits. It’s becoming a theme that players coming into the side as “back-up” can still make a difference; Nuno Tavares makes it impossible to look away and as much as it pains me that he’s replaced Kieran Tierney, he’s currently outperforming the Scot based on this season’s performances and I see no reason why he should immediately come back into the team on seniority or preference alone. I was critical in Arteta’s approach to meritocracy when Willian was trundling around the place and the only way Tierney’s immediate reintroduction could be justified is on tactical grounds. There’s a case to be made for that given our next opposition and with Mohamed Salah comfortably the best player in the world at the moment, I’d be inclined to favour the more experienced of the two. There may even be a case for playing both of them on the day, which I wouldn’t be against.

Dear Ainsley was another to step up to the plate at the last minute and I didn’t think a Man of the Match performance was on the cards. I always sympathised with his indignation at being played “out of position”, as good as he was when he was called upon at full back. What I didn’t want to happen was to see a talented Hale Ender leave for another club just because he wasn’t patient enough. Whatever’s happened behind the scenes, he seems well and truly on board with the project now with the public cry for help on Instagram behind him and I’m sure seeing the other academy prospects flourishing is partly to thank. My concern with his ability in the middle was always his security on the ball, as well as what he could offer going forward. The athleticism and defensive responsibility was never in doubt but the demands of the position are crucial to make everything else tick. Filling Thomas Partey’s boots is no small feat, especially when he had an equally inexperienced partner next to him, but there was no need to hide – not that he’s ever been one to do so anyway if his penalties are anything to go by. I think he’s finally made a case for himself in the long term and weening ourselves off the Mohamed Elneny’s of the world is another step in the right direction when it comes to squad building.

While I didn’t mention him by name earlier, it wouldn’t be right to not mention Smith Rowe now, because he continues to treat the Premier League like his stomping ground. It’s coming up on a one year since he came into the side proper and the rise has been just as fierce as Saka’s. It’s strange how players find their openings; in Saka’s case, we needed someone to fill in at left back and as highly rated as he was at youth level, you never know what a player is going to be like when they make the senior step. Smith Rowe was a job-saving gamble when Arsenal and Arteta were out of options and every time he’s played since, Arsenal have had a fighting chance. This season he’s a different animal, with the “end product” demands turning him to the green light of greed but his contributions in front of goal continue to win Arsenal points and he is growing into the number on his back. That’s about as much as we can ask for and the only lingering fear was whether Odegaard would crowd him out. In actuality, it’s been the latter who’s had to fight his way back into the team and ply himself in a variety of positions because Smith Rowe is busy making himself a Pires-shaped nest on the left wing.

Elsewhere, Ben White and Gabriel were imperious again in the middle, as were the two fullbacks and besides the Ramsdale scare, Watford were living off scraps. With Liverpool up next and after their loss to West Ham, I’m still slightly worried about how they’ll “make amends”. Arsenal’s last outing of this calibre was a 5-0 loss to City and while I’m sure another scoreline like that won’t be on the cards, I’d hate to see a defeat put a dent in this side’s expectations. With any luck, the recent run of form and subsequent effect on the league table has moved the goalposts of this season’s aspirations and seeing a team like West Ham, on a closer footing to Arsenal’s, go toe to toe with Liverpool and win should be grounds for some hope. Everything will have to be right on the day to get a result and in many ways, it’s coming at a good time. Arteta will be a busy man over the international break and the main thing I’ll be looking for is competitiveness because then we would still have progress.

Turning a corner

At this point in the season, it’s probably fair to say Edu, Arteta and the scouts that survived last year’s chop deserve some credit for their talent identification. I’ve already admitted that it was wrong to doubt Ramsdale in particular but I’d just like to double down on that wrongness because without him, I highly doubt Arsenal would have taken 17 points from their last 7 games. Peter Schmeichel billed that save as the best he’d seen in years and his own son was in the opposite sticks.

His presence has been transformative and his active engagement with both the rest of the team and the crowd comes in stark contrast to Bernd Leno’s incandescent blandness. For a long time, blandness wasn’t an issue because the consistent shot-stopping was enough but when teams began to realise they could get at Leno, that Arsenal’s back line looked uncomfortable doing what they were asked, his sphere of influence irreparably shrank. Ramsdale’s control of his area leaves no doubt who’s running the show and no chance to second-guess his distribution because he has such variety in his locker.

On this occasion, relying so much on Ramsdale’s heroics was enough to get over the line but allowing for such sustained pressure on a regular basis isn’t going to do the collective blood pressure much good. There’s a flip side, because Arsenal are actually a very good side when they score first; since September last year, Arsenal have won 20 out of 24 games when doing so, losing 2 and drawing 2 others. Jose Mourinho early successes with Chelsea were underpinned by a feeling of hopelessness if they went ahead, often content protecting a 1-0 lead. Over time, it’s something that can begin to demoralise opposition and provided Arsenal continue shutting teams out, it isn’t necessarily such a bad thing to fall onto the back foot for periods. While no member of the defense is a finished article, the fact that they’re already performing with such cohesion and competence points to a promising ceiling.


The early damage was once again enough and even though teams are now abundantly aware of Arsenal’s fast starts, few teams have been able to match the intensity. Gabriel’s leap brought another goal from a set piece (courtesy of dear old Jamie Vardy’s assist) and it’s probably fair to say at this point that the new coach is an improvement.

The second was the type of goal that I would most associate with Arteta’s brand of football; overloading the box on the transition and finding space to take advantage of loose balls. For Smith Rowe, it’s more end product and while some of his final third play needs work, choosing the wrong option or occasion or failing in his weight of pass, he’s continuing to make a difference. With less of the creative burden on his shoulders thanks to Lacazette’s tireless work, he’s enjoying the kind of freedom the position needs to be most effective.

