Not this year

It’s always a disappointment to be knocked out of a cup, especially when the FA Cup has become synonymous with the club’s recent successes. I recently wrote about the emerging gulf between our two squads and where a late injection of quality was enough to overcome Newcastle, it wasn’t today.

It was always going to be a gamble to make 7 changes while retaining enough of the A Team to get a result. Gabriel’s return to the team after a positive COVID test was the first roll of the dice, and besides his reintroduction, the team selection devolved to “players who are underperforming” and “the rest”.

With the Europa League group stage over, there are no more kind fixtures to make a name for yourself or salvage your reputation. Having a break from the spotlight has helped players like Lacazette to have a breather and rediscover some form but it’s failed to energise the likes of Willian, so at times like this, we find ourselves playing damage limitations. With the same fixture in the Premier League just around the corner on Tuesday, it was a clear enough message from Arteta that the FA Cup tie was not his priority, unlike Hasenhüttl’s if the strength of Southampton’s lineup was anything to go by.

The disparity between the two was the difference, with the decisive first half once again dominated by their metronome in Ward-Prowse. Although their match-winner was fortuitous after a double deflection, it was their just deserts from a period of sustained pressure. The only consolation was seeing the immediate impact Thomas Partey once again made to central midfield, which will no doubt be a far more competitive affair on Tuesday.

That being said, I don’t think Arteta got the most from his changes on this occasion. We’re beyond the point now where Saka should be shoehorned into any position just to get him on the pitch; he should be played in his best position and others should be shoehorned in around him, because he wasn’t able to influence the game enough in a less advanced role, even though he was later switched to the right wing. Partey made a noticeable difference in bringing back control to the midfield but without more of a focal point to feed into, the spark never came. That in part, was thanks to Willian, Pépé and Nketiah all making it to the 90 minute mark and between them, it was too much baggage.

I’ve made my position on Willian clear enough and I’m neither surprised by his inclusion nor his performance. Players needed a break and he’s become a rudderless stop-gap in the space of 6 months, so he at least did that job. Pépé delivered a performance like any of his other non-Europa League performances this season; easily dispossessed, caught in two minds, wasteful and yet still capable of producing chances. It’s fair to question how other players might have taken the chances he created; his quick-thinking freekick looped over Marteinlli’s shoulder and was a difficult finish on his weak foot, while the ball through to Nketiah was weighted well enough that he didn’t need to take a touch but his poked effort was denied.

I do wonder how he’d perform with a stronger lineup, because I still believe there’s a player rattling around in their somewhere. He has technical ability, whether it’s the weight of his pass or the way he strikes the ball, and he clearly has an eye for openings. He’s just so often let down by indecision or his timings that he’s not able to demonstrate that often enough. Like Nketiah, he also frequently finds himself struggling with the physicality at this level and there’s only so long you can get away with that – especially when players like Smith Rowe and Saka have already made the leap.

Such leaps also apply to end product, and while Nketiah was setting each and every youth tier alight with his goal-scoring, despite an abundance of opportunities, he’s not delivering. His loan spell with Bielsa didn’t quite live up to expectations and despite scoring on a few occasions, he wasn’t able to usurp Bamford, who has coincidentally been able to make the jump to Premier League standards. As he enters the last 18 months of his contract, decisions need to be made and I did wonder whether there was more to Arteta’s midweek comments on him than meets the eye.

After already ruling out a January loan away, he said of Nketiah: “His development in a year for his position, compared to any other striker his age in Europe, you won’t see many that have played that many minutes.” While “development” is vague enough to make an argument one way or another, I would argue that Nketiah’s development and future at the club has actually stalled because he’s not been able to show consistency or end product despite the opportunities given to him. This may have been sincere from Arteta, but I did also wonder if he was trying to garner some interest before his contract becomes too much of an obstacle. It’s even stranger given the fact he shares the same agent as Balogun, which would surely have them at loggerheads because whatever happens there, it’s highly unlikely there’s futures for both at the club. It’s even more disappointing because besides Martinelli, there’s a clear path for a vacancy in the not too distant future in a forward position but as of yet, the pair haven’t been able to find it.

The afternoon also spelled a rare blip for the centre-back pairing, with neither looking assured. Gabriel won’t have much time to settle, and may even be dropped again for Tuesday, but he’s at least got minutes under his belt again and don’t think the performance will be much of a setback.

With one less cup commitment, Arteta once again has more to answer for and with any luck, his decision will be vindicated by a win on Tuesday but even with more rest to key players, it’s a tall ask and Hasenhüttl will be expecting a stiffer challenge. As far as the strategy of our season goes, there’s one less opportunity for European football now and while our domestic hopes aren’t completely dead in the water, I do wonder if it’ll be another year of real focus on winning the Europa League. No small feat.

Back on track

After our recent F.A. Cup clash afforded us more than enough time to get a handle on Newcastle, I still had my concerns about our ability to break them down without the benefit of extra time. In hindsight, any skepticism I had turned out to be irrelevant after another revitalised second half performance. In the same way Arteta managed to exact change with his water breaks last season, there’s been a recurring theme this season after the interval.

Power of the interval

While there’s some room for concern to be scoring almost twice as many goals in the second half as the first, it’s unreasonable to expect perfect balance between the two. On this occasion, it wasn’t that we were without chances but for whatever reason, the goal escaped us and more specifically, Aubameyang. It’s fair to say in recent weeks, Aubameyang has been on the fringes of losing his place in the starting lineup and without the captaincy, he may well have already done so. I’d never felt like his drop in form was at all related to his new contract and he was perhaps the biggest victim of our October-December run of form. He’s never been one to create something out of nothing, so it’s no surprise he struggled for goals in this period because the chances weren’t there.

