Draws can sometimes be fun

After a convincing win in the North London derby and less than convincing procession to the Europa League quarter finals, West Ham posed a different test.

It’s one thing to still be vying for a place in the Top Four in November or December – Spurs were even hilariously billed as “title contenders” in this time – but it’s by no means down to luck that West Ham are still on the cusp. It was all the more surprising that for whatever reason, Arsenal didn’t seem to appreciate this difference if the opening 32 minutes were anything to go by.

The fixture was an opportunity to build some momentum in the league. Too many times this season, good results have been immediately followed by bad performances. The win against United on 1st November saw Arsenal then take 2 points from their next 7 games until the Boxing Day win against Chelsea. What we got yesterday was a “return to tinkering”; no longer content with either/or, both Lacazette and Aubameyang were shoehorned onto the pitch at the same time, along with two changes in defence. The changes alone were hardly enough to explain the capitulation; in reality, Arsenal were simply second-best in every department.

The writing was on the wall even before the inevitable Jesse Lingard goal, which I’m at least partly responsible for but it wasn’t until West Ham’s third that Arsenal even hauled themselves off the starting block. The frequency at which Arteta’s Arsenal are forced into these reactionary, seemingly no-win-scenario situations is incredibly frustrating as a fan, and yet time and again, they come back fighting. It makes it difficult to commit to a full-blown lambasting because there’s always a silver lining and I don’t know what to make of that.

Arsenal’s first response wasn’t down to luck, they just woke up. I once had a teacher say to me at school that there are two paths to success; being motivated to actually succeed and fear of failure. More often than not, it feels like this team leans towards the latter and their true colours come out when their backs are against the wall. It feels like a blessing and a curse; fear sent them into pandemonium when Spurs went down to 10 men, but suffering setbacks, both in terms of results and even in the span of 90 minutes, has sometimes brought out the best in them.

Looking at where it all went wrong before it went right, I don’t really have any complaints for the first. Antonio running at Luiz isn’t an ideal matchup, and Luiz was probably right to back off but the cleverly disguised pass was too quick for Chambers to intercept and the control and finish were both brilliant in fairness. This was the point at which a response was needed, because the goal had been coming and usually, going behind once is the catalyst to get back into the game.

West Ham clearly had other ideas, but once again, the biggest threat to Arsenal.. was Arsenal. Five players not looking at the ball, no one standing over it. It’s fair to say that Jon Moss waddling over with his foam spray while talking to Saka might have lulled them into a false sense of security, and quickly-taken free kicks seem to hinge purely on the discretion of the official on that particular day which makes them difficult to predict, but someone has to be alert there. To make matters worse, it was really, really poor from Leno to be beaten at his near post like that. The shot wasn’t even particularly well hit and it was only a continuation of his poor form of late.

The third was just as bad given the shear number of offenders. Sloppily given away by Tierney, not closed down by Aubameyang who curtailed his press for some reason, Luiz was beaten by Antonio because he was too static and Soucek slipped between to flick it on. Periods of dominance are, simply put, a result of whoever’s winning more duels. Arsenal’s problem was the accumulation and overwhelming majority being won by West Ham, and the 3-0 lead was absolutely deserved.

While a response of some kind should have come earlier, the timing of Lacazette’s deflected effort was integral to the fightback, because the circumstances always feel different if you go into half time with nothing to your name. I’m resigned to reduce his effort to an own goal, as much as it was, because I thought he did brilliantly to control Chamber’s cross and get a shot away quickly. Wide though it was, he was rewarded for being sharp. He was also able to cleverly slip in Saka moments later, but a lack of composure delayed the fightback. While Ødegaard was instrumental in every Arsenal did well, and was the only one who looked switched on in the early capitulation, Lacazette deserves real praise for his work. Creative on the ball, clinical when he needed to be and he was always willing to drop deeper to provide options for Partey and Ødegaard.

There was also the curious case of Calum Chambers, a player whom commentators are unable to speak about without also mentioning the one time he had a bad game. I still don’t know what to make of him as a player, or where his best position is. I thought he was very good at centre back for a period under Emery and has qualities suited to Arteta’s approach in that area, but also had a solid loan by all accounts at Fulham, largely as a holding midfielder, Yesterday took him back to his roots as a full back, and you wouldn’t think it was only his 2nd Premier League start of the season. He was always available on the right flank, bombing up and down without a problem and with a little more ambition from players gambling in the box, his deliveries would have produced more. His cross for the second left Dawson without an option with Aubameyang breathing down his neck. He even threw in some flair when the opportunity presented itself, almost like he could hear Carragher jokingly comparing him to Cafu, with that deliciously clipped ball over the top to Lacazette with the outside of his boot. It’s also just occurred to me that he has quite a penchant for using the outside of his right boot, because he’s scored not once but twice in the same manner.

The main man to thank however, was Martin Ødegaard who produced his best performance yet in an Arsenal shirt. His influence has been growing game by game, and was immediately obvious when he came on to shore things up against Olympiakos. Yesterday provided a different opportunity to showcase his talent without Smith Rowe alongside in the double-8, because he was expected to be the main focal point of creativity and did just that. Considering the ambition and constant threat he presented with his distribution, he still came away with a pass completion of 93% and was heavily involved in all three goals after assuming responsibility as the puppet master. I don’t know how we sign him permanently or for how much but he seems to be the real deal.

There were changes that should have come sooner and that’s a familiar theme when it comes to Arteta. On the one hand, it was the same set of players that went 3-0 down as those that clawed the game back but there were drivers and passengers. At any rate, the changes had the desired effect and despite being left with work to do after a slightly overhit pass from Ødegaard, Pépé’s weak-footed cross was inch-perfect for Lacazette who got the goal he deserved.

From the start of the fightback, it was still far from a one-sided affair. Antonio hitting the post from point-blank range was the best of the bunch but West Ham had several other opportunities to score, just as Arsenal did. The difference between the two teams was the manner in which they conceded, with Arsenal’s extreme variance between “good” and “bad” coming in stark contrast to West Ham simply succumbing to the relentless pressure. Still incapable of staying focused for 90 minutes and still haunted by individual errors, there’s no clear solution. I’m just glad we have some spine and some players that can make a difference when it matters.

After the game, Arteta summed up the problems at hand by saying “that’s what keeps me awake. It’s happened too many times too often. At that level you cannot do that because the margins are not so big.”

Familiar story, familiar words. That’s not to be glib – I’m sure he’s far more frustrated than I or anyone else is but I can’t think of another team in the Premier League that so routinely displays such extremes. And that’s about the size of it.

A bittersweet night to remember

Last night was largely forgettable on an Arsenal front. It’s never nice to lose at home, especially after wasting so many opportunities to really put the game beyond doubt, but there was more than enough steel and spine to get the job done. There were some surprises elsewhere in the competition, as Molde fell to Granada, seeing them proceed to the quarter finals in the their first ever Europa League outing and Manchester United narrowly edged past AC Milan in the San Siro despite playing poorly on the night.

Stock photo: source (you really want to open this link)

It seems strange to even be mentioning them two posts in a row, but they just bring it on themselves. One day they’ll learn to keep quiet and when they do, I’ll stop making things like the above but for now, all we can do is revel. Now, without further ado…

The Match

For a team that created very little in the first leg at their own ground, the task ahead of Olympiakos was enormous. Needing to score three goals on the night to have any chance of going through was going to require some actual impetus from them, with or without the customary helping hand from Arsenal.