By and large, it was another performance where no player stood out for the wrong reasons. There’s edges to be smoothed and ceilings that aren’t being reached but Arsenal are continuing to rack up points with results that befit the performances. The edges are the small things that add up, and with them, Arsenal would come away with more definitive results; Aubameyang’s runs and intelligence off the ball are too often going to waste, Saka’s shooting boots have been tampered with (although he was still heavily involved in both goals) and there are sloppy fouls being given away in dangerous areas. There’s also little in the way of feeling hard done by because decisions haven’t gone Arsenal’s way, even if Jonny Evans absolutely should have been sent off just as James McArthur absolutely should have been sent off. If anything, it’s nice not having to lose our minds over PGMOL’s incompetency for a change.


Leicester are no chumps and go to away from home and win with a clean sheet is another statement victory. In the last 5 weeks, Spurs have been dispatched with ease, last season’s mauling at home to Villa was well and truly put to bed and yesterday’s performance is another instance of the gap being closed. While the table may look promising, perhaps even exceeding expectations, the fact that Arsenal are showing a level of competitiveness with teams they’re likely to be fighting with for European spots at the end of the season is promising. This is with an out-of-form Bukayo Saka and many new signings that aren’t even half way through their first season in the Premier League.

Not a bad turnaround all things considered – now the trick is to do it on a weekly basis.

Consistency pending

It’s hard to believe that only 3 days passed between Arsenal’s dismal performance against Crystal Palace and yesterday’s man-handling. It was the perfect response and it’s not the first time Arteta has managed to drum up something new and functional when he’s needed it – I just wish Arsenal’s form didn’t look like an ECG reading.

After a false-dawn win against Spurs, Arsenal were undeserving benefactors of a point against Brighton and gifted Crystal Palace two goals to plate up another. On both occasions, Arsenal spent large portions of the game on the backfoot. Monday night at least has some cause for complaint thanks to Mike Dean’s knavish antics and you would hope Arsenal would have gone on to win that game given the would-be time of dismissal. Thankfully, McArthur’s assault wasn’t enough to rule Saka out and even though he once again had the ever-loving shit kicked out of him, Saka was his usual disruptive self back on the right wing.

Arteta’s other changes were less easy to make, but they worked on the day and reinforce the idea that the league’s youngest squad has more than just potential. Dropping a player like Kieran Tierney is never easy, especially when he’s been one of the few truly consistent performers in the last 18 months but his performances have dropped in recent weeks. It’s no surprise because he’s been run ragged since he joined the club, while also keeping up with the demands of his international duties. In Tavares, I didn’t know if he was quite ready for a Premier League start because his cameos, while lively, have all been “raw”. He likes to take a shot when he should perhaps pass, he bombs forward, he has a few misplaced passes in his locker. While we got much of the same yesterday, Villa simply couldn’t deal with his boundless energy and the signs are promising for what is ostensibly, a back-up left back (even if he doesn’t even see himself as a defender, primarily). In that sense, he’s a like for like replacement for Tierney and maintains the balance in having one flank pushing onward and another tucking inside – even if both he and Tomiyasu were a pair of marauding maniacs on the day.

After struggling to impose himself from the left side of central midfield, Odegaard was left out to accommodate Arsenal’s 4-4-2ish change in shape and with Lokonga and Lacazette coming back into the side, Arsenal managed a far more cohesive press, with the ball quickly won back all over the pitch. The first half was as good as I’ve seen under Arteta in terms of dominance and chance creation, and that’s largely thanks to the front-footed approach afforded by overwhelming the middle of the pitch. Given Lacazette’s recent impact and hunger from the bench, there reached a point where his involvement was more integral than worrying about the headache of playing him with Aubameyang but what we got was a fresh, functional approach. Neither was forced into unnatural (i.e. ineffective) positions and both had opportunities to score; Lacazette was unjustly punished in what looked like a 50/50 and the goal should have stood. It sullies the taste of VAR’s involvement, timely though it was, because I thought the first incident was far more deserving than the one actually given but inconsistency is the name of the game. Overall, he was a hugely important cog and despite burning out just after the hour mark, he made a strong case for his continued involvement.

The chances weren’t just reserved for the front pair either. Tavares still clearly has en eye on his first Arsenal goal and is comfortable shooting on either foot, he also put it on a plate for Saka who was only denied by a brilliant save from Martinez and Partey hit the bar before he scored. There was fluidity and variety, and it’s that move away from predictability that allowed us to have the highest first half xG of Arteta’s reign.

After the break, Villa were at least more competitive but the damage had already been done, and in chasing for a foothold back into the game, opened themselves up for some slicing and dicing. While the finish may have been fortuitous, the goal was all Smith Rowe’s own doing after he won the ball on the edge of our box and drove forward. In similar fashion to Arsenal’s second against Tottenham, Smith Rowe’s pass to Aubameyang was flicked on in what now feels like a signature move and the stars aligned for his shot to squirm inside the near post. I do feel bad for Emi because the penalty save was brilliant, as was his denial against Saka but he had his day in the sun last season. For Smith Rowe, it was no less than he deserved and after his delivery onto Partey’s noggin, he’s beginning to quietly add to the all imortant numbers. He’s still finding his way, which is only natural given his age and there are certain passes I wish he’d make more often but his trajectory is looking as fierce as Saka’s. There’s still a gnawing in the back of my mind over his fitness but Arsenal’s threadbare fixture list should go some ways in keeping him fresh.