More recently, it’s often felt like the goals have escaped him even when the team has been doing well. The West Brom performance springs to mind, with Aubameyang clearly desperate to get his name on the scoresheet with some uncharacteristically ambitious, if not greedy attempts on goal but it never came. Against Newcastle in the F.A. Cup, even in the dying stages, it was clear that goal meant something. On this occasion, the first half chances that fell to him weren’t the kindest as both were on his left foot but for a player of his calibre, it’s more than fair to say at least one should’ve been put away.

The thing is with good strikers, they carry on popping up in the right places and when Partey slipped his marker as he so often does, Aubayemang was already tearing up the left flank in anticipation. With the ball at his feet, he never looked out of control and while the placement of the finish didn’t look entirely intentional, it was well overdue.

With nowhere to hide, Newcastle came out of their shell and as the game became more stretched, the chances opened up. Saka saw a chance well blocked after combining well with Lacazette and it was only minutes later that the decisive second game. After being fed through by Aubameyang, Smith Rowe still had a lot to do but absolutely turned Lascelles inside-out. One look up and the ball was on a plate for Saka who could hardly miss. If there was still the slightest hint of doubt before the game, Smith Rowe went and carved his name onto the scoresheet and I can’t help but smile watching him do what we’ve been crying out for someone to do all season. He does the simple things well, he doesn’t take any more touches than he needs (which is usually just the one) and he has the brain and the ability to make things happen in the final third.

It was something he touched upon in his post-match interview, saying “growing up, I’ve always tried to play 1 touch. If I know what I’m going to do when I get the ball, why not play off of 1 touch, you know?”. There’s a beautiful simplicity to that but as our other options have so often demonstrated this season, it’s not easy. Since coming into the side, he’s also created 10 chances with only Bruno Fernandes creating more. While the sample size is small, it now complicates our interests in recruiting someone in this position. Until very recently, it was a position crying out for reinforcements and loan moves for players like Isco seemed to be on the cards. A more permanent solution like Emi Buendia was also tabled to take over the reigns from Mesut Ozil. There are still some hurdles for Smith Rowe to overcome to convince those that matter that he’s the one; his sample size is still small and compared to many around him, the first team appearances are still lacking. That is partly a circumstance of his injury record, but unlike other emerging players, he has also enjoyed two loan spells and the regular playing time there, particularly at Huddersfield, seems to have done some good. It would still be a lot to ask to expect him to assume the role for the rest of the season, and I think the team would really suffer if he picked up an injury, but the position is unquestionably up for grabs if he can maintain this kind of form.

A skill often attributed to world class players is their ability to make players around them better. That much is clear looking at a player like Bruno Fernandes, who has transformed United into title challengers (which we can hopefully hinder in a few weeks time). One signing. Thomas Partey is another, as he somehow made Mohamed Elneny look like prime Gattuso against United and brings such immediate and obvious quality and assurance to the team every time he plays (and long may that continue now that he’s back to almost-full fitness). While he has a long way to go to earn that kind of reputation, I also think Smith Rowe has improved those around him. For too long, Saka has shouldered the creative responsibility almost entirely on his own (along with Kieran Tierney), and now that he’s got a playmate, he’s been adding goals and assists to his name on a more consistent basis. He also appears to be on the same wavelength as Alex Lacazette, who was once again heavily involved with the two Hale Enders to great effect. So often stranded with acres of space between himself and the languishing midfield behind him for much of the season, he suddenly has teammates he can play off and he’s looked a different player.

With his contract approaching somewhat of a crossroads with 18 months left, the sell or extend debate has probably become just as complicated as the Number 10 dilemma. I’m a firm believer in the concept of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and as much as he looked dead in the water at times this season, he’s shown what he can do with the right players around him. He was also singled out by Smith Rowe, who said of Lacazette “playing with him up top, really helps me. He gives me a lot of confidence off the pitch and he talks to me a lot.” While David Luiz is likely to be off at the end of the season, one of the oft-cited benefits of having players like him around are their positive influence behind the scenes and if Lacazette is also doing the right things on the pitch, I wouldn’t bemoan a 1-year contract extension to a 29 year old.

The chances continued to flow after the second, with Lacazette himself unlucky to not be on the end of Tierney’s fizzed cross through the 6-yard box, and he was also denied at the back post after an in-swinger from Saka. There’s also a refreshing variety emerging in our chance creation, with the front four all combining well and sharing responsibility, as well as the fullbacks on both sides being heavily involved once again. The third was a result of these usual suspects, with Saka intercepting high up the pitch and immediately putting Cedric through and he did well to pick out Aubameyang who made no mistake with his right foot.

It was important to get back to winning ways and put a disappointing, if not lucky draw with Crystal Palace behind us as we head into a difficult set of fixtures. I’m sure Arteta will be echoing the words of his former manager in taking things one game at a time, but with teams continuing to drop points around us, there’s still some chances to come away with something this season. It remains to be seen whether this transfer window is purely for clearing out the deadwood, but there are still some holes that need plugging so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some loan signings at the very least.

After tonight’s confirmation, we face Southampton in the 4th Round of the F.A. Cup, as another convenient taster course to the exact same fixture in the Premier League 3 days later. It’ll be a far stiffer test than the one posed by Newcastle, and will be a good indication of how far we’ve come in recent weeks.

Until then.

Edit: Oh, and apparently we don’t concede goals anymore, so that’s nice.

Palace leave us pondering

In such a non-entity, it’s a challenge to comb even for the finest of details. While it’s easy to be disappointed at the result on paper, a draw maybe even flattered Arsenal given the need for the crossbar’s helping hand and Leno’s acrobatics.

It’s still the early stages of damage limitations after such a horrendous start to the season, and given our recent problems against Palace, it’s not a disaster to lose some momentum. As bad as they are defensively, bogey teams tend to exist for a reason as much as the statistics might appear to be in our favour. None of this was helped by playing 120 minutes against a stubborn Newcastle either, whose elimination crucially came at a price – to the tune of one. whole Kieran Tierney.

This was bad in its own right because his consistency in the final third is invaluable but his absence just so happened to coincide with Ainsley having a nightmare of a performance, at least on the ball. He wasn’t the only problem going forward – far from it – but there were some really glaring mistakes that were at least out of character.