On paper, I had my concerns. I can’t think of too many occasions where players like Ceballos and Elneny have done well on the pitch at the same time. They’re both players with qualities and drawbacks. While that’s true of most professional footballers, their drawbacks tend to be a little more noticeable when they’re given too much responsibility, or when they aren’t surrounded by quality. Neither had a bad game last night, and they both deserved to avoid the January cull but the point remains.

When they swiftly made way for Thomas Partey and Martin Ødegaard barely 5 minutes after Olympiakos took the lead, their shortcomings were made all the more obvious by the ease at which their replacements wrestled back control, particularly in the case of Ødegaard. It’s fair to say that the job asked of Ceballos last night left him outside his comfort zone and in many respects, he was doing the right things. Aubameyang failed to hit the target with a poked effort after being slipped in by the Spaniard and he also found Pépé with a through-ball as he broke in behind. At the same time, he was often wasteful in possession, poor from set pieces and was once again guilty of turning the ball over before Arsenal conceded.

You never really know what game you’re going to get from him. On his day, he can produce moments of real quality, he clearly has an eye for a pass and works tirelessly. The problem is, there seems to be as many 1-star passes in his locker as there are 5s. In his second season at the club, the ability to find consistency has always escaped him and if we’re talking about his suitability as a permanent signing, you want consistency in rotational players. It also happens to be the saving grace for Mohamed Elneny – you (nearly) always know what you’re going to get with him. From a squad-building perspective, if it’s a choice between Ceballos and his new Real Madrid counterpart, it’s a no-brainer and the latter is only just getting started.

I still have some concerns about Thomas Partey, because he’s clearly not back to his best. He was still able to go through the gears and slink past players with ease when he needed to but there’s still a sloppiness to his game that’s been more evident than many would like in recent weeks. It gave him more minutes under his belt in a controlled-enough setting but he still has some ways to go.

After both he and Arteta seemingly declared the disciplinary action as water under the bridge, there were also some expectations for Aubameyang to make a statement with his performance after missing the North London derby and its jubilations. He was at least spotted en route just after 1pm for the 5:55pm kickoff, unless there’s someone else in North London with a chrome LaFerrari.

It’s still clear that his best position is centrally, simply because he’s a numbers man: he frequently gets into good goal-scoring positions and if you find him enough times, he’s going to put them away. He’s by no means the most clinical and while the chances he missed weren’t quite as glaring as those in the first leg against Benfica, the opportunities for Arsenal to be wasteful and still get away with it are running out.

There are no easy games left in this competition. Arteta probably won’t be paying too much attention to the path to the final, but there’s a very real chance of facing Unai Emery’s Villareal in the semi final and Manchester United in the final. Slavia Prague may have been one of the kinder draws (thank you Gaël Clichy for drawing that one) but I’d really love to see Arsenal put them to bed and go into the next round bursting with confidence.

They clearly have a very good record against Czech opposition but no one is truly beneath Arsenal and at the end of the day, you can’t be too cocky when you’re languishing in 10th in the Premier League. After seeing what happened to the “horrible hotspurs” (thank you for that little soundbite, Peter Drury), these smaller European teams will no doubt be heading into the ties with a renewed confidence, because the prowess of English teams in Europe isn’t what it used to be.

Ultimately, there’s not much room for concern. It was more of the same for Arsenal and even with a heavily rotated starting lineup, there were still plenty of chances to put the game to bed; Aubameyang uncharacteristically missing a one-on-one, Smith Rowe’s back was the only thing in the way of a certain goal for Pépé, Ødegaard skied it from close range after working some space for himself and Pépé’s other effort was straight at the goalkeeper. Arteta also wasted no time in pulling his finger out of his proverbial to tighten things up when they needed to be and some players got some hard-earned rest after the weekend’s efforts. I’ve been critical of his in-game management and while the changes he made were again reactionary, he made the right call.

We also got to see a cameo from Martinelli, and he’s another one where you know what you’re going to get, with a healthy dollop of chaos. His limited chances since his revitalising performance against Chelsea have given Arteta some difficult questions that he’d probably rather not answer but I don’t think there’s any room for concern about his future. He was his usual supersonic self and even with limited minutes, he was able to make an impact. I still would have liked to have seen more from him in the past few weeks but Arteta seems to have a very particular idea of what he wants on the left, and he hasn’t been able to figure out how to make Martinelli work there yet. Looking back to the home game against United in January when he was hooked at half time is still telling, because he hadn’t done anything wrong on the ball per se, it was simply a case of not following tactical instructions and Arteta needed something different. Luckily, he’s only 19 so that’s quite alright.

The next game is another test against the season’s surprise performers. I haven’t watched West Ham much this year but I know Jesse Lingard will find a way to score against us. Arsenal would do well to respect their league position and treat it with the same kind of urgency as the North London derby.

Until then.

Not today José

There are few things in life that make me happier than seeing an upset Mourinho, wagging his little finger in vain. Coincidentally, seeing a man of such low moral stock as Érik Lamela get a timely comeuppance isn’t far behind on that list. In some ways, it’s a shame that Lamela gave José an “out”, something to fall back on and use to deflect from his own tactical shortcomings, but on the day, there was only one team with the desire and approach to win.

I’m still recovering from what the last 15 minutes of that game did to my insides, but it wouldn’t have been an Arsenal win if they didn’t make things difficult at some point. It thankfully wasn’t enough to mar the result and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t take anything away from the performance either because Arsenal were the driving force from the start.

On paper, you’d be fooled into thinking that both sides were set up to play on the front foot but save for that poxy rabona, the first half was all Arsenal. Arsenal’s fresh-faced frontline saw Ødegaard, Smith Rowe and Saka playing behind Lacazette against the far more seasoned quartet of Bale, Moura, Kane and Son, who have been firing on all cylinders lately. Therein lies the gem of this game, though.

It’s not to compare the two sides simply because they’re who they are, but there was no doubt a point in time in which José Mourinho was being considered for the job at Arsenal. 18 months down the line, and one team is seen playing with identity, unwavering even in the face of a few stylistic “teething problems” and another playing for a manager that is far more concerned with what the opposition might do than his team’s own trajectory. It might have paid dividends for Mourinho in the past, particularly against Arsenal, but Arsenal were winners in more ways than one yesterday.

Watching that first half, it felt like a continuation of these last few months. Spurs taking the lead against the run of play in such a manner was the typical battery-acid icing on the cake, but Arsenal continue to keep coming back for second helpings in spite of these setbacks. Even without Aubameyang, and a fully fit Saka, there was fluidity, intent and end product and the team still looks like it’s on the verge of something. Tierney and Smith Rowe’s rotational overloads against sleeper agent Doherty were a constant threat and if Lacazette didn’t have two right feet, Spurs may well have been facing a familiar, but long overdue hammering.

Seeing Smith Rowe’s effort crash off the bar was agonising, not only at the time for not knowing if it would come back to bite us but because it was one of those shots that simply deserves to go in. More often than not, he’s been far more keen to connect play for others, which might be indicative of knowing his place in the pecking order, but his ability from range was well-known as he came through the ranks at Arsenal. He also trains with Mohamed Elneny and who knows what that man can teach you about shooting. Cédric Soares was also denied, desperate to fulfill the “Arsenal right back scoring against Spurs” quota but it wasn’t to be.

The fluidity wasn’t only evident in the performance but also the growing ease with which Arteta is able to move parts around without disrupting the balance. The double-8 pivot of Smith Rowe and Ødegaard continues to cause havoc for the opposition, but either seems to be capable of handing the responsibility on their own if need be. Saka’s precautionary switch didn’t bring the respite Spurs might have hoped for, as Pépé showcased new heights in his repertoire with superb athleticism to bring the ball down, and vision and technique to match in finding Lacazette. He may have fluffed most of his chances, but he made the crucial one count and had the last laugh again.