Going forward, the challenge that persists for Arteta is finding a way to standardise this intensity; it’s not enough to start with intensity and defend a slender lead and look to hit teams on the break because young squads are inherently accident-prone. There needs to be a relentlessness as we saw against Spurs and Villa to put the game beyond doubt, so when the inevitable cock-up happens, the result is already settled. Had Arsenal beaten Crystal Palace as they should have done, they’d be sitting in 4th.

In fairness to the young squad, it was only half guilty for Villa’s late consolation. Tavares wasn’t close to his man and Partey’s limp challenge gave Ramsey an opening and there was no stopping it from there. Ramsdale was understandably furious having spent most of the game spraying passes like Pirlo instead of actually goalkeeping but White and Gabriel had another solid performance that leaves me confident that we’ve finally future-proofed our defence for the first time since Koscielny and Mertesacker. With any luck, a certain Frenchman will hopefully earn his place at long last which makes for some serious grit and quality.

While October may be a bit of a cheat code for Arsenal, Arteta has at least managed to steady the ship and climb the table but this was always the expectation given the standard of opposition. The bit-part glimpses into Arsenal’s ceiling have been enjoyable but it’s a break-even deal if we have to sit through any more dross like we’ve unwillingly done so against Brighton and Crystal Palace. The task remains the same for Arteta and that’s consistency.

Dregs

After the North London derby win, I made the mistake of mentioning some “momentum” that Arsenal had chanced upon. With the term now looking premature, the team still appears to be inhibited by the same problem as last season, which is an inability to turn one good result into a series of good results.

With little in the way of injuries, Arsenal’s following game against Brighton should have been another opportunity to grow in confidence despite their convincing start to the season. Instead, Arsenal were lucky to walk away with a point. Regardless of Patrick Vieira’s steadily improving fortunes with Crystal Palace, a home fixture against them with no significant injuries after an international break should be relatively simple for the league’s biggest summer spenders.

Instead, after a bright start and a deserved early lead, Arsenal decided to immediately rest on their laurels and surrender their territory to Palace, and fate to the whims of Mike Dean. This kind of approach to game-state might work playing against top sides, where scoring – particularly so early – calls for some time on the back foot to weather the rebound. This wasn’t one of those such times, and given the ease at which Spurs were blown away by Arsenal’s early intensity, I can’t for the life of me understand why there wasn’t the same willingness to do it again.

With the exception of Aubameyang, there was a no semblance of unity in how Arsenal played out of possession (a position they something often found themselves in). The captain led by example, tirelessly pressing from the tip of the spear, which is exactly what you want him to do be doing – even if there’s some debate as to whether that’s appropriate if we want to prolong his goal-scoring ability. He’d already done his job anyway, popping up at the back-post after Pépé forced Guaita into action.

Instead, the press so often failed because it was too passive and too disinterested. This will sound familiar and more worryingly, appears to be by design rather than individual indifference.

It was more grim viewing and to add insult to injury, Bukayo Saka was injured after a callous and very deliberate challenge from behind that conveniently went unnoticed by both Mike Dean and the blind, old dogs in the VAR booth. The more you watch it, the angrier you get and the only consolation at this point would be for McArthur to land himself a lengthy ban although that doesn’t do Arsenal much good. He should have seen a straight red and he also conveniently avoided an earlier booking after a blatant professional foul. I’ve already made my position on Mike Dean perfectly clear; the man continues to steal a living.

There’s also a case to be made that Palace’s second came from a foul rather than a legitimate interception and while Arsenal shouldn’t have been naive enough to get caught out again in the same manner as the first, they can still feel aggrieved.

While frustrating, none of this should really matter. It pales in comparison to the frustration I feel when time and again, I watch my team struggle at home against far inferior opposition. Arteta has no excuses and no distractions this season and Arsenal’s trajectory is currently heading on the same course, the same problems persisting with different players.

Thomas Partey had another night to forget and despite coming close on one occasion, continues to be wasteful in front of goal with his first Arsenal goal looking more and more like an incurable itch. Odegaard looked displaced on the left side of the midfield and this wasn’t the first time we’ve seen him struggle there. Smith Rowe failed to find the right pass when Pépé was in acres of space. Ben White saw it fit to back off until Odsonne Edouard was in a prime shooting position. Arsenal’s man of the match only played 25 minutes and showed more fight than every other player out there besides Aubameyang. Even his injury-time equaliser was widely scorned for the unbefitting “over-celebration”.

Arsenal seem at odds as to what their level actually is, and as much as I like Lacazette and his attitude when he came on, there is still grounds for cynicism because this isn’t the first time last-gasp equalisers against teams we should be beating have seen knee slides and jubilation. I don’t like to revel in the doom and gloom that this kind of cynicism breeds but when you take a step back, it really does take the shine away. When there is so little to cheer about on such a consistent basis, it’s easy to get carried away when the sun does briefly shine but it’s like butter scraped over too little bread (this conveniently applies to both fan enjoyment and points on the board). Arsenal are constantly scraping the “joy barrel” for dregs and the league for points, creaking through with 1-0 wins against Burnley and Norwich, drawing with Brighton and Crystal Palace and getting routinely smashed by our old rivals, there’s only so much you can take before you end up just accepting your new place in the pecking order.

Reset

Arteta maintained his commitment to honesty being the best policy, saying “it was a point gained because I don’t think we deserved anything more than that” and I don’t see any room for argument there.

All things considered, a draw wasn’t the worst result after 3 consecutive wins and Brighton have earned their place in the table. Given the air of despair that hung over the club after the opening 3 games, a loss may have sent the more hysterical arm of the fanbase back down the rabbit hole. For the players and Arteta, winning the North London derby in such emphatic fashion for it to then be undone the following week would have left an equally sour taste.