As taking points go, they were few and far between. Palace were more than happy to sit back, stay organised and hit us on the break and given the problems Zaha and Eze caused in particular, it’s no wonder they were happy to do so for the entirety of the game. In recent weeks, we’ve sometimes managed to get by on a single goal so this result had an air of inevitability about it, as it never the pieces never quite slotted into place. Sometimes the break comes, sometimes it doesn’t.

The most notable break that wasn’t was a case of a cross finding the wrong man, as Hector Bellerín found himself interfering in unfamiliar territory to deny Lacazette loitering behind. It’s one of those which is frustrating to look at and ponder over given how the game unfolded but with Palace missing better chances to score, such things become easier to swallow. Saka, Aubameyang and Maitland-Niles were all able to engineer half-chances for themselves but were never enough to overly trouble Guaita.

The limited opportunities are easily chalked up to post-cup lethargy but the Premier League has no easy games and without quality in depth, you don’t get handouts. Losing Tierney was a blow and you can’t expect miracles when a utility player deputises there, but the lethargy was across the board. Ceballos, Smith Rowe and Saka all had the right kind of energy but never clicked when it mattered, with Palace swarming Smith Rowe in particular before those snappy exchanges could blossom.

Besides the opening 10 minutes of the game where Palace seemed to adopt a surprisingly high line, after settling in and hunkering down, it closed down most of our opportunities to use Luiz and Holding’s ability on the ball to find openings from range. As the match progressed, they became more and more inclined to hold onto the ball and that kind of tempo-setting didn’t exactly help matters. You can probably chalk that up to tiredness and less movement off the ball but there were too many times where a centre-back would dwell in possession and it set the tone.

There was also little to offer from the bench, with Partey’s return too brief and raw to make an impact and Pépé unable to affect the game whatsoever. I was keen to see how he would fare against Zaha, a player whom he is surely aware was snubbed for his own sake, and was at least hoping to see some kind of uptick but that never came. So often caught trying to do too much, only to be dispossessed and with his one-sidedness becoming more exposed with each passing week, he’s becoming easier and easier to nullify. Not exactly a great position for the club to be in, because that looming price tag is never going away. At the very least, Zaha’s insufferable and constant whinnying to anyone that would lend an ear made me glad he was snubbed by Emery’s handlers.

Strangely, the only really notable performances came from Xhaka and Ceballos. The latter had one of those games where he was constantly dipping past players or nutmegging them with his jinking, unpredictable style and he showed energy and interest throughout. Xhaka was.. something else entirely, though. After being a big part of the win against Newcastle with incisive passing, there was more of the same against Palace but with far less consistency. Without some last ditch tackles, like the brilliantly-timed one on Zaha, we may have even been on the wrong end of the result. His future at the club is still a conundrum and you never know which Xhaka is going to turn up, but I guess that’s another case of our problem with quality of depth.

There isn’t long to wait before having a chance to get back on the straight and narrow but it will be another huge test of our resolve.

Until then.

The A Team and The B Team

Even after a full week’s rest, there was a case for some players to be rested after a congested Christmas fixture list, with Lacazette, Smith Rowe and Saka all starting from the bench. Further unwanted changes were made when Martinelli suffered a freak injury in the warmup, with what looked like an ankle sprain if this is anything to go by. The fact that he was able to walk off the pitch and was seen weight-bearing with a brace will hopefully mean it isn’t too serious but that remains to be seen until we hear from the club itself.

The only outlier in all of this was Kieran Tierney, who has the most minutes played of any outfield player this season. You’d be hard pressed to argue that he hasn’t quite done enough to earn a rest, what with his imperious form all season but there he was, still bombing down the left flank even as we approached the 120th minute. Turns out it didn’t take long to find a natural successor to Ramsey on this front.

Needless to say, the changes opened the doors for the familiar B Team faces and besides Aubameyang (who likely replaced Martinelli at centre-forward), it was exactly the kind of team you’d expect to see in the Europa League. It was also exactly the kind of performance you’d expect from the B Team when they were tasked with playing a far better side than we’re used to playing in the Europa League. Even with elbow-happy donkeys like Andy Carroll deputising as an extra centre-back for most of the game.

What the B Team did have was robustness in bounds but few who could really unlock the door, so it was no surprise the starting lineup were unable to break the deadlock. It’s not that there weren’t chances; Reiss Nelson did well to fashion himself a chance just after kickoff and despite losing some space with poor control, Aubameyang’s sort-of 1-on-1 was well hit and well saved. The most glaring miss also came to Nelson, who inexplicably tried to take a touch in the box after Tierney passed to him on a silver platter. The more I’ve watched that chance back, the worse it gets and I really can’t understand why he didn’t just put his foot through it.

Chances also fell to Willock, with the best being a header that ended up with more face/eye than forehead if his pained expression after the save was anything to go by. For two players who have done well in the Europa League season, both Nelson and Willock have struggled to make the transition to have an impact against Premier League opposition and I wonder if this is the time for at least one to find a loan spell somewhere. There’s aspects of both their games that I like, but as we’ve seen in recent weeks (and indeed yesterday), end product reigns supreme and a consistent run of games elsewhere may just find that composure.

Our two right-wing understudies to Bukayo Saka were also in action, with Willian pushed out to the left. While his standards continue to amaze me, to the point where I can’t actually remember a player’s form tombstoning so quickly, I thought Pépé – as ever, in fairness – was at least trying to make things happen. Willock’s header was a result of a deft, clipped cross and there were some in-field runs that showed promise before Pépé’s inconsistent decision-making let him down. Much like Willock and Nelson, I wish we had the security to allow these players some room to make mistakes because there’s always glimmers of something but we’re not.

Ultimately, Arteta’s changes in and around the hour mark were the beginning of the end for Newcastle; Smith Rowe’s immediate impact with more give-and-goes and directness, shortly followed by Xhaka and Saka who brought the finesse and uptick in tempo that their departing counterparts were otherwise lacking.

