End of the road

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Easy as it gets

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Walk before you can run

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A week to forget

It’s back to bemoaning VAR because we didn’t create a single big chance at home. It was another complete and utter shut-out, making it the 8th time that Arsenal have failed to score in their last 15 home games. If the game went on for another 90 minutes, I don’t think much would’ve changed either.

Arteta broke tradition in directly criticising the usage of VAR, saying “this is building up, enough is enough” and given some of the misfortune and inconsistency Arsenal have suffered in recent weeks on this front, I’m not surprised he’s finally decided to speak out. His comments will no doubt earn him a fine while the offending officials will be up to their usual tricks again next week. The old adage about officiating is that they balance out over the course of the season but the last few weeks have been difficult to rationalise, with Arsenal seemingly on the wrong side of every major decision in their past 4 games.

At this point, it feels like they’re making the rules up as they go along. Pulling the penalty back for Pépé’s offside some three or four phases of play prior is ridiculous and what makes matters worse, is both the referee and the VAR gave that penalty in the first place. It was incredibly soft, bordering on a dive for Ceballos. The only issue is it was just as soft as Fulham’s last week and Arsenal came up short on both decisions. It’s made all the more ridiculous by the subjectivity hammer that came down on the “offside” in the first place. We’re talking pixels on the margins and they can’t even freeze the play accurately at the point in which the pass left the player’s boot in the first place.

Once the Kroenkes have been dealt with, there needs to be a serious campaign to enforce branding the officials with “clear and obvious” on their fucking foreheads. I know that phrasing doesn’t exactly pertain to the offside rule in the official guidelines but the overwhelming lack of common sense we see on a weekly basis would be largely avoided if they stuck by those words.


After an eventful week, it’s hard to say how the managers and players were affected. On the day, Arsenal were no different to Everton and in matching each other’s levels, the game was an uneventful stalemate. What’s difficult, nigh on impossible, to argue with is this is a performance and result we’ve seen before and there’s no hiding from yet another unwelcome shift in standards.

To add insult to injury, Arsenal had also won 20 of the last 24 home games against Everton @Orbinho

That really is what you get. Neither side produced any quality on the day but when one team decides to capitulate, you’ve only got yourselves to blame. It was a horrendous and inexcusable mistake by Leno and his only saving grace at this point are the memories of games where the scoreline only remained respectable thanks to his efforts. It’s wishful thinking to take any solace from that and it leaves Leno with egg on his face after his contract-talk-posturing the other day.

“I am very happy at the club, I don’t know what will come in the future. But I am open to everything. Maybe for a new adventure or to stay at Arsenal.” 

Maybe I’m reading too much into that, but if he’s got eyes on an upwards move to improve his chances of succeeding Neuer, those kinds of mistakes can’t happen. In some ways, Arsenal are a perfect match for him until we can say the same.


With both senior options struck down, Eddie Nketiah unsurprisingly came back into the fold at centre forward. After saving Arsenal from total embarrassment against Fulham and with a summer departure still all but guaranteed, it made sense for him to start. In fairness to Eddie, he was far more involved in Arsenal’s build-up than the player I remember and given his lengthy time on the sidelines lately, taking notes from Lacazette seems to have served him well. Still, there’s not much use for him – or any striker – when you can’t give them anything to work with. Despite his best efforts to get between defenders and run beyond, he was rarely found. Arsenal’s play in the final third was back to being slow, predictable and largely inaccurate.

Actual chances were few and far between, with Saka and Martinelli having the best sights of goal. With a little more quality and ambition to get into the box, Chambers and Pépé would have had a field day with someone like Olivier Giroud, such was the quality of their deliveries at times. It’s clear that Arsenal are in desperate need of a Plan B option in this position come the summer, because Arsenal were devoid of threat without a target man. Everton rarely looked worried about what Arsenal could do to them (despite only having one shot on target themselves) and that’s been a recurring theme for some time.

It was as bad as it gets performance-wise, in what was an opportunity to imbue some confidence ahead of Thursday, a day in which I’m now dreading. It’s fair to say that life has never been easy for Arteta since he landed this job. That’s not to make excuses but the torrent of afflictions that are out of his control has been relentless. Arsenal’s wild and infuriating inconsistencies are largely thanks to individual errors compounding performances that are already problem-laden, which means the table provides an even poorer reference. There’s a case to be made that these individual errors aren’t coachable and it’s long been known that this squad still has bloating problems. The fat was trimmed in January but the overall standards are still well below par; the question that remains is whether Arteta should be getting more from this squad. That’s treading old ground but it’s an inescapable problem that he’s yet to find a solution for. Recent injuries haven’t helped and with an already-threadbare midfield, losing a player like Ødegaard even for a few weeks has come at great cost. The only real consolation in yesterday’s defeat was minutes under his belt ahead of Thursday – I just hope Arteta won’t make the same mistake in asking too much of him too soon.

Until then.

Arsenal Franchise Club

Yesterday’s performance and result was bad enough, and the prospect of reliving that didn’t exactly have me leaping out of bed this morning. It seems almost pointless to do so now in light of the European Super League announcement, but while I still intend to isolate the match, I can’t really gloss over this one.