With no midweek games for either, Brighton were in the same boat as Arsenal but their intensity set the tone for the match and unlike last week, Arsenal were on the back foot for the majority of the game. There won’t be many more opportunities for that to be an excuse, especially without taxing European away fixtures but Brighton, much like Brentford, are smartly managed, tenacious and organised.

In terms of projects, Graham Potter finally seems to be on the right side of xG and even though they failed to score again on Saturday despite managing 21 efforts at Ramsdale, few troubled him. Smith Rowe almost snatched a lead but expecting Arsenal’s youngest to always deliver when they’re most needed is a tall ask. Instead, it was Arsenal’s two (relative) elder statesmen in Partey and Aubameyang that were the most ineffective.

When Lacazette was introduced in the 72nd minute, Arsenal had a better hold in the final third but it’s not like it makes any sense to drop Aubameyang after a good performance in the North London derby. In many ways, his selection is always complicated by his captaincy. Without it, some situational flexibility could be justified from time to time and there is clearly a willingness to justify his contract even if the fit isn’t quite right tactically. His involvement was limited and he had far less joy against Dunk and Burn than against Spurs. This was particularly felt when Ramsdale was forced to go long – which was often the case thanks to Brighton’s effective press. In failing to win either the first or second ball, the ball was often back with Brighton and Arsenal’s disconnect between their midfield and front three was a standout problem on the day. Martin Odegaard also had a forgettable day and was the first to be replaced.

Arsenal’s best men on the day were the busiest defensively. Mr. Sambi Lokonga continues to quietly go about his business in a very tidy manner and got through a lot of work under difficult circumstances. White and Gabriel managed another clean sheet and handled Brighton’s aerial threat and constant bombardment of the box well, with Ramsdale also more than playing his part. The crucial diving interception he made was worthy of a point alone and it’s now 4 clean sheets in 5 for his Arsenal career.

Like Brentford. Brighton are a team that will take points off better teams than Arsenal this season purely because they don’t give you handouts if you’re having an off-day. Arteta’s job is now to raise the levels of those off-days and continue finding ways to win points that we don’t deserve while producing more days like last Saturday when we are at the races.

How the turntables

You’d have thought by now that the mighty Topspurs would know better than to tempt fate so early into a new season but they just can’t help themselves.

Fortunately, they never do learn and a mere 3 games later, Arsenal have edged ahead in the table and figuratively leapt ahead of their rivals. Spurs looked beleaguered from the first whistle to the last and that isn’t intended to downplay Arsenal’s performance in the slightest. It reminded me of Arsenal’s final games under Emery when the players downed tools and looked entirely unconvinced of what they were being asked to do. Nuno is only 6 games into the job and while he was far from their first choice coach, the real issues lie in their ramshackle squad and a certain wantaway superstar (although “white dwarf” would have been a better descriptor for his performance yesterday). While I may not have always seen the light with Arteta, his players’ commitment has never openly faltered and now that he finally has his team, the players are doing his bidding with a real sense of unity.

After the game, Aubameyang spoke of “having a chat among the players” after the loss to City and as it coincided with the international break, something now feels different. For the first time in a long time under Arteta, I feel like I’m understanding what his intentions are and the slender victories against Norwich and Burnley were slender not because the games were close but through a lack of finesse when it mattered. The ball is moving quicker now and the right players continued to pop up in the right places. I’m sure the fixture and venue helped but that first half performance was simply a continuation of the last few weeks of football.

It should be difficult to pick out individuals in a performance where no one was less than an 8 out of 10 but there are somehow still front-runners in the race for plaudits. Saka looked nothing like the player that had been on the fringes of our opening games and came away with a goal and an assist. Smith Rowe continued his impressive start to the season with the end product that has often escaped him and I love everything about his game. Gabriel picked up where he left off in man-handling Harry Kane. Tomiyasu is still yet to be dribbled past in the Premier League and had more ball recoveries (8) than any other player, as well as the most touches and the only joy Son found all afternoon was made possible by leaving his shadow. Aubameyang worked tirelessly, did two things he supposedly can’t do in linking up play and winning first balls, scored in front of the The King with his own celebration and made sure his money was where his mouth was with that statement trim. Ramsdale with a Seaman-dubbed “worldie”, utterly livid at failing to keep out Son’s rocket from close range, instrumental in beating the press and marshaling the back line (as well as the ball boys). Ødegaard, the metronomic workhouse that continues to bring shape and drive and Partey looking back to his best.

The only omissions are White, Tierney and Xhaka and each of them still played their part, and that’s exactly what you want going forward. That’s not to say that there’s no room for mistakes and this performance was the exception rather than the norm for the time being, but doing the basics and winning games is a great foundation to make those mistakes less costly when they come around again. Given the age of this squad, it’s an inevitability and the crucial aspect is having the patience to weather the storm.

When Arteta’s vision was most difficult to understand, it was in there being no tangible or obvious benefit to the negatives. It’s why I would use words like “delusional” and “stubborn”, because he looked out of ideas and unwilling to change. He seems to have undergone some personal growth where he has actually taken a step back and reevaluated his options. For what it’s worth, he also seems to be enjoying the little things if his celebrations were anything to go – you can’t not love that. Speaking of putting your money where your mouth is, to his credit, Arteta is another who has done just that. I don’t think anyone expected Tomiyasu to walk off the plane and into the team but he’s done precisely that and plugged a leak that many other right backs and inverted left backs had managed to do. When upwards of £30m for a “back-up goalkeeper” was thrown around for some double relegation reject, most, including myself questioned the logic when there were other supposedly more important areas to address. Who’s laughing now? It was one thing to sign him in the first place but for him to usurp Bernd Leno so quickly is unprecedented. For now, being bolder has been paying off for Arteta and now that he can apply his structure to a committed and at long last – balanced squad – he can continue to nourish their potential.