There were still scares that may have cost us on another day if not for Leno. Old Andy Equine missed the goal entirely from 6 yards out, even though he shouldn’t have been on the field after swinging his elbow into Joe Willock’s head, as he so often does (swing his elbows, not attack Joe Willock specifically). The biggest moment of the 90 minutes also fell to Carroll, and despite having little to do for most of the game, was alert to the danger and closed down the initial angle well before diving on the rebound and securing the ball. Now that he’s got some half-decent defenders playing in front of him on a consistent basis, the clean sheets are starting to add up and without him, some results may have slipped through the net in recent weeks.

Arteta saved his last roll of the dice until the last 15 minutes when Lacazette was brought on, and just as against Brighton, he seemed to be the missing piece of the puzzle as the simmering trio came together again. The manner of the goal was much closer to the second against West Brom, with Smith Rowe pouncing on the slightest hint of an opening after Clark’s fumble. Despite being vastly outnumbered, it was the speed and directness which made the opening as they all seemed to read each other’s minds before it even unfolded. Smith Rowe doesn’t even take a second touch when he first intercepts the ball, the give-and-go was immediate and Lacazette is already the right side of his man and strong enough to win the jostle. There was still so much to do though and the effortless way in which Smith Rowe chested it down mid-stride and finished it on the half volley (even harder as he struck through the ball just as it bounced the second time) made it look so much easier than it actually was. Oh, and he stuck it in the far corner. From what I’ve seen and heard about his loan at Huddersfield, he was often involved in what they did well and it’s a credit to Smith Rowe for continuing to prove himself with every opportunity he gets, which very much feels like how Saka burst onto the scene.

His emergence also makes me feel like loans for a few fringe players are overdue. Willock played 44 times last season and has been given plenty of opportunities this time around, albeit in a variety of different roles. Nelson played well for a time at Hoffenheim but has struggled for consistency and game time and while he especially may begrudge another loan, he’s down the pecking order. I also wouldn’t mind betting that if the right offer came along for either of them, we would probably let them go.

Others like Pépé and Willian, even at opposite ends of their careers, seem to be losing stock with each matchday and when the likes of Saka and Smith Rowe have such an impact even from the bench, they become harder and harder to drop. There are worse problems to have, but from an asset management point of view, it’s not ideal. At the very least, the most glaring problem on that front that everyone is sick of hearing about seems like they’ve finally found an exit.

In the end, it’s 4 wins in a row – all of which were in a pretty convincing manner. It would’ve been a massive shame to go out in the 3rd round, not only for our reputation in the competition but for the early shoots of momentum. With Crystal Palace on Thursday being another very winnable game, Arteta now has a clear view of what his best team is, even if it’s still in its infancy and we go into it in good shape.

Until then

Not today, Allardyce

After two timely wins on the bounce, the fixture had all the makings of a sobering uppercut barbed with reality. Although Sam Allardyce’s “reputation” against Arsenal is steeped in revisionism (his actual record being P35-L21-D8-W6), he was one of few managers at the “smaller teams” who occasionally got the better of Arsène. They’d usually come as a result of us being virtually kicked off the park and end up narrowly losing to a Kevin Davies special after he’d evaded his 17th bookable offence of the game.

That being said, there was no Kevin Davies to save him this time and despite staunchly holding Liverpool to a draw, they then decided to roll over against Leeds, which meant it was difficult to gauge what kind of performance to expect from West Brom. It goes some ways in explaining Arteta’s reluctance to rest either Saka or Emile Smith Rowe, with Martinelli making way after looking jaded against Brighton. With an unchanged backline, the only other change saw Ceballos replace Elneny, who was the only player noticeably off the pace against Brighton. Arteta wasn’t to know what kind of West Brom we’d face, and while we thankfully got the Leeds edition, his wariness to rest players or change the formula ultimately paid dividends.

The timing of Tierney’s breakaway first felt just right, as West Brom were already showing signs of hunkering down for a long winter with men behind the ball. For him to score in the manner he did probably wasn’t in their playbook, and it was a perfect ice-breaker to force a response. This was something Allardyce alluded to after the game, saying “we leave too many spaces when we try and attack and don’t fill them properly”, which I’m sure Arteta was aware of after seeing his indirect teacher Bielsa dismantle them in similar fashion.

The crucial second didn’t take long to emerge and it’s been on repeat many a time in the last 24 hours – easily the best moment of the season for me. From a humble beginning in Smith Rowe coming short to give Bellerín an option, the first-time pass and immediate drop of the shoulder set the move in motion. Saka and Lacazette were equally alert, with both stepping forward away from their man; Saka found the half-yard to turn and pass into Lacazette, who had already seen the overlapping “third man” run from Smith Rowe and found him. The rest of the move felt like unfamiliar territory; so often our undoing even on the rare occasions we found ourselves in such positions this season, undone by an extra touch or an inability to find the final ball or take a risk. Smith Rowe simply took it in his stride on the outside of his weak foot and selflessly put it on a plate for Saka.

The fact that two academy products could do that and combine in such a way just warms my soul. Saka had already been undroppable for some time but for Smith Rowe to seamlessly waltz into the role and make everything tick is genuinely remarkable. It’s not like you can point to the standard of opposition either because he did the same thing against Chelsea… in his first Premier League start since Freddie’s last game in charge last season.

There are also early signs of balance for a team that’s struggled for much of the season to find just that. Dysfunctional fullback and winger pairings, a lack of ambition and ability through the middle, endless back-and-forths as to who should play on the right wing. Until recently, that disconnect between our defence and midfield, and attack meant that whoever played in the centre-forward role was isolated. No movement around them left us resorting to crosses from deep and neither Lacazette nor Aubameyang are the kind of players to convert chances like that.