The same can also be said defensively. After a very good showing against Olympiakos, Bellerín was dropped in favour of Cédric, who then produced a very good showing against Spurs. The centre-back pairing seems to be more informed by the opposition, but it’s somehow emerged as Arsenal’s most abundant area of quality. As much as his volatility scares me, David Luiz is still an integral part of his team and on his day, can keep even the very best whisper-quiet and I’m already completely sold on his compatriot in Gabriel, who’s the best bit of business Arsenal have done in years along with Kieran Tierney.

In front of them sat Xhaka and Partey. After some leggy performances of late, I wondered if another North London derby would be too much, too soon for Partey but he seems to be getting back to his best and the pair of them kept their opposite numbers in Ndombele and Højbjerg out of the picture for the entire game. With Ødegaard ahead of him, both he and Partey had great success winning the ball back with ease and their elite reading of the game is evident. The more I see of Ødegaard, the more I like him and his goal was well-deserved with another brilliant, rounded performance. I worried when he first arrived how it would impact Smith Rowe’s involvement. It was obvious he needed some cover, but at the same time, I was apprehensive about seeing him forced out of what seemed to be his preferred pocket on the inside right, linking up predominantly with Saka and Lacazette. As it turns out Smith Rowe is also somewhat of a positional chameleon like Saka, there’s no love lost and having both Ødegaard and Smith Rowe in tandem provides another level of connectivity and assurance in possession.

Tandem by the numbers

Pass accuracy (%)Long PassesChances createdShots on targetDuels won
Smith Rowe9740/15/8
Source: http://@The Tactical Times

For what it’s worth, I’m still going to engage in a bit of light debunking given the furore surrounding some of the distractions decisions.

  • Lamela is a bastard
    • He was looking for trouble as soon as he came on, and despite not having any bites from a certain hot-headed Swiss midfielder and even scoring, he couldn’t resist being more of a bastard.
    • He kicked out at several players, which was enough to see David Beckham red carded in the ’98 World Cup against Argentina.
    • He made a late tackle that wasn’t even booked.
    • He intercepted a pass, but sliced through the back of a player to do so. Booked.
    • He deliberately swung an arm out. Second yellow, debatably enough for a straight red. Adiós.
    • His rabona will be lost in the rest of that club’s irrelevant annals.
  • Lacazette’s penalty (which he put away brilliantly, as always)
    • The same scenario cost Arsenal three points against Wolves when David Luiz was sent off. He was still reckless then, because he closed down and got too close.
    • Sánchez was reckless now, and it was this reason that Michael Oliver cited for awarding the penalty.
    • It doesn’t matter if Lacazette had already shot, mishit, passed or stood still. You can’t come flying in like that on a player.

It feels good to not be doing that for a contentious decision against Arsenal for a change (not that these were in any way contentious). The decisions still bothered me because they detracted from all of the good stuff. Spurs pulled their typical “putting on the pressure” except when it really mattered in the dying stages, and if not for the red card, looked set to go out with a whimper. It also provoked Kane into yet another disgusting challenge, that yet again went unnoticed. His offside goal and shaving of the post will be the last things people remember from that game, but the reality was, he was completely nullified for the most part and took his anger out on someone who bettered him like a petulant child.

While there were no costly blunders to speak of, there’s still some ways to go in game management and calming nerves. A red card to the opposition, while more complicated than it might seem, should not invite that kind of pressure. Luiz attributed that to nervy youthfulness and excitement after the game, which is fair enough given how many young players were out there, but performances like this will go a long way in helping them understand how to control games on the front foot. It’s even more crucial when there are still high-stake games to come in this season, which will no doubt ask similar questions of them.

For now, they can at least rest easy though because they did the business.

Boring, boring Arsenal

The elephant in the room…

Normally, winning 3-1 away in the first leg of a Europa League knockout match – to the team that you were eliminated by last year – should be cause for some celebration. You might even lull yourself into a dizzying excitement before the second leg, with one foot firmly placed in the quarter finals and the prospect of rubbing shoulders with other titans of Europe and Spurs.

Oh no, no, no. That scoreline doesn’t even begin to encapsulate what the wider Arsenal collective were once again forced to endure before two moments of real quality rescued another tie. Of course we were desperate to recreate Saturday’s trauma. Of course it would be the same player who knocked Arsenal out last year and of course it would be off the back of a period of total dominance and control.

I say “boring, boring Arsenal” because it’s about time they changed the record. The running gag has run aground, the clown car is full and Arsenal fans have no more hair to pull out. The whopping, great elephant in the room has to be addressed before anything else because I don’t know how it’s possible to still be having this conversation.

Before I go any further, I want everyone to cast their minds back over the last 3 matches. Against Leicester, Jamie Vardy almost scored from an errant Leno pass. Against Burnley, I questioned Leno’s judgement in passing to Xhaka, and took some flak for splitting the blame across the pair of them. On this occasion, there was plenty of ire towards Ceballos, who had just been substituted for Thomas Partey and had barely touched the ball.

Now in this conundrum, there are four viable options for Leno. Playing it out wide, to the unmarked players in space would be preferable. There’s also absolutely nothing wrong with going long and resetting. There’s even secret option number 3 which is to turn around and deliberately kick the ball out of play as if someone was injured. Don’t play it into the man with four players around him, two of which will be directly intersected by said pass – because they’re going to close him down quickly. Even without Ceballos’ clumsy, mishit pass, the window for that box pass to be successful was miniscule because of the weight of Leno’s pass and proximity to El-Arabi.

Arteta took responsibility for the mistake against Burnley because he demands the players play like this. Leno is a top goalkeeper who routinely extinguishes defensive calamities and is, as far as I’m aware, an autonomous being during matches – free to make up his own mind. There’s no stellar Argentinian breathing down his neck anymore, trying to steal his mantle. It’s another completely avoidable situation where the buck stops with Leno. The warning signs were even there from this game, let alone the rest of the season when both Luiz and Ødegaard almost played Olympiakos in themselves. If the team looks nervy, just keep it simple because better teams are going to punish those kinds of mistakes.

Playing devil’s advocate for a second, you can also blame Xhaka and Ceballos for making themselves available to ask for the ball in dangerous areas. It comes with the territory that central players are under greater pressure and it’s a necessary evil for Arteta’s system to work, but the ability to strike a balance is what continues to escape the team and it continues to unravel when left to on-the-spot judgement calls.

Posted 8th March, after the Burnley game. A running counter might be more appropriate at this point.

I’ve bandied the term “systemic” around too many times to count, but until this team gets a grip, they aren’t going anywhere.

The Match

In a continuation of recent form, Arsenal started strongly. Unhindered by recent disappointments, it was full steam ahead with eyes firmly set on European glory. Martin Ødegaard should have put them ahead with barely two minutes on the clock, as both Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerín were having a field day overloading on their respective flanks. Aubameyang also saw his well-placed header miraculously saved off the bar after a delicious clipped cross from Bellerín. Olympiakos were also nowhere to be seen and save for a few gifted passes as I mentioned, they looked as ripe for the taking as Benfica.

The early dominance petered out with nothing to show for it and after two direct free kicks were fired straight down the gullet of José Sá, an opportunity fell to Ødegaard to do the same. I didn’t realise in real-time but Partey did brilliantly to snuff out Olympiakos’ escape route by not only intercepting the ball, but passing to Ødegaard in the process with only a single touch. From there, I didn’t expect the shot to flash in, but after those two somewhat uncharacteristic freekicks from range, I wondered if they’d done their research and saw this as a vulnerability. Either that or they were all just “feeling it” on the day.