The Match

Strangely, I’m not going to labour the points of the match too much because they speak for themselves. The goals were all sublime and fell to the three players most in need of some confidence in front of goal. They were all well-taken, distinctly Arsenal and sufficiently devastating for the local tourists.

Seeing their crestfallen, slobbering talisman halve his transfer value in one afternoon was a thing of beauty and watching him stand on the ball like some sort of bedraggled tribute act to their badge paved the way for Saka’s goal. In case anyone needed a By The Numbers

Some may point to some contentious decisions going Arsenal’s way and to that I will say.. “I didn’t see it”. In all seriousness, the most they could complain about is Xhaka perhaps fouling in the build-up to the second but if VAR wants to wave play on, so be it. The “penalty” claim on Kane is classic “3 goals down Harry” behavior and there was nothing in it, nor would it get a second look if it was anywhere else on the pitch. After the number of times both he and Son have taken a flop in this fixture, it was about time they got their comeuppance anyway. If you leave yourself clutching at straws after such a performance, I suspect it’s because you have nothing else to cling to.

After they were blown away in the first half, it was no surprise to see some proper game management come into play and for all of the possession Spurs were afforded, little came from it. They might have squandered some opportunities but besides Son’s goal, nothing felt clear-cut and the result was never in danger.

Going forward feels like uncharted waters. With momentum underfoot, and the first win against a team Arsenal appear to be in direct competition with, they now go to Brighton who finally seemed to have escaped their xG disparity. It’s another huge step in the right direction but to improve on last season’s finish, Arsenal need to find a way to dig in and grind out winning streaks throughout the season – not just when their backs are against the wall. As we’ve seen, a few wins on the bounce can make the world of difference but there’s a long way to go yet and we’d be fools to fall victim to the same mistake as the chickenheads.

Civic duty

Were Arsenal able to avoid under-hitting simple passes, I suspect it would have been quite a comfortable scoreline. I also suspect we would have avoided a penalty scare. Since we can’t make simple passes, it was a nervous wait for the final whistle and another win that left wanting.

I don’t think it’s much of a conspiracy theory to chalk up some of the under-hit passes to some gamesmanship from Burnley and their neolithic groundsman. It would also be incredibly naive of Arsenal to assume that every ground is going to be as lusciously smooth and well-watered as London Colney and the Emirates. We’ll never know how much it played a part in curtailing some promising passages of play but in the end, Arsenal had to settle for a win decided by a single, glorious set piece.

For that, I say “thank you” to Martin Odegaard and whoever pushed that deal over the line because I really dislike Burnley and it is the civic duty of every team in the league to turn up each week and edge them closer to oblivion. The youngest squad in the league dispatched the oldest and no amount of the typically abrasive Turf Moor antics could unsettle them. In the case of Odegaard, the goal was really the icing on the cake for his performance. After squandering a chance or two against Norwich by not pulling the trigger, it was a nice way to put some doubts to bed about a so-called lack of end product. He was obviously helped by the fact that Ashley Barnes has bricks for brains and decided not to jump (and there’s a delicious irony about these so-called “hard men” neglecting their duties when it mattered most) but it didn’t take anything away from the strike. With Partey plugging the holes behind him like some sort of plumbing-trained cephalopod, Odegaard led the team in the next phase of the pitch from start to finish and worked tirelessly to unsettle, disrupt and create. It was clear that these two were also missed against Brentford in Arsenal’s other “winnable” game but they provide a spine to build around.

At the base of that spine now also sits a defence that actually resembles something functional. I’m not surprised in the slightest that Ramsdale kept his place, and besides being closed down successfully on one occasion, was the perfect remedy for a side like Burnley and now has two clean sheets in two games. He brings a similarly calming presence to the side that we also saw with Emi Martinez and part of that is down to his swagger. Snatching and holding onto crosses despite being man-marked by Wood and Barnes, bizarre two-footed jumping catches to deter any charge downs, immediately stepping in to keep the knuckle-draggers away from Tierney and the deftest of touches to deny Vidra after an awkward backpass. His distribution was varied and decisive, finding the likes of Smith Rowe and Aubameyang in space on the halfway line and he was also alert to Cornet’s effort when Burnley finally got a sight of goal.

For someone who’s supposedly weak in the air, Ben White seemed to handle himself just fine if this is anything to go by:

  • Most aerial duels won
  • 3/5 ground duels
  • 5/8 aerial duels
  • 7 clearances
  • 4 interceptions
  • 83% pass completion

And even if he is worse than those statistics suggest, this is precisely why centre-back partnerships are so important and he just so happens to play next to an animal in the making. He hasn’t always fired on all cylinders and he still has a lot to learn but Gabriel looks capable of going toe to toe with just about anyone on his day. Between them, they look to have a balanced skill set and even if White can struggle on occasion, Tomiyasu is already looking like the perfect accompaniment after another impressive shift.

It was especially easy to place the spotlight on the defence because going forward, there’s still work to be done. As much or as little as the pitch may have played its part, too many of Arsenal’s shortcomings were inexcusable. Errors in judgement, sloppy touches, short passes and tame finishing are all to blame for the scoreline remaining 1-0 and the subsequent pressure at the other end. While the left side dependency has waned, Arsenal are still guilty of hopeful, half-baked attempts in chance creation and there are far better sides than Norwich and Burnley to see off this season. Aubameyang was once again starved of opportunities, and of the front three, was the most effective in creating chances which isn’t right. While Pépé’s off-day was easier to swallow after his contributions against Norwich, I have some concerns about Bukayo Saka who hasn’t looked himself at all this season. Sloppy in possession and lacking a cutting edge, I wonder if he simply needs more time off or at the very least, time on the sidelines to work his way back into the team. After slating Willian’s involvement for 6 months on the grounds of meritocracy, I’m inclined to be consistent in saying it may be time for someone else to take over from Saka for the time being.