Smith Rowe’s introduction seems to have acted as a double-edged solution. As he’s comfortable playing on either side of the pitch, there’s space on whichever side he isn’t occupying. Tierney and Bellerin took full advantage of this, by bombing forward when the ball was on the opposing side of the pitch to allow Xhaka and Ceballos to clip diagonal balls behind to great effect. This has the added benefit of pushing Aubameyang and Saka into more central areas to overload the box. The other edge of this solution is that Lacazette is no longer the only passing option in central areas, and options + movement = space. Seeing that second goal unfold looked like a goal you’d see in training because it looked so orchestrated but it really boils down to that tried and tested formula.

Another development is the emergence of Saka as a right-sided winger, who, despite initially struggling in the position last season, has begun to ring the death knell for both Willian and Pépé. He was just as devastating and relentless as his last two, Man of The Match winning performances and he’s now got a Hale End friend to spice things up with. He’s the type of player I’d imagine defenders are already beginning to hate playing against; humble and pure enough to not be wound up by opposition hijinks (hello Granit), strong, low centre of gravity, mazy runs, capable on either foot (hello Mendy) and end product. His backpost cross to Aubameyang could easily have been converted on another day, reminiscent to some of the Pépé-Aubameyang combinations in the tail end of last season. He obviously made his way into the box for the second and his right-footed cross was dangerous enough to send the West Brom defence into a calamitous frenzy to bring about the third (which I was sad to see denied from Emile but delighted for Lacazette to continue scoring). I honestly dread to think how much Saka’s worth and hope no one’s going to come knocking.

On the topic of Aubameyang, while it was the second game in a row that he missed golden opportunities to score, neither were glaring or costly. He was clearly desperate for a goal, and was sometimes caught uncharacteristically going alone to make it happen for himself but there’ll be more opportunities for him to make amends. With Tierney behind him, there’s no reason for him to stay anchored to the wing and as we saw for his delivery on the 4th, there’s no reason Aubayemang won’t be on the end of that next time.

The table was also set for Willian to be eased back into the team after an absence that strangely coincided with 3 wins in a row. It was the absolute kindest of ties, an already-beaten West Brom, seemingly in freefall back down to the Championship. I really tried to see something positive or rationalise what he was doing with a clean slate but he made it nigh-on impossible, with more wayward passing and dead-end runs, and his only notable contribution being one good cross. The gift that keeps on giving.

It’s funny how things can change in such a short space of time, from battling relegation to 3 points off Chelsea and 6 off Spurs and the unfamiliar sight of the Top Four. Okay, there’s a few complications like games in hand but that’s what we have in front of us. They’ve also earned a week’s rest before hosting Newcastle in the F.A. Cup and then another 5 day’s rest before our next Premier League game against Crystal Palace. By that time, Arteta should have a fully fit squad to choose from including Thomas Partey. Throw in a shrewd January transfer or two and things might not look so complicated in a few weeks.

Bukayo batters Brighton

After a routine win against a lowly Chelsea side, it was only natural that Brighton would provide the matchday dose of hardship that we as fans can’t seem to escape. As the first of five “winnable” (heavy, heavy emphasis on winnable) games on paper, it was absolutely essential to build on that performance in any way possible, such is the fragility of our momentum after such a torrid run of form. On this occasion, it wasn’t so much what Brighton did to make life difficult but rather what Arsenal weren’t able to do on the day.

It’s hard to say how much of our efforts against Chelsea were to blame for the lethargic snap-back in the first half, but given the immediate response after the interval, it would be fair to say it wasn’t much of an excuse. That response would also suggest that Arteta didn’t put a foot wrong with his team selection, the only question mark being whether Lacazette deserved to be dropped after serving as an effective piece of our front line puzzle, but Arteta revealed it was down to a “small issue” with him. It was also a convenient way to bring Aubameyang back into the fore in a kinder fixture than Chelsea, or indeed Sam Allardyce’s West Brom.

It’s been a recurring theme in the last 11 games that we start games slowly, with our only 2 wins in that period coming against United and Chelsea – two games where our front-foot approach was the right foundation to go on and win. In that time, we were also blown away by Aston Villa, and struggled in the first halves against Southampton, Everton and Spurs. In some Premier League fixtures, it can sometimes feel like slow starts are a circumstance of “dull” fixtures but what’s been made abundantly clear to our misfortune is there are no easy fixtures this season and we can’t afford any complacency. It also lends some credence to the idea that certain complacent characters that have been absent for the last two matches played their part in our recent misfortune.

Under Potter, Brighton are a side happy in possession but with no naturalised striker on the field, their intentions to frustrate were made clear and ultimately, their approach felt like the perfect counter-balance. With a day’s less rest, it was also perfectly understandable. The low block and our hesitancy turned out to be the perfect recipe for a complete non-entity of a first half, despite the efforts from some of the usual suspects to create something from nothing.

Whatever was said in the dressing room at half time clearly had an effect and one consolation to this recurring problem is, much like the water breaks, Arteta has proved his ability to exact real changes in the way we play during the 90 minutes. The ultimate question is “why can’t they start like that?” but I’m inclined to agree with Arteta’s evaluation of the first half, which was that it “took us a while to understand how we had to attack this block”. Every game is different and where Chelsea weren’t up to the task of our intensity, Brighton’s organisation asked different questions and sometimes that takes time to unlock.

The response was a change in intensity and a return to the kind of forward ambition we’d shown against Chelsea, with Smith Rowe brilliantly creating an opportunity for Martinelli and Aubameyang denied from close range. This effort seemed to divide opinion, with some saying he missed a sitter and others chalking it up like the stars aligning; the keeper just happened to be in the right place and Aubameyang just so happened to be coming into the box at pace and was limited for options. In reality, I think we should just be happy to be creating a good number of chances again because on another day, that flies into the net and I don’t think it’s overly representative of some of Aubameyang’s recent problems.