For the most part, there was no real cause for complaint. Prior to the Olympiakos equaliser, they had only managed a single, tame effort on target and you’d be fooled into thinking Arsenal were the home side such was the level of control. Positively cruising. They even managed to get into half time with the lead intact so Arteta could give them a shake-down and remind them to stop doing that thing they keep doing.

It’s hilarious at this point to look back at our run of games since the win against Chelsea and think about all of the things Arteta has got right. They really have improved in starting games on the front foot and while there’s still plenty of room for improvement, they are scoring more goals during periods of control. The problem that remains which spoiled my enjoyment last night before the inevitable even happened, was the nagging feeling that we would once again be ruing missed opportunities because we can never rule out the possibility for self-immolation. Anyway, that’s quite enough doom and gloom devoted to that particular incident and what transpired makes for a much more enjoyable recollection.

I was disappointed that Pépé was once again left out of the starting lineup. I was even more disappointed that he didn’t come on in the aftermath of their equaliser, because Arsenal suffered from the usual “calamity hangover” where they suddenly forget how to play football and the opposition comes alive. Willian had been tidy enough on the ball but with Tierney making mincemeat of Lala, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to introduce the Ivorian. Thankfully, that particular change never happened and Willian was still on the pitch in the 79th minute to deliver a ball into deep, with the seldom-seen, successful short corner.

The header was nothing short of towering. Gabriel had real work to do in adjusting his run and even when he rose above Arsenal’s favourite transfer target, he still had to redirect the ball back across goal. The power he still managed to produce was incredible and thankfully Aubameyang didn’t get in his way, because he also flattened M’Vila. That was his third goal already in an Arsenal shirt and he continues to shine as our most promising centre-back.

The triple change made shortly after were a step in the right direction, with one exception. A sizeable chunk of the fanbase, myself included, was surprised to see one Mohamed Elneny step out but once again, I’m eating my words in questioning Arteta’s substitutions à la Willian against Benfica because the man went out there and put daylight between the two teams, like the parting of the Red Sea. The goal was pure eye candy and watching the ball helplessly swerve away from a goalkeeper’s outstretched hands never gets old. According to Arteta, he’s been “trying so hard to improve his shooting range” in training and that warms my soul because his celebration showed every ounce of that desire to improve and he’s really bailed us out on this one.

I did take issue with one particular comment from Arteta, in his praise for Willian.

“I think he was really good again tonight. I wanted to give him some continuity because he deserves it.”

I still worry about what kind of message this sends, because besides the assist, it was nothing more than a tidy performance from Willian. I appreciate that he is the player that Arteta wanted, that he and the team is invested in but if he wants to talk about deserving continuity, I can’t for the life of me understand what Pépé’s done to once again be struggling for minutes but maybe Arteta’s team selection on Sunday will tell the full story. Anyway, the job is half done and there’s a long overdue chicken cull on the horizon now.

Until then.

Last-Dyche defending, Xhaka Episode VIII and xG continues to haunt

To save myself the trauma of actually reliving that match on my birthday, I’m breaking tradition by writing on the same day as a match. Since the performance and theatrics were all too familiar, I don’t think sacrificing my usual attempts at tact and reason will have much of an impact on how this is going to unfold anyway.

Featured image credit to @Chris Godfrey

Another 2 points lost. Another missed opportunity to gain ground on those around us. Another case of blowing our own foot off. After two good* wins and facing a tired and injury-stricken Burnley side – after a full week of rest and preparation – to come away short-handed is another notch on the XL belt of failure. Burnley’s xG of 1.12 level-pegging to Arsenal’s 2.76 because at the end of the day, goals are the only things that matter.

*(And even though the product of the Benfica win was “good”, the journey getting there was anything but.)

Since Granit Xhaka joined the club in 2016, no other outfield player has made more errors leading to goals in the entirety of the Premier League. So often, he’s used as a convenient lightning rod to draw comparison between the timing of his arrival and Arsenal’s subsequent inability to get back into the Top Four. It’s not that the two ideas constantly run in tandem but every time there’s an incident like the palaver that led to Burnley’s equaliser, the door to the discussion slams open again. While Xhaka’s proclivity for such things wasn’t widely known prior to his signing, Arsenal continue to stand by him and have since signed other players with “reputations” like David Luiz. They’re players who can be brilliant at times but the Mr. Hyde in their repertoires is always waiting, ready to snatch points from the jaws of victory.

That’s not to say the blame lies solely on Xhaka; far from it. I don’t think Leno chose the right option and even with Xhaka making himself available, he shouldn’t feel obligated to give Xhaka the ball, and that comes to down to judgement. With the half almost over, taking risks shouldn’t be on the agenda and regardless of what Arsenal’s normative state is intended to be, sometimes you have to use your head. I would understand him placing faith in Xhaka if we hadn’t been burned before – if Xhaka was right-footed or technically proficient on his weak foot, there was an easy pass available out to Chambers – but we have been burned before. Leno’s judgement was also brought into question against Leicester and it was only blind luck that stopped Vardy from scoring. That also puts the spotlight on Arteta, because if we’re assuming these players aren’t mentally compromised, it would be fair to assume the only thing stopping them from taking the easy option is how they’re being directed to play.

In fairness to him, he took some responsibility for that and highlighted the dichotomy by saying “we gave them a goal, which it can happen … I demand them to play the way we do – like the first goal we scored is all the way from Bernd – it can happen”. I do get where he’s coming from and it’s fair for him to point to its successes but there continues to be a gaping void where pragmatism should also be. When pressed on the element of risk to this approach, he cited the “only” chance Burnley having coming after a long ball from Leno, and that “you need to know when to do it and what principles that you have to apply”. I also can’t argue with that, but perhaps, as a child of Guardiola’s school of thought and clearly someone with a deep understanding of theory, his biggest failure is in assuming that certain players can reach this same level of understanding.

The blame runs deeper because figuring out some sort of blame Venn diagram shouldn’t even be on the cards if Arsenal had taken their chances, and you could say that was all she wrote if you had to summarise this season. Yet again, they’d managed the hard part which was taking the lead, no small feat at Turf Moor on a pitch designed to frustrate. It might have been one of his only contributions of the afternoon, but Willian did well in carrying the ball forward with intent and provided Aubameyang with some space to work with. Aubameyang carried on in the same vein as recent weeks, working an opening and beating Pope at the near post. That should have been the beginning of the end. As first half chances go, only Saka’s appeared clear cut but given how it fell to him, there was little time to react but he’ll still be disappointed. Partey blasted over, Aubameyang sliced wide. Given the dominance, at least one of those had to find the net.

It’s also a fair assumption to think that at least some of the players watched the Spurs game against them last week, given the proximity of the North London derby. They went ahead, controlled the game and Burnley rolled over. Arsenal were carving Burnley open in similar manner – left, right and centre – so why on Earth did they have to shit the bed when Burnley equalised? They were dragged down to Burnley’s lowly depths for much of the second half and instead of trying to play football, it was a League One heavyweight slugfest, on their terms. Only after some fresh legs and clear minds were brought on did they decide to start playing football again, but it was too little, too late.