While brief, a return to the Maitland-Niles/Lokonga pivot was a convenient Plan B to see the game out, and both did well to stretch the game and provide welcome relief for the back line. Whatever’s transpired between Ainsley, his representatives/family and Arteta has obviously cleaned the slate for the time being and his diligence seems to be repaying that renewed trust. When you make such statements about where you see yourself playing, the only way to really prove yourself is on the pitch and with Arsenal’s currently limited midfield options, he finally has an opening. Having someone like Thomas Partey to learn from is also an invaluable mentor and he’d be stupid to throw it away if that’s where he sees himself playing.


The Champions of August (trophy not included, see terms and conditions) and all round media darlings lost 3-0 today to Chelsea – without players missing. The table is set for Arsenal to go above them after a stonking 4-0 win and because that is a possibility, I’m convinced it’s going to happen. As much as this Arsenal struggle to create chances, I’m sure it’ll all come together when it matters most. On a more serious note, it’s the first litmus test of the season against a team that Arsenal are competing with in terms of the big picture. They have another bricks-for-brains troglodyte in Eric Dier that Arteta should be focusing his efforts on exploiting and a (14th choice?) manager that has already ridden his luck getting them to 7th place. Your move, Amazon.

End of the road

Last night’s defeat was a fitting end to an utterly forgettable season. That performance had been brewing for weeks, if not months, with Arsenal stumbling through every stage of the Europa League knockout stages before falling at the penultimate hurdle. I’ve been saying every step of the way that there would come a time when current levels wouldn’t suffice because teams improve and margins tighten as the competition progresses. On the night where Arteta really needed to put his money where his mouth is, his team was unable to rise to the occasion, save for a 5 minute period of pressure early in the second half. This came as a huge surprise given his convictions that emerged after the game.

We are devastated. We had so much enthusiasm and desire to be in that final.

It’s all well and good coming out with these sentiments when the horse has already bolted but at this point, it’s all just a bit hollow. With the exception of one or two players, I didn’t see desire or enthusiasm – I saw fear, players that were out of their depth and an approach that was easily dealt with by a manager Arsenal sacked 18 months ago. The biggest injustice is the ease at which Villareal were able to keep Arsenal at bay, in their “fortress” – a fanciful term used by Arteta back in October. 4 shots on target across two legs of a European semi-final. I’m not sure what’s worse, that Arsenal played with an unproven “false 9” in the first leg, or that they had more attempts on target with this system than playing at home in the second leg with a recognised centre-forward.

In some ways, I wonder what good an F.A. Cup win in his first season really did for Arteta’s development. It’s not like the win was down to luck; Arteta’s tactics in the semi-final and final were largely responsible for the success. It propelled him from head coach to manager before he’d even had a full season in management under his belt. From there, an unsettling pattern emerged of someone who was adamant they always knew better. The undroppable Willian phase, the “30 crosses a game from deep” phase, the Aubameyang winger phase, Willian and Smith Rowe False 9s and a tome of poor substitutions that culminated last night in the most egregious of them all (including Ceballos’ lack of only last Thursday). Aubameyang making way on 80 minutes for Lacazette, having just hit the post, for Nketiah to then come on 10 minutes later and imbalance the team in much the same way as Aubameyang and Lacazette would have done anyway. Nketiah, a player who is almost certainly leaving the club in he summer, then repeatedly made silly fouls and closed the game out nicely for Villareal. I couldn’t make sense of it.


Arteta was also quick to point to extenuating circumstances, saying “we’ve had so many players injured. Too many important players that help to define the game.” Losing Granit Xhaka in the warm-up was an obvious loss, and it’s clear by now that his personality is a more valuable asset than his utility as a player, especially at left back. With David Luiz sidelined and Aubameyang likely still recovering from what was by all accounts a terrible bout of malaria, Arsenal were essentially leaderless (since the latter has primarily led by example rather than in the vocal sense anyway).

I still refuse to believe that their absences were responsible for losing a two-legged tie against Villareal. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Arsenal have failed to score on 10 occasions at the Emirates this season. 19 goals from 17 home matches. How many times have Arsenal been nullified by a supposedly inferior side this season?

Home and away losses to Aston Villa, Everton and Wolves. A home loss to Burnley. A home draw shared with Southampton, Crystal Palace, Fulham. The first season in 25 without European football.

This was another match where it was clear as day that our only chance of getting something from the game was a piece of individual brilliance from either wing, if our long ball distribution was anything to go by. The half-chances that fell to Aubameyang were unfortunate; on another day, one of them may have found the net. That doesn’t change the fact that the service he received was non-existent and he was able to muster those chances in spite of the quality behind him. Besides Smith Rowe and the occasional flash from either wing, I didn’t see any real footballing quality on the day, which was exacerbated by certain players finding new depths. Hector Bellerín may have created some of Arsenal’s clearest openings in the second half, but the first half saw him give the ball away more than any other player and his days at the club look numbered. Thomas Partey, a man seemingly expected to act like some sort of footballing Vishnu and handle the midfield all by himself was a ghost of the well-oiled machine that was instrumental in the win at Old Trafford.


Arsenal are now faced with an unprecedented decision to make, based on parameters that have changed since Emery’s departure. The regression in the last year is obvious, all other extenuating circumstances aside. Arsenal are in the same boat as everyone else and if Arteta wants to point to injuries as an excuse last night, the squad has fared far better than most Premier League sides this season and they find themselves in 9th.