Despite the early signs of a blossoming left wing triangle between Tierney, Martinelli and Smith Rowe, it was Martinelli who made way to accommodate Lacazette and he rolled back the years within seconds (that’s not to say he’s in any way old, I’ve just missed his confidence and clinical finishing). As good as the finish was though, the goal was all about the architect, without whom we’d be in a considerably worse state. It always felt like a matter of time that one of the two Brighton fullbacks would be their undoing, with Tierney also breezing past his opposite number on several occasions, but when Saka received the ball on the half way line with his back to goal, his first thought – as it so often is – was to drive. When the space opened up, he carried on driving and still managed to get his head up with plenty of time to perfectly pick out Lacazette.

Since the start of last season, he’s has notched up 15 assists in all competitions and he’s only 19. That’s Fàbregas levels of creativity given his age, and it’s made all the more impressive by the variety of positions he’s been asked to play, all without a hint of fuss. The real irony is that what initially looked like his worst position on the right wing is looking increasingly comfortable and effective. That’s also two Man of The Match awards in a row.

Once we had the lead, it became a matter of closing the game out, which has so often been Arteta’s path to victory rather than pressing home the advantage. It also seems to be right up Holding’s street, playing with your backs against the wall, and his defensive partner in Mari had another tidy performance alongside.

Those next 4 fixtures have the chance to propel us back into some kind of relevance, and with the likes of Partey returning and the prospect of some new arrivals, there’s real motivation and potential to regain some ground (and dignity). I’ll believe that when I see it though.

  • West Brom (A) – 2nd January
  • Crystal Palace (H) – 14th January
  • Newcastle United (H) 18th January
  • Southampton (A) – 26th January

New beginnings or fortuitous blip?

WARNING: Tone in the following might not be nearly as positive as I’m actually feeling, I just wish many of the things we saw yesterday had come sooner in the season

No one but those closest to Arteta would have known just how precarious his job was prior to yesterday’s win but at the very least, there needed to be something different to write home about. One win in the ten previous games was an untenable run of form, regardless of the internal support he may or may not have actually had. It might have come later in the day than most would have liked, but the manner in which they did it makes it all the more sweet.

I’ll be the first to admit I was completely blind-sided by the starting place handed to Emile Smith-Rowe, which presumably had the same effect on Frank Lampard. One of my biggest criticisms this season has been our seemingly unwavering predictability, with both our team selections and the way we play. I was a bit disheartened to later hear that Luiz and (more notably) Willian’s absence were due to “having some symptoms” rather than a sudden rush of clarity, but if this match wasn’t evidence enough, then Arteta is beyond saving. Trust the kids. Not only because they actually have a future, but simply because they are playing better. As much as a student of Josep might want it to be, football doesn’t always need to be complicated.

He’s played LESS minutes in the Europa League than Willian – never mind the Premier League – and already has more goal involvements than him, while Martinelli had more shots on target against Chelsea than Willian has scraped together all season. This discussion wouldn’t be on the cards had we just won our last ten games with Willian playing every instrumental minute, and yes, he’s not the only piece in the puzzle, but he sticks out like a gargantuan Chernobyl thumb.

The pair, along with Bukayo Saka, played like there was a fire under them and better yet, they raised the levels of those around them. There was no 12th man doing that, that was pure endeavour. For most of the season, that seemed to lie almost entirely on Saka’s shoulders and now suddenly he’s got some friends out there to play with.

With Gabriel also sidelined after a separate COVID-related complication, Pablo Mari was another surprise inclusion that was deemed preferable to one Shkodran Mustafi, with Bellerin also brought back into the side. Their jobs were made considerably easier despite the match readiness by the mobility and functionality of those ahead.

In the case of Smith-Rowe, it wasn’t so much what he even did with the ball, but his availability when it mattered. It’s been abundantly clear for some time that we’ve been crying out for a naturalised player in his position because they don’t just find openings, they make space and exploit it. Too many times to count this season, we’ve been forced into the horseshoe because there’s been no central options and no time on the ball in the opposition half. What Smith-Rowe did so well was to make himself available in positions where Chelsea didn’t want him to be, between Kanté and the back line. Better yet, on the occasions he does actually receive the ball, he has the ability to actually turn and exploit the space he’s made for himself rather than playing return to sender and killing momentum. It also has the added benefit of drawing attention away from the likes of Saka, who in recent weeks and months, has been routinely targeted and bombarded as he was our only real threat until now.

The energy without possession was also instrumental, with the front four all more than pulling their weight. Arteta has been clear in stating this intention, but has so far struggled to routinely put it into practice. The high turnovers cropped up time and again, with Smith-Rowe mistiming his shot in the first half and Lacazette almost cashing in on Mendy’s mistake in the second; two of many such instances that even forced Lampard to make two half-time changes.

Where it matters, and what’s escaped us of late, is goals so the pick and mix bag we got yesterday came as a surprise. While the crucial dead-lock breaker was one of the softer penalties you’ll see this season, it was far from undeserved in the grand scheme of things and came to be because Tierney got the better of arguably the best right back in the Premier League this season after a good pass from Xhaka. Despite not taking a Premier League penalty since 2018, Lacazette sent Mendy the wrong way and I felt like it was just deserts for his approach in recent weeks because he’s at least been playing like he cares.

What came next was something else entirely, and it goes hand in hand with my theory that this season is at the mercy of a screenwriter. I even said this as a joke:

You have to give credit when someone rolls up and does that, especially against Chelsea. His free kick conversion rate is also nothing to sniff at, and with any luck, that strike and his overall performance will have bumped up the transfer fee we should absolutely be looking for at the earliest available opportunity.

The third was even more “something else entirely” and while only Saka will know for sure whether he meant it, the look-up beforehand has me convinced. It’s not like we weren’t good for a third, with Elneny almost shattering the crossbar and Martinelli also coming close on several occasions.

There was always going to be a time when Chelsea would grow into the game and after Martinelli and Smith-Rowe both made way to Chelsea’s collective relief, there were openings. For the most part, they were dealt with well, as Leno only needed to fend off 3 shots on target (which I believe includes the penalty).