While he missed the best chance of the game, the 20 minutes Pépé was less than he deserved given his form in recent weeks and it wasn’t enough time to find an opening despite the constant threat he posed. As much as I’m loathed to (as always), I can’t not mention the impact that VAR and substandard officiating had on the tie once again. I can’t for the life of me understand how that’s not given as a handball; an unnatural position, a movement towards the ball, the fact that it directly impacted a goal-scoring opportunity. It’s not consistent and we’ve once again found ourselves on the wrong side of it and as much as it’s right to bemoan missed opportunities, there comes a point when these add up. There wasn’t even a walk over to the monitor, because that would be a ridiculous use of Andre Mariner’s time and precious Premier League resources.

I don’t have an issue with the red card for Pieters being rescinded, nor should anyone, but a 50% success rate with VAR isn’t acceptable and Arteta was right to question it afterwards. The block itself was brilliant and this time on his weak foot, I don’t know what more Pépé could have done. After the two scares, Burnley were set on seeing the game out and thanks to some last-Dyche defending as they flooded the box with all eleven players, they did just that. Saka and Aubameyang had efforts blocked, Ceballos curled into the post at the death and by the sum of its parts, it was incredible to only come away with a single goal but that is the reality.

Going forward

I’ve been on both sides of the fence lately when it comes to caring about our domestic fate. More European football in one form or another is important financially and to a lesser extent, in attracting talent. There is still some stock in the club’s name for the foreseeable future, regardless of what form the Top Four/Top Six will take this season, which is why the club has been able to prise the likes of Partey, Aubameyang and even Ødegaard from clubs that offer a wider array of world class talent.

In some ways, I would also be interested to see how the club would perform without any distractions, because having a good domestic campaign has been absent since Arsenal conceded the league title to Leicester in the 2015/2016 season. It’s worth mentioning that I don’t think European football has been the cause for that, and generally speaking, clubs that have a strong run in Europe also perform better domestically despite the misconception that having a bigger workload means sacrifices are made elsewhere. It all boils down to consistency, and that coincidentally is what’s also needed to beat the best teams in Europe. Makeshift as it was, the foundations of Arsenal’s path to their only Champions League final in 2006 was a record-breaking defence. That being said, if the club can’t find consistency as it stands, maybe having a weight off their shoulders for a year wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Everyone inside and outside of the club knows where it belongs and the damage being done to its reputation during this period of transition, but after Baku, I can’t help but feel this particular ship has sailed. The Champions League isn’t a neatly packaged solution and had Emery steered the club back there, I don’t think it would be any closer than it is now anyway.

I certainly wouldn’t be up in arms if the club managed to go all the way this year, but I’m not keeping my hopes up because I don’t think they have what it takes and scraping through the first knockout round is one of many red flags. There are still too many games left to be played in the season to have any kind of idea where the club might finish but if it were to end today, I wouldn’t have any complaints because they’re exactly where they deserve to be.

Surprises everywhere

After the narrow midweek win and short, tiring turnaround flying back from Greece, to win in such a dominant manner with a heavily rotated side wasn’t something I saw coming, especially given the six changes Arteta made to the side that faced Benfica. I also didn’t expect such a poor showing from Leicester, knocked out on Thursday by a team they should have breezed past but it didn’t stop them for accepting our customary gift in the 6th minute.

As is so often the case, it wasn’t any single mistake that led to Leicester’s opener but a combination of concentration and inaction from several Arsenal players that paved the way. I’m sure if you lined them all up, these early goals we continue to ship would have a variety of different culprits and combinations, which points to something systemic. It’s also exacerbated by teams no doubt being abundantly aware of this by now and trying to capitalise on this issue more than they would against other opposition as a result. Thankfully, our defensive record in the second half is only bettered by Man City’s, so Arteta’s talks are still doing something right but life would be so much easier for us fans if they got their act together from the first whistle instead. It continues to be a problem, regardless of opposition or lineup and my message to this season’s scriptwriters is, “it’s getting boring”. They’d obviously expended their creative juices on Thursday for the Benfica game because after Leicester went ahead, it was plain sailing from then on in, with a near-faultless response from Arsenal.

Bukayo Saka wasn’t even called upon and earned some much needed rest, and the man stepping into his shoes terrorised Leicester’s left back in equal manner. There’s no doubt Pépé’s work rate and decision-making in the final third has improved but above all, the team’s balance that was so absent for so much of the season looks to have liberated him. Similarly to Saka, he was too often expected to produce something out of nothing when we needed a player to rescue a match. He managed it on a few occasions but he was also just as guilty of trying to do too much, too often; dribbling past one too many players or holding onto the ball too long and missing a key pass. This time, he found the balance and was rewarded with a goal and an assist, and missed out on another penalty by a matter of inches. There’s also a case to be made that his most common full back pairing in Hector Bellerín hasn’t been a complementary fit, but with Kieran Tierney back in action and Saka taking ownership of the right wing, there’s a chance for Pépé to form an understanding elsewhere.

I’m especially happy that we’re finally getting some consistency out of him, even when he finds himself dropping in and out of the starting lineup because having quality players on rotation is key to breaking back into the Top Four and beyond. The sizeable outlay is always going to linger in the background of discussion around him but I’ve always believed there was a player there. His book of trickery is a real page-turner if his capacity to put defenders on their arse is anything to go by, and on this occasion, he even forced Leicester to substitute Thomas just as Saka did to Alioski against Leicester. Getting in a player or team’s head – essentially a fear factor – is a really important attribute for such flair players to have because it’s that unpredictability that forces teams into mistakes and they didn’t know how to deal with him. There was also a lot to like in the flexibility to his play; no longer rooted to the touchline, expectantly waiting for the ball but running in-field and combining more which is how he found himself heavily involved in the build-up to Arsenal’s third before rounding the move off.

And speaking of having quality players on rotation, I thought Willian producing a performance like that was less likely than the second coming of Jesus based on the rest of his Arsenal career. It was his best in an Arsenal shirt and it was a well-deserved Man of The Match award. What I’m struggling to understand is where it’s come from. His assist and general contribution on Thursday was overstated for me, but he was a different player against Leicester and finally looked like the player we thought we’d signed. The freekick routine to set up Luiz was one thing (which was a brilliantly directed, brave header) but there was commitment and quality to his play. Actually sprinting to give players an option like Smith Rowe does so well, BREEZING PAST MULTIPLE PLAYERS like he did in the build-up leading to the penalty. Where has this man been hiding? I’ve questioned his attitude plenty of times this season because I’ve so often seen a player who didn’t seem to care but I’d love to know the catalyst for whatever caused that yesterday. Here’s to hoping we haven’t seen the last of it, but consistency, as with the team in general, has been his biggest issue this season.

The quality in rotation also extends itself to Lacazette, as he still continues to quietly and effectively go about his business. It’s probably safe to say he doesn’t find himself in the same positions Aubameyang does for either of the two goals he scored against Benfica and that’s okay because they’re different players. Unlike Aubameyang, he’s never missed a penalty for us, especially not one with such importance as the miss in the North London derby. We may be past the point of fielding them together, save for a particular strategic approach Arteta has in mind because Aubameyang shouldn’t be asked to carry out the responsibilities you’d normally associate with a left winger but I would also be disappointed to see him leave in the summer because of his contract situation. It was a predictably involved performance from him, holding the ball up well and being a massive nuisance at all times which is what you want in a classic No. 9. He did well to turn and find Pépé in the lead up to him being fouled for our first and was even jostling with three Leicester players on his own before the ball broke loose for Xhaka to snatch in starting the move for our third. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a 20+ goal a season striker like his price tag may have initially suggested but I think there’s a real case to be made for a contract extension because there’s no guarantee we would find an upgrade, and we least know what we’ve got with Lacazette.