The belief that this downturn is a necessary evil before our fortunes improve depends on the considerable assumption that Arteta will improve. Emery is an established manager with actual credentials and he was sacked for less. Ultimately, it looked like Emery lost the dressing room because the players ground to a halt on the pitch and last night looked eerily similar.

The only discernible difference is Arteta has some previous with the club, which points to a pitiful romanticism at worst and wishful thinking at best. I’ve already made my stance on KSE clear in the fallout of the ESL and Arsenal’s cascading fortunes on and off the field are a consequence of the inaction and incompetence that exemplifies their time as owners. The question that remains is whether this systemic rot includes Arteta. A cursory glance over to our South London rivals will do no Arsenal fan any favours right now amidst their progression into the Champions League final. The last straw in Frank Lampard’s tenure was losing to lowly Arsenal and his career has been equally entitled in terms of landing a top job in management without merit. They went for a serious option and Chelsea are now looking like a completely different side. I don’t condone their ownership model, and the ruthlessness that Abramovich has shown over the years makes little to no sense when you consider the fate of Di Matteo, who was sacked shortly after winning the club’s first ever Champions League. Not for one second am I calling for Arsenal to hop on board the manager merry-go-round because it’s a ridiculous way to run a football club, but there is at least some merit in looking elsewhere for inspiration and reassurance when considering Arteta’s suitability.

I was on board with Arteta for a long time and there was so much to like at times. An F.A. Cup win in your first ever season is almost unheard of and I wanted the “Arsenal family project” to work out but I feel like that ship has now failed because there are simply too many red flags. His once-inspiring words that always pointed to the right things and a clear understanding of our problems have been replaced by Willian’s face etched into my brain and Arteta’s Zoom press conferences where he uses words like “dominate” after a 1-0 loss at home. I worry he’s too smart for his own good, emboldened by trust placed in him by people that don’t know any better. His coaching staff have no clear role when it comes to matches, which is the place it really matters and Arteta’s relentless insistence in going against the grain to keep face simply reeks of pride and arrogance. Last night, the tone was set in the opening minutes and besides some brief respite in that second half flurry, the game careered beyond us in predictable fashion. This was the chance to make things right and in failing to do so, I’m inclined to say his time is up.

Easy as it gets

Yesterday’s game against Newcastle was about as inconsequential as it gets. That feeling was shared among both sets of players, besides maybe Fabian Schar.

While it’s nice to be back into the top half of the table, Newcastle were a non-entity on the day, hamstrung without the marauding, goal-drunk Joe Willock. They were precise in their disinterest, expending only enough effort to avoid a match-fixing inquisition and Arsenal briefly slipping into second gear was enough to see them off.

It’s always nice seeing Mohamed Elneny score. He might be heading into the last year of his contract and some of his passing has caused some inquisitions of my own about his sanity and credentials as an actual footballer. When he slots away a chance like that though, after some of his Europa League screamers, all is well in the world. It would be great if Thomas Partey could be roped into those extra sessions in training, because we’re still desperately short of goals from midfield.

It was a nice way to break the deadlock early into the game and take the pressure off both sides, although in some ways, it’s a shame we have nothing to play for in the league. Fixture congestion can make times like this tricky in finding consistency, but after Thursday’s disappointment, having an “easy” game isn’t necessarily what Arsenal needed. For some, it was still a good exercise in getting minutes under their belt and reacquainting themselves with the goal in the case of Aubameyang. In fairness, that was more than simply a reacquaintance, with a difficult finish made to look easy that rounded off a clean move.

The coasting performance still came at a price, with David Luiz being the unfortunate victim.

At the very least, he’ll be out on Thursday and his ability on the ball will be missed. He’s also a big game player and given how few of those we have, if we somehow make it through to the final, he would be invaluable.


The performances of some have given Mikel Arteta all kinds of headaches before his team selection for Villareal. I’m a firm believer that Mikel himself is his biggest headache so overcoming that little hurdle would be a great start.

Beyond that, the most obvious inclusion for me is Gabriel Martinelli. Even with 10 men, Villareal seemed to hate playing against him and judging by Schar’s senseless challenge late in the game, Newcastle hated playing against him too. He’s even put to bed the idea that he and Aubameyang are incompatible, with neither’s presence seemingly inhibiting the other. The same cannot he said of Willian and Odegaard, which should also point to another pitfall for Arteta to avoid.

From there, the biggest question mark is over the left back position. Granit Xhaka flirted with the idea of giving Mike Dean an excuse to send him off but came through unscathed, not that it would have mattered come Thursday. He still has no issue getting on the ball but the midfield has suffered in recent weeks without him.

Who replaces him at left back can go one of two ways. Playing Cédric, who has been somewhat of a liability at times, or Saka. Even with Saka’s levels dropping in recent weeks, without his burst of quality last Thursday, Arsenal would have come away empty handed. There’s still nothing stopping him from having the same impact from left back, but he would have more responsibility (not that this is new to him).

If Martinelli were to play ahead of him, it would also enable them to overlap each other when needed, with both comfortable playing inside or outside. That’s a chaos factor I can get behind and it also leaves the right wing open for Pépé. With Aubayemang all-but-guaranteed down the middle, that seems like an ideal solution with the right kind of qualities to put an average side to the sword. It just leaves the small matter of actually doing so…

Walk before you can run

There’s a time and a place for a bit of experimentation. Sometimes it’s borne out of necessity, like when Emile Smith Rowe was thrust into the side against Chelsea on Boxing Day, seemingly out of nowhere, when Arteta’s back was against the wall. Sometimes the opposition demand a different approach and some ingenuity.