Abraham’s goal really stemmed from an Arsenal corner, in which Chelsea broke at speed with Hudson-Odoi after a long ball. Joe Willock being half a yard off the pace in stopping the eventual cross was a result of him still being tired after bombing back to stop the initial attack and it was our inability to reform our lines quick enough that allowed Pulisic to dribble his way through for the second opening. At 3-1, I still wasn’t particularly worried so naturally there had to be another spanner in the works because watching Arsenal is destined to never be easy these days.

Mari’s lunge was late and he was perhaps even lucky to not see another red (thank you Michael Oliver), and up stepped stupid almost-Arsenal player Jorginho and his stupid triple jump penalty. Not content with already missing two this season, he cockily stepped up again and it looked like Leno had done his homework. Rooted to the spot long after Jorginho’s stupid feet had touched back down to Earth again, he dived well to his left and it was only then that I could just about relax.

I found Arteta’s post match comments interesting, and a bit worrying if I’m honest. He’s clearly still adamant that our recent form wasn’t deserved, saying “we’ve been really unlucky and frustrated with the results, not so much the performances in the last 6-8 weeks”, which I think is all too easy and indicative of a reluctance to own his mistakes. He prefaced this by saying “the result is the main thing today”, which may be the case for him as manager but for the rest of us, even if the win had escaped us, people would still have been right to be buoyed by a performance like that. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.

It’s imperative at this point to build upon those foundations rather than return to something that was fundamentally broken. I’m still not convinced that a certain Brazilian won’t creep back into the starting lineup once he’s in the clear but I’d love nothing more than to be proved wrong, because beating Chelsea (and winning a Premier League game) was really, really nice.


For the first time in living memory as an Arsenal fan, I feel like I’m in uncharted waters. The Everton side we faced were in no way impressive, nor were they at full strength, which makes the manner in which we lost all the more disappointing. There was no convenient red card to fall back on this time either, in another game marred by apathy and inability.

For the second game in a row, we were treated to the midfield duo delight of Mohamed Elneny and Dani Ceballos, who once again shirked responsibility to do their jobs whenever possible. Whatever you think of David Luiz (and some of the recent rumours of discourse between him and Arteta), it was impossible to ignore his intent, as well as his frustrations yesterday. Frantically pointing at players to move, make themselves available or to just do something useful, he was invariably forced to progress the ball forward himself.

Both Holding and Luiz have some ability in possession, but with Eddie Nketiah essentially serving as the sole target against the likes of all 6’4″ of Yerry Mina and Michael Keane, it seemed a bit redundant in the end. With the exception of his snatched half volley when he really should’ve taken a touch, it was another ineffective afternoon for him and as time goes by, I do wonder if he’s another player we should be looking to cash in on given the chance.

With Aubameyang’s unexpected absence, it also gave Willian a way to weasel his way back into Arteta’s plans but what I can’t fathom is how he managed to survive 90 minutes – let alone that first 45. I get that options are limited, I get that he’s not the root cause of our problems but the man simply does not give a shit – that is clear as day. Never mind the fact that he also supports Bolsonaro or that he deems it appropriate to fly to Dubai on business in the middle of a Premier League season AND global pandemic – that first 45 minutes was as bad as it gets, and he’s already been redefining bad this season. Against Everton, he had:

  • 14 first half touches – fewer than any other player
  • 0 shots on target
  • 0 successful crosses
  • 0 successful take-ons
  • 0 successful tackles
  • 0 successful duels

Oh, and he has 1 (ONE) shot on target in 15 (FIFTEEN) Premier League and Europa League games this season.

For a player to have metrics as bad as that, for someone of his age, reputation and remuneration is farcical, as is Arteta’s unwavering dedication to him. Ultimately, it seems like a very strange hill for him to potentially die on and I’m yet to see an explanation which holds water with respect to some of Arteta’s early mission statements. Almost a year ago to the day, in reference to his now increasingly infamous non-negotiables, Arteta said “the demands we put on the team, the commitment, the energy we put in, that dominance … we have to play a little bit with that arrogance, that belief“. I struggle to see how any of those have been qualified by Willian in the last 3 months but there we go.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t an issue unique to Willian – time and again, we see the same dysfunctions and time and again we see no changes. No one is under the delusion that this is a squad full of talented, willing and able footballers. Xhaka and Mustafi have had targets on their backs for years, Luiz and Willian are easy targets as Chelsea cast-offs and that’s not including the rest of the Kia clients. We also have one valuable asset playing abroad in Lucas Torreira and one sat at home tweeting in Mesut Ozil. Where it all unravels is that this squad isn’t that bad and for Arteta to so routinely demonstrate an inability to adapt or inspire, there are serious alarm bells. Without the F.A. Cup win, I do wonder whether he would still be in a job at this point, because if you take this season in isolation to Emery’s second season, it’s a no-brainer.

Project is a word that’s been thrown around a lot in the post-Wenger world. It was obvious in its inception because Wenger and the club had become virtually synonymous, to such an extent that many believed he was almost untouchable. That kind of relationship became untenable and his eventual unrooting left a big, old gap (that”big, old gap” is not a descriptive slight against Arsène). In comes Unai and his mad brand of horseshoe, overlap, CALM CALM CALM football and things are rosy-ish for a while as a 22-game unbeaten streak literally defied the xG gods and papered over a few cracks. As is often the case, xG caught up with us and teams cottoned on, culminating in a humbling in Baku against a savvier manager. By his second season, he’d lost the dressing room and he lost his job.

Arteta’s entrance to the project had all the right messages. He stroked the collective ego and we believed him because “he’s Arsenal”. The crowd was split between “he’s unproven” and “he’s Pep’s understudy”. So we went from “gamble our future on a cup coach” to “gamble our future on a complete unknown”. For a time, those “right messages” coincided with on-field results for the most part, which is nice for credentials. Where we now find ourselves is a divergence from the messages and the results and yet where my frustrations really become unbearable is to hear things from the manager which are nothing short of delusional. The emphasis on crosses, the belief that sooner or later our fortunes will change when there is absolutely nothing that suggests we’re due anything of the sort – even his comments after the Everton game point to someone who is plainly out of ideas and unable to see things at face value.