There was also a timely but unfortunate reminder as to the perils of overplaying youngsters, as a muscular injury forced Smith Rowe off which was beginning to feel like a case of “when”, not “if”. It’s hopefully not as serious as some of his other problems but should at least be a wake-up call to give them some protection.

What surprised me most, even more than Willian’s rebirth, was how comfortable Arsenal looked (after the goal and Leno’s attempt to give Vardy his standard goal against Arsenal). There was a strange sense of calm and sensibility, knowing when and where the ascendancy was and taking full advantage in that time. Seeing players breaking forward in numbers; Willian combining well in the first half and shooting just wide with a swiveled shot, five players in Leicester’s area to witness Pépé’s tap-in. The cohesion was replicated at the other end, with Luiz and Mari having a surprisingly quiet afternoon, with Xhaka having another understated and measured performance ahead of them. Going forward, this performance should be the reference point for inspiration and a textbook case of game management.

There are green shoots of promise threatening to poke their heads above ground and the only danger now is consistency. There’s clearly some resilience because they’ve become annoyingly accustomed to coming from behind, the hard part now is to get results – without fuss – on a regular basis against teams they should be beating. There’s a week to rest now before facing Burnley next Saturday, who will no doubt be completely different to the team that rolled over so pathetically against Spurs. Seeing Sean Dyche angry makes me happy and we’ve been lucky enough to see him lose his mind on a few occasions since their promotion with several last-minute winners courtesy of Alexis Sanchez et al. I hope they don’t leave it that late and it’s as routine a win as the noisy neighbours managed, not least because we’re now hot on their heels again and they have a real propensity to bottle even the un-bottle-able. As the great Chiellini once said, “it is the history of the Tottenham”, and we should strive to be in a position to leapfrog them when the inevitable strikes.

Until then.

A picture is worth 1,000 words…

That would probably be enough to sum up last night’s journey but I’ll sadly have to relive it in more detail than that…

There was a period last night when I was already resigned to the idea that Arsenal were crashing out in the same vein of self-destruction as they did at this stage last year. The fact that they didn’t is only thanks to a select few and ultimately, the win has ended up feeling strangely hollow. It’s a shame because I don’t think it should – having a last-gasp European knockout winner should be the stuff of dreams but when the outcome should have already been signed, sealed and delivered, the most I can come up with is relief.

Thankfully, we can once again count our lucky stars that Saka is en route to the very top and showing no signs of letting up. He wasn’t the only one to play a part in salvaging the tie but he continues to stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The Match

Throughout the early stages, the only thing that kept springing to mind was how often Arsenal were winning the ball back high up the pitch, and yet never seeming to inspire any real interest to actually capitalise on the advantage. Instead, it was far more reminiscent of our performance against Man City, one of fear and hesitation.

That could perhaps be forgiven early on, because they weren’t to know how Benfica would perform on the day but I think it’s a mindset that will need to change if they want to have a deep run in the competition. They even did the hard part, which was to extend the lead and put the onus on Benfica to really do something. Granted, it didn’t change much because the win-conditions hadn’t changed for them but I still didn’t expect to see Arsenal hanging on by a knife’s edge. That’s about the size of it though; for whatever reason, this manager and group of players cannot seem to escape a near-constant state of brinksmanship which means life as an Arsenal fan is at the very least… never dull.

The goal itself was brilliant; and was another thing I didn’t know Saka had in his locker. So perfect was the weight of pass that Aubameyang had no need for a second touch and it’s another thing for defenders to worry about when it comes to Saka. I thought his early exchanges with Ødegaard were promising, with lots of little neat and tidy back-and-forths that eventually did their job in engineering space for Saka and he’s the one player out there that always seems hell-bent on exploiting it, even frustratedly pulling up at one point after Smith Rowe missed a run. It was also Ødegaard’s best performance in an Arsenal shirt so far in my book, and players are beginning to take advantage of what he’s capable of.

After last week’s shortcomings, there was also no mistake this time with Aubameyang’s finishing and that was his tune throughout. He could hardly miss the decisive third and his disallowed goal after the offside was another tidy finish. In the same way that it’s nice for fans to have variety in the types of goals scored, a striker of Aubameyang’s calibre thrives when there’s variety in the type of chances coming his way because it makes life difficult for defenders. After a slow start to this season’s tally, he’s beginning to rack them up when we need them most and that’s good news.

There was more good news in two key individuals coming back into the fray, in Partey and Tierney. Partey was his usual quality self, but after a fairly torrid time against City and some real rustiness in the first leg, there was a sizeable bee under Tierney’s bonnet that reared it’s head on a few occasions, usually in the form of death stares and him politely asking Benfica players to get back to their feet. Without his timely and pent-up intervention, it was otherwise slim pickings during Benfica’s brightest period across the two legs and the ease at which they were suddenly dictating play was worrying. You can also call it a Willian assist, which feels like an anachronism at this point but in fairness to him, Arteta’s justification after the game didn’t leave me scratching my head as it otherwise frequently has done this season:

‘It was a really tight two lines, 4-4-1-1, or 5-3-2 at times, they were a really, really low block, not much space to run apart from when they set the line around the 18-yard box. You need people to unlock that, with special qualities in tight spaces to create movement and I think Willi was really helpful tonight. He gave us much more composure in moments, produced some creativity, produced the goal for Kieran and we need everybody on board.’

As much as it frustrated me at the time to see Willian’s face again, hearing Arteta explain the situation from the sane confines of a post-victory press conference is easier to digest, and the neat, tidy and unimaginative stuff that Willian’s become known for was actually what we needed on this occasion. A case could probably be made for bringing on either Martinelli or Pépé much earlier to target the high line but that’s another discussion and given the result, the substitution paid off. It’s still a stretch to credit Willian for that assist because Tierney had still had plenty of work to do still when he got the ball, but as the man himself said after the game, “I wouldn’t care who scored, I just wanted to get the goals as quick as we can”.

Ceballos was quite clearly the villain of the evening, which is a shame because he’s shown something different lately. The timing and position of the free kick was unfortunate because Benfica had offered nothing besides that in the first half. Sometimes though, you have to hold your hands up and say “fair enough” because the way in which it was dispatched was sublime. He was also having a good game up until that point, winning the ball back often and showing good energy but what transpired made his earlier efforts a distant memory.

That transgression really was the stuff of nightmares. I don’t know what he expected to happen or whether someone was in his ear giving bad advice but a nod-back to the keeper – from the halfway line – was a moment of madness. For Benfica’s goal tally to be comprised of a penalty, a free kick and that was about as typical as it gets.

Time and again, one way or another, they continue to be the architects of their own downfall and there’s only so many times you can get away with that in the knockout stages. Needless red cards, penalties and other individual errors have already quashed our domestic season and those kinds of mistakes clearly still haven’t been rooted out. It’s a difficult problem to address without changes to personnel so we’re not only stuck with it for the time being, but there’s also no single cause. More often than not, it’s uncertainty which is the same reason players resort to metronome passing maps and unambitious, unconvincing passages of play. The damage is even more apparent defensively because uncertainty is an attacker’s dream and there are many better teams than Benfica left in the competition that will be keen to exploit that.

We’ve at least been given a draw which is familiar. Not only going back to the same stadium and going through the same motions in two weeks time, but this time facing an opposition which many will be keen to set the record straight against. Being “wronged” last year, in the sense that they bowed out against a team that they probably should have beaten, will hopefully give the right kind of impetus to get the job done in a calm and enjoyable manner but I’ll believe that when I see it.

Until then.