The first leg of our Europa League semi final, upon which the fate of our entire season is hinged, is not the place for forcing 20-year-old Smith Rowe into the “false 9” role with no recognised forward. I don’t doubt he has the intelligence to understand what the role entails, I just think there’s a time and a place and this was like turning up to a funeral with an air horn and an itchy trigger finger.

It’s bad enough that this needs pointing out, but it doesn’t stop there because Arteta also continued with Xhaka at left back. Ever since the tie was announced, it’s been “well Xhaka’s obviously not going to be up against Chukwueze”. For some strange reason, I’d assumed this was a bridge too far. Obviously Xhaka is going to be back into midfield, so who’s going to play at left back? Chukwueze would have him for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It took 5 minutes for the inevitable.

For what it’s worth, I don’t blame Xhaka in the slightest. That early in the tie, it would be daft to dive in and expose himself and he actually put in another respectable performance after the early setback. Ceballos was just as culpable, if not more, and his clumsy challenge ended up in a nutmeg so he was in no position to win the second ball. Villareal’s second was thanks to a Ceballos turnover, Arsenal were second-best to both duels in the box and Villareal had a deserved 2-0 lead going into half time, and could even have had a third.


So that’s the pre-match decisions out the way. The only thing I can surmise was running through Arteta’s head at this point is “how can I make things worse?”. This system clearly wasn’t working and half-time is a convenient opportunity to make changes and explain them, drawing a line under the experiment and having 45 minutes to make things right. I thought back to Liverpool’s first leg against Real Madrid, when Naby Keita was brought off after 42 minutes. Something was so badly wrong that Klopp couldn’t even wait 3 minutes; it had to be then and now. In stark contrast, Arsenal stepped out for the second half and continued to suffer in much the same way. I thought that was bad enough, but one minute into the second half starting, we got Arteta’s pièce de résistance.

When Ceballos made that late and high challenge, I already thought he was walking. He was incredibly lucky not to do so, and the referee gave him the “final warning” dressing down. Okay, great – time to get him off so we don’t do any more damage (needless to remind you that Arsenal are 2-0 down at this point). 10 minutes later…

Arteta had this to say and I just don’t buy it: “I was going to take him [Ceballos] off and by the time Gabi was ready to come on, that action happened and he was out.” Some 10 minutes passed between that first challenge and the red card. It’s bad enough that he waited before it was too late, but the irony is this change would have killed two birds with one stone by finally giving us a central outlet. It was a criminal decision and another entry in a growing list of incomprehensible in-game decisions from Arteta. Any of these decisions Arteta made before and during the game are bad enough even in isolation, but laying them all out and trying to make sense of them is something else entirely.

There’s really only one way to summarise this mindset and it’s arrogance. A complete lack of respect to a far more accomplished manager, to the point where thinking he could get away with playing a 20-year-old as a false 9 is bordering on delusional. It’s even more delusional to think that you can simply replicate an even more accomplished manager’s system because you worked under him. I really can’t understand how that plan even came out on top when you have a player like Gabriel Martinelli available. Everyone knows about Arsenal’s injury problems in this position and I’m not suggesting for one second that he was wrong not to take the popular vote but it also happened to be the most logical.

We can only thank our lucky stars that Unai Emery is Unai Emery. Like a deer in headlights, his obsession with refusing to close games out was there for all to see. Villareal’s reaction to going 2-0 up after absolutely cruising was to… bring on one Francis Coquelin at half time. Unai even managed to somehow keep Arsenal’s attempts under double figures, because he’s a comedian like that. I also suspect he was personally involved in some kind of pitch-greasing affair, given both sides’ tendency to make their way to the ground and his own intimate knowledge with all things grease.

And then there’s Mr. Artur Dias and Mr. João Pinheiro who were unable to see what everyone else in the world saw, which was clear simulation from Bukayo Saka to “earn” the penalty. It was straight out of the Spurs playbook of deliberately trailing leg at high speed but both the real time decision and slow-motion, multi-angled replay said otherwise. Somehow.

I shouldn’t be annoyed by this, because it was long overdue that Arsenal should get the rub of the green after some scandalous decisions of late. It was more embarrassing than anything that this was the only thing we had in our locker but it’s a lifeline all the same and you take what you can get.

Besides that little burst of intent from Saka, Arsenal’s chances were few and far between and whatever the gameplan was with the false 9, I’d be very surprised to learn it was “many crosses from deep”. There was no outlet in the box to make use of such deliveries and if anything, it was simply a reflection of Arsenal’s ability to break through Villareal conventionally.

There was some change in our fortunes when Martinelli came on, a player who is always able to raise the levels of those around him, and again when Capoue was sent off after viciously losing his balance. Even in his short cameo, Aubameyang was able to find the space that was there all along and get a shot away but given the angle, there wasn’t much more he could’ve gone.

Arsenal are now tasked with breaking tradition and actually play well at home. The last five ties at the Emirates have been a loss to Everton, a draw with Fulham and Slavia Prague, and losses against Liverpool and Olympiakos. Casting your mind back over these performances does no favours in instilling any kind of confidence about our prospects, which means wholesale change is needed. The good news is, that is easy enough to do.

Dani Ceballos has kindly ruled himself out of the home tie which will give us a fighting chance and from there, Arteta needs to not use his brain. This isn’t about reinventing the wheel or putting man on the moon, it’s about playing players in roles they feel comfortable so they don’t have to think too much and they can express themselves. Stick to the tried and tested (which is a limited frame of reference in Arteta’s repertoire) and make the changes that are obvious to make when the game state demands them.