“We are dominating the games but in the small moments, we are losing the games. We lost a game against Burnley without conceding a shot on target and we lost today again, conceding an own goal and a set piece”.

If you didn’t know the details, those comments would have some substance. Unfortunately, we do know the details and it boils down to one game being lost thanks to a pattern of ill-discipline within the team and the second being lost thanks to Willian jogging back 22 minutes into the game and Pépé being inexplicably tasked with marking their biggest aerial threat. That’s not bad luck, that’s routine.




Tribuna – Mikel Arteta: “We are the biggest football club in England”

Less bad is good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then.

Never-ending road of bad

Normally after a loss to a team like Burnley and an endlessly-irritating manager like Dyche, I’d be feeling annoyed and leap to a few petty excuses to try and rationalise what used to be a rare occurrence. Maybe even rue a dodgy VAR decision or a Mike Dean special. These days, it just feels despondent and I don’t really know how to quantify the “big picture” when it’s not only more of the same but actually somehow getting worse.

It was another game with the wrong kind of records being broken: first win for Dyche against Arsenal on his 11th attempt, equalled our worst home run in the league since 1959, lowest goals tally after 12 games since the ’81/82 season, and most damagingly of all to Arteta, we’ve received twice as many red cards as any other team since he was appointed.

In this instance, Arteta’s trust and judgement (or lack thereof) was the rod for his own back because Granit Xhaka is a player who has time and again demonstrated a tendency to do stupid things. Sometimes that’s verbally berating 60,000 people for daring to voice their opinion instead of rising above it, sometimes that’s losing your cool on the pitch and sometimes it’s because he’s switched off entirely and cost us a cheap goal. None of those paint a particularly good picture of a player who has somehow convinced several managers that he’s also virtually undroppable. Stranger still is the fact that his only real absence from Arsenal’s starting XI came when the fans essentially superseded Unai Emery and gave him a free pass to relieve Xhaka of his duties.

In the tattered shreds of Xhaka’s defense, he wasn’t the only player out there to be visibly frustrated and yet, he was once again the only one actually punished. It might have been the rearing head of a bad run of personal and collective form that sent him over the edge, but in the context of this particular dismissal, it’s probably the most embarrassing for him and maddening for the rest of us.

While the first half wasn’t exactly easy viewing, I noticed a few slithers of improvement but you could just as easily chalk that up to Burnley being Burnley. Lacazette could have done better with the toe poke and completely mishit another chance, Holding and Gabriel both came close, Saka was denied with a last-ditch tackle. We came out in the second half with better tempo and created a few good chances in the first 10 minutes and then… he goes and does that. To a player not even involved. Because he’s a short-fused, hot-headed idiot.

It’s one thing for Nicolas Pépé to be sent off for a silly red card – the first of his career – but when a player with a history like Xhaka does it, the blame isn’t quite so isolated. That’s not to suggest Arteta shouldn’t pick players solely because they have a patchy disciplinary record but when Xhaka has been as ineffective as he has been in the last 3 months, it just feels so avoidable and ultimately leaves the manager without a leg to stand on. It seems strange to reference such a short stint, but I couldn’t help but notice the dichotomy between Freddie and Arteta as managers. Even with his threadbare team and non-existent preparation, Freddie wasn’t afraid to try something different. We played on the front foot against teams we should be beating and while certain results escaped us, like Maupay’s unjust winner for Brighton or the slump against Norwich, we at least played like we had nothing to lose and opportunities with given to players that deserved it – regardless of their age. In his final game in charge against Everton, our starting lineup included Smith-Rowe, Saka, Martinelli, Nelson and Maitland-Niles; even if he knew the jig was up and had nothing to lose, I still struggle to envisage Arteta doing the same.

It’s all well and good vesting some trust in experienced players who have quantifiable traits = at this point, it’s genuinely the only explanation why players like Willian and Xhaka are still included – but I would also argue it’s a real contributing factor to our predictability. The right wing is as blunt as it’s ever been because defenders know Willian isn’t going to do anything special (and he was still favoured to Pépé even before the suspension) but yet again, nothing is done to address the glaring problem. We don’t even have any Europa League group stage games left as an excuse for protecting the “B” squad, so why on Earth are other players not being given opportunities?

At this point, I don’t really know what to say. Even Emery made our affairs easier to talk about because he was such an alienating pacifist in interviews and that did my head in. Arteta seems to have reached a point where he says one thing and does another and in a world already full to the brim of broken promises and misinformation, it’s difficult to draw any positives. That’s also not helped by our upcoming fixtures, which could well leave us in the relegation zone by Christmas. The writing has been on the wall for quite a few weeks now but now is the time for Arteta to remove Pep’s silver spoon, throw out any ideas he had about committing to ideas that clearly aren’t working and just throw the kitchen sink at it.

Play the kids. Pick players that actually have a future at the club. Bin the rest and let them know why they’re binned. Those that want to stay will fight their way back into the team and those that don’t should be out the door in January. That obviously requires those around and above Arteta to do their jobs for a change which is a tall ask, but that is where we’re at. The post F.A. Cup clamouring now feels like a lifetime ago and given some of Unai’s at-the-time-less-obvious warnings, it’s clear as day that our issues run far deeper than Arteta simply picking two washed-up, walking frames like Xhaka and Willian:

But some players had a mentality that says one day ‘yes’, one day ‘no’, when in football it has to be ‘yes’, ‘yes’, ‘yes’ every day.

Emery on our defeat in Baku

Arteta might not be the man to change that either, and if results continue to slide, his credentials will only be scrutinised further but at this point, our problems feel worryingly intrinsic with no obvious solution in sight.