Boring, boring City

Another year, another stroll in the park for Man City. The same can be said for most teams City have played this season, with yesterday’s loss marking the 18th consecutive win for them in all competitions. There’s no team that comes close to them in the Premier League this season and the result was another step closer to a cakewalk of a title, and Arteta even claimed they were the “best in Europe” before the match.

With that in mind, losing 1-0 to them isn’t such a bad thing in the grand scheme of things but what the score line doesn’t reflect is the ease in which they were able to nullify everything Arsenal threw at them, and by “throw” I actually mean “gently roll from a safe distance”. With only a single shot on target all game – which I believe was Tierney’s ambitious but well-hit effort from outside the box – it often felt like City were running down the clock as soon as Sterling nodded home and everything therein was like a dangling carrot. I’d hoped that the match would at least show some signs of improvement from years gone by, but the ease at which City were able to control the game without breaking a sweat is nothing short of demoralising. It’s also par for the course if the last 5 years are anything to go by:


That’s 9 losses and a single draw in 5 seasons, with 5 goals scored and 23 conceded.

There’s room for frustration, because while entirely predictable – since we always find a way to concede early on to City – it was just sloppy. Tierney was off the pace and failed to close down Mahrez; somewhat understandable because he’s still lacking match fitness. Sterling did what all good forwards do which was to find space between defenders but there’s still something comically worrying when someone of his stature wins a header unchallenged, and that falls on Holding and Bellerin. Both were ball-watching and both lost their man.

From there, it was always going to be an uphill battle with a less adventurous midfield tasked with breaking down the best defence in the league, one that cost north of £200m and has conceded 10 less goals than the next best in the league – which is Arsenal’s. Losing to a country-backed franchise is less frustrating than losing to other rivals (not that City are even a rival these days), but there’s still something, a kind of hopelessness, that doesn’t sit well with me. It’s not a level playing field and that status quo isn’t going to change any time soon. There’s no question that Arsenal haven’t been smart in the transfer window for some time but when you have a £200m defence and players like Aguero, Foden, Rodri, Laporte and Gabriel Jesus all on the bench, it’s no wonder there’s a gulf.

It’s also fair to say there was a mental frailty in some players out there; some uncharacteristic behaviour where even the most simple tasks were too much, to hilarious effect. The laughter offered some brief respite to an otherwise dull afternoon and while Bellerín had the funniest of the lot, there were plenty of other howlers along these lines…

There was a silver lining from an unsurprising source, which is that Saka was still playing with the same tenacity and belief as he would against any other opposition, and he was the only player City didn’t seem to have a handle on.

He was once again shifted from his home on the right wing for the greater good, and still he was able to influence the game and remained our most potent threat on the day. While he has an array of skill at his disposal, his mental fortitude is just as impressive and we still seem to be learning new things about his depths. Playing anywhere on the pitch doesn’t faze him, the opposition doesn’t faze him, opposition players rubbing his head to try and unsettle him doesn’t faze him and even in the face of glowing praise whenever he’s interviewed, he takes it in his stride. You can’t really teach that, which I guess explains why he continues to stand out from the rest.

I do have some concerns about what good another 90 minutes did for him ahead of Thursday, especially given how tiring it is to keep a team like City at bay but he’s still doing his thing. That may well be a ticking time bomb but I hope there’s still some care afforded to him, as much as the team depends on him.

Looking ahead to Thursday, the City game wasn’t much of an exercise in preparedness and Arteta will no doubt be looking for more of the same. I expect that Benfica will give a better showing of themselves, which should hopefully bring the necessary edge to Arsenal in the process, but we’re going to need to show more endeavour and risk than we have done in the last two games.

It’s understandable to not commit against City. They were playing with the handbrake on but you know if they saw an easy opportunity to rip us apart, they’d take it. It’s not even as simple as just throwing more players forward, because they’re good enough to soak it up anyway. I do think there was room for something more in the first leg against Benfica though, and hope it doesn’t come back to haunt us but time will tell when they meet again in Greece.

Until then.


For a game that looked there for the taking, I’m still slightly amazed that Arsenal came away with only a single goal to their name. That’s been a familiar theme in recent weeks for one reason or another, but Benfica were set up to negate and frustrate; happy for Arsenal to have plenty of the ball and even risk a high line with ageing defenders against a front line with pace.

You’d be easily fooled into thinking it was a close game if you only saw the match stats. The golden opportunities that fell to Aubameyang would have put the game to bed, and nothing Benfica produced came close. You can’t really account for that in your preparations – sometimes your striker just has an off day – but for it to come so soon after his weekend flurry was less than ideal. The chances were there and were well-crafted, and the hope is simply that there’ll be more of the same when we need it most in the second leg.

Arteta’s intentions for this competition were clear as day; that he’s not taking any chances because the team he fielded was arguably his strongest available. It’s for that reason that he’ll be especially frustrated to have put so much on the line with some crunching Premier League ties loitering either side of our games against Benfica. I fully expect a loss against Man City because they’re simply a cut above the rest right now, but becoming competitive against sides of their calibre is still a useful exercise for Arteta between now and the end of the season. Going into the match drained will really hamper our chances of making it useful and I wouldn’t be surprised if City play like it’s a training exercise but maybe this is the time their crazy run comes to an end. At any rate, anything that isn’t a loss would be a great result and the performance against Benfica doesn’t leave me with any real concerns. Obviously that’ll go out the window and we’ll be despondent over the missed chances if we somehow lose next week but for now, all is calm.

While it’s always disappointing to concede a penalty, it’s nice to not have to bemoan some poor decision or VAR nonsense and thought the Turkish officials put the Premier League’s to shame. It’s a soft penalty in the grand scheme of things but they’re inevitable; the idea of footballers only ever jumping or blocking with their arms by their side like robots is ridiculous but that’s the state of the game. Smith Rowe is clearly smart enough to remember that next time and I was much more reassured by the overall defensive display than our profound ability to concede penalties anyway.

There were two standout performers of the night in Ceballos and Ødegaard, who both found plenty of success with line-splitting passes through and over Benfica’s high line. Aubameyang will be most rueful having squandered Ceballos’ brilliant through-ball to Bellerín but I’m still convinced there’s more where that came from in the second leg. The two loanees almost combined for a walked-in goal that was reminiscent of peak “Wengerball” and judging by Ødegaard’s hands-on-head disappointment, he knew it too. After his signing was announced, he revealed that Fàbregas was “one of [his] idols” and part of me secretly hopes that this kind of affinity for past players and the club would help get a permanent deal over the line. It’s early days but the speed at which he’s slotted into the team, with so little playing time under his belt at Real this season only bodes well for the remainder of his loan and beyond. When he plays like he did last night, the same can also be said for Ceballos but with 63 games notched up for Arsenal already, he remains less convincing until he can do that with some regularity.

The game seemed to ebb with each subsequent substitution and as is so often the case with two-legged knockout ties, it transitioned into simply protecting what we had. That’s not to say we simply stopped trying but Benfica were defending with numbers and had already threatened on the break, so it was wise to not over-commit in search of a second. So too did Saka’s influence ebb, with Smith Rowe and Aubameyang’s simultaneous substitution, he became easier to isolate and control, looking jaded towards the end. Still, getting another important goal when you have an off-day is quite alright in my book and his scuffed effort wide was equally as uncharacteristic as Aubameyang’s. Benfica may have rode their luck in the first leg but for both players to have a similar showing in the second is hard to imagine, so I’m setting myself up for heartbreak by trusting the gods of probability.

On the topic of substitutions, I thought Pépé and Martinelli’s arrival came too late in the day to make an impact – and not for the first time under Arteta. Benfica were already more than happy sitting on their haunches as the game state had already eclipsed the times of Arsenal getting in behind, and the pair found little to no joy trying to run at their back line. The final two changes made Arteta’s stance abundantly clear because those two are not match-winners, and in some ways, he might as well have not bothered at all

All to play for.

Bielsa’s leaky Leeds (and jacket) continue to leak

Before I start, I can only apologise for this ridiculous title but Bielsa’s clearly-not-waterproof, puffer jacket was too hilarious not to mention. I know he’s a fairly resilient guy and is happy to live a modest life but surely someone could have given him a raincoat.

After two disappointing losses on the bounce, it was imperative to get back to winning ways before facing Benfica on Thusday and they did just that. Leeds are a funny side; they have the joint-second worst defensive record in the league and you never really know which Leeds is going to show up. They comfortably beat Leicester only a fortnight ago and can go toe to toe with anyone on their day… but yesterday was not their day.

Arteta was rightfully undeterred by those disappointments with an unseen lineup that accommodated Ødegaard alongside Smith Rowe from the onset after the idea was cameoed as we chased the game against Villa. With his first chance at playing with a clean slate in front of him, his addition gave me the same feeling as I’ve had whenever I’ve watched Partey this season: he’s better than whatever was there before. The same can also be said for Smith Rowe, so to have the two working in tandem, threading things together with seemingly minimal effort bodes well going forward.

In many ways, the first half was no different to what we saw against Wolves, save for the last few minutes. On both occasions, the immediate intensity was too much and there was a real familiarity to the flat-track bully approach that Wenger’s Arsenal sides so often adopted against teams “beneath” us (although that’s a precarious word to use this season).The difference really was just end product. That responsibility had Aubameyang firmly in its sights after he was reinstated centrally and he scored with his first sight of goal. It was a brilliant finish and I think any criticism levelled at Meslier for conceding is a disservice to the effort; he really didn’t help his case as the game went on but he was clearly blind-sided.

Our end product is also the reason why I’m able to sit here and only briefly mention the V-word instead of another lengthy tirade 👇.

Okay, we have a penalty rescinded. As minimal as the contact appeared to be, there’s still three things I really struggle to understand:

  1. If it’s against us, particularly under the challenge of a Luiz or a Xhaka, we all know the answer.
  2. It wasn’t a clear and obvious error, so I don’t know why they’re getting involved in the first place.
  3. The speed at which Saka’s moving and the fact he’d already brushed off one challenge meant only minimal contact was needed. He’s clearly not taken a Salah swan dive and the contact has caused him to lose his footing without playing the ball.

Thankfully, that didn’t matter because Saka is a man possessed and closed down the Leeds backline – on his own, from the halfway line – and won another penalty minutes later after Meslier’s sloppy footwork. It always bothers me when commentators say things like “oh, that’s a great penalty” when they’ve stuck it down the middle. Granted, there’s a craft to it but I think there’s a tendency for praise even when it’s not deserved. In Aubameyang’s case, it was a great penalty and no ‘keeper in the world is saving a shot struck with that kind of pace into the side setting.

Saka’s involvement in the third goal reminded me of something Raheem Sterling did against José and his doomed clown show on Saturday. It’s easy enough to draw comparisons between the two because they’re both left-footed, right-sided forwards but it was the way in which we were able to drag players out of position while maintaining the patience and composure as the move transitioned into a “new phase”. Arteta’s influence on Sterling was already well-documented, so it’s been interesting to see Saka’s meteoric progress out on the right.

On this occasion, Saka was given the space to do his thing and when the momentum was lost, there were players queuing up in the right positions to get things started again. Even when the ball was almost lost, Smith Rowe was also able to fend off players around him and keep the move alive and Ceballos had the composure and ability to slip in Bellerín. Between Ceballos, Ødegaard, Saka and Smith Rowe, there was real pace and fluidity to their interplay throughout and Xhaka continued his fine form doing the rest.

As is the nature of the club, no match is entirely plain sailing but on this occasion, my only real gripes are with Arteta’s choice of substitutions. If Saka’s post-match comments are anything to go by, Arteta was indeed aware of what kind of response to expect from Leeds after half time, saying “if there’s any team that’s going to come back fighting with so much fighting spirit, it’s going to be Leeds”. If that’s the case, why on Earth is Willian the answer? He’d already failed the “come on as a substitute when the game’s already over and get some confidence back” test with flying colours when he came on against West Brom last month. On this occasion, it was a doubly bad because Leeds not only came out fighting but he replaced Smith Rowe in the process. Who he replaced isn’t even the issue, but rather what we lose whenever he steps onto the pitch. In an entirely non-hyperbolic descriptor, he is simply dead weight.

Thursday was no doubt playing on Arteta’s mind and Smith Rowe is fast approaching Saka-levels of “protect him at all costs”, but why not bring on Pépé or Martinelli? Both have futures at the club, both are actually hungry and the risk ahead of Thursday would be minimal in 30 minutes of playing time. It’s a shame to keep highlighting one particular player but he is Arteta’s whopping, sore thumb and there’s now a real dichotomy between everything else we’re seeing.. and Willian. Relationships and combinations continue to blossom, Ødegaard’s assimilation was seamless and Arteta has mostly shaken the kind of rigidity that shackled his decision-making until the Chelsea game, with some real, tangible progress. And yet, he remains. The only real consolation Willian has left is he continues to be played out of position because a 19-year-old has essentially made themselves undroppable. He didn’t look comfortable on the left wing with Tierney behind him and he looks even less comfortable with another right-footed player behind him. I thought we’d reached the end of a never-ending headache with a certain players January departure but I fear this is going to be another one.

I was also less than enthused to see Elneny come on because an additional forward and midfield reshuffle would have probably sufficed but given the other options on the bench and the importance of our matches ahead, I could live with it.


He’s looked a forlorn figure in recent weeks, which is no surprise because of his off-field worries but even before that, he’s not exactly been his usual self. That’s just as much a circumstance of the team behind him as his own decline, because he’s not the kind of player to just make things happen and our dependency on his goals last season have probably stoked that particular idea.

Sometimes a break is enough and other players stepping up to the mark will have no doubt helped allay some of that pressure in easing him back into the team. In hindsight, easing was a bit of an understatement and I definitely didn’t see him putting on a clinic but the timing couldn’t be better.

It would also be remiss of me to not mention a widely-held assertion that Aubameyang is simply a finisher and can’t link play, because he was instrumental in both the third and fourth goals. The dinked cross to Bellerín gave birth to the next phase of the move started by Saka, and his lay-off to Saka on the halfway line unlocked the door into Leeds’ half of the pitch. Speaking of which, I really have no idea if Smith Rowe was shooting or crossing. I’ve watched it more times than either of the two penalty decisions and I still can’t decide but I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt because he’s a very deliberate with everything he does and sees things that many don’t.

As for Aubameyang, if not for the woodwork and a brilliant tackle by an Arsenal academy product in Ayling, he would have had five to his name and that’s what you get from him when he gets the right kind of service. He’s the one tied down to a long and expensive contract and regardless of his conditioning, his age profile and skillset shouldn’t leave him with the dirty work. He won’t always be afforded the time and space that Leeds gave him, which is reason enough to play him on the wing from time to time but going forward, I hope Arteta’s priority is figuring out how to enable Aubameyang in that manner every week.

I even heard him giving orders to Bellerín(?) with a conveniently-placed microphone just before half time, which well and truly rubbishes the idea that he’s only a captain because he leads by example (words I’ve used before), although that’s by no means a negative in and of itself.

It’s just good to have him back and that seems like a good note to end on.