The European Superleague

I’ve always despised the level of media neglect afforded to the likes of Chelsea and City, and their unjust rise from irrelevance. Their achievements are lauded with barely the slightest hint of balance in the discussion as to why they are where they are. Take this season for example; City are walking away with the league but how many times has it been attributed to their obscene squad value and their ability to rotate players from a pool that could form two first XIs?

City’s squad value (5 appearances minimum)

Player£m
Ederson35
Nathan Aké41
Kyle Walker45
John Stones47.5
Oleksander Zinchenko16
Aymeric Laporte57
Benjamin Mendy52
Joao Cancelo60
Ruben Dias58.5
Ilkay Gundogan21
Rodri62
Kevin De Bruyne55
Bernardo Silva43.5
Fernandinho34
Phil FodenN/A
Raheem Sterling49
Ferran Torres20
Gabriel Jesus27
Sergio Aguero31
Riyad Mahrez60
Total814.5

You could point to Herbert Chapman being guilty of getting the ball rolling on this front. He was the first manager to pay over £10,000 for a player in David Jack, and broke the British transfer fee record again 10 years later to the tune of £14,500. These are for individual players, and you could argue that such fees were inevitable thanks to inflation anyway, but the point remains that Chapman raised the bar. The manner in which it was raised is where any defence of Chelsea or City unravels, and that’s before you consider their respective rebirths are thanks to an oligarch who illegitimately seized control of a country’s natural resources and another backed by an oil-rich country with an appalling human rights record.

Herbert Chapman’s signature of David Jack in 1928 was thanks to ingenuinity, with Bolton Wanderers originally asking for £13,000 – almost double the record at the time. His solution was one of the oldest tricks in the book:

We arrived at the hotel half-an-hour early. Chapman immediately went into the lounge bar. He called the waiter, placed two pound notes in his hand and said: “George, this is Mr Wall, my assistant. He will drink whisky and dry ginger. I will drink gin and tonic. We shall be joined by guests. They will drink whatever they like. See that our guests are given double of everything, but Mr Wall’s whisky and dry ginger will contain no whisky, and my gin and tonic will contain no gin.

Unsurprisingly, representatives from Bolton were a lot more supple by the end of the negotiations and Herbert Chapman got his man, who, despite being signed at the age of 30, went on to score 113 goals in 181 games for the club. None of this 1-year extension for the over 30s malarkey.

What Chelsea and City have done to the game is a mockery of every traditional merit that otherwise make a football club tick. FIFA, UEFA and the FA are just as complicit in this overhaul for never taking Financial Fair Play (FFP) seriously, with nothing more than a slap on the wrist for even the most flagrant violations. My sympathies are non-existent for them because they’re no better; World Cups in Qatar and Russia, Europa League finals in Baku, forever incongruous with fans’ best interests with kick-off times designed to benefit TV viewership at the expense of fans in attendance. Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini, Franz Beckenbauer all guilty, among many others, of bribery and corruption.

In Arsenal’s case, they at least tried to do things properly. After the successes of Arsène Wenger’s early reign at the club, both he and David Dein conceptualised a strategy to safeguard the club’s future and give it a cutting-edge on the foundations of those successes. The Emirates Stadium came in on time and under budget, with a smart development of Highbury and the surrounding area to offset the considerable outlay. There’s a caveat there, and the hypocrisy isn’t lost on me that Arsenal have been sponsored by Emirates since 2006 – the same Emirati money tree that City have flourished under.


This is where it gets worse for Arsenal, because despite being taken over by a man of similar wealth to Roman Abramovich, their reputation and ability continue to slide against their competitors. After a bungled transition from Arsène Wenger, the ensuing power vaccuum saw leeches like Ivan Gazidis and Raul Sanllehi muddy the already-murky waters of Stan Kroenke’s stewardship. The warning signs of such decline were already there if the rest of his sporting portfolio was anything to go by, and trusted custodians such as Lady Bracewell-Smith and Danny Fiszman hammered home the final nails in the coffin when they decided to sell their decisive shares, giving KSE the power for a majority takeover. Danny Fiszman died two days later.

Under KSE, their support has only ever been the bare minimum. Wenger was given little to work with because he was able to keep Arsenal in the Top Four until he wasn’t; exemplified by a string of lacklustre transfer windows, ceding titles thanks to gross negligence and ineptitude in squad building.

His successor was another quick fix, only intended to find a shortcut around qualifying domestically for Europe’s top competition. For all his faults, Emery was also treated with contempt when Arsenal overruled the wishes of the head coach and bought him Nicolas Pépé instead of Wilfred Zaha. The eye-watering deal obviously didn’t add up and Raul made way after an “internal review”, which would point to some kind of malfeasance. While not related, Arsenal also lost one of the “good ones” thanks to Raul after Sven Mislintat came out second best in discussions. Francis Cagigao was also made redundant during Arsenal’s “streamlining”, which saw 54 others also part ways. Cagigao was involved in the signings of players like Fábregas, Van Persie, Lauren, Cazorla, Reyes and Hector Bellerín but apparently, others were better suited to take the club forward.


Where we find ourselves now is in a position of further decline with an unclear future, until last night’s announcement.

Arteta has undoubtedly underperformed domestically, despite the troubling times, and without European glory, Arsenal are unlikely to even qualify for a European competition next season. I’ve spoken at length about the need for meritocracy when it comes to players, so the thought of Arsenal being one of the “Founding 12” at this point is nothing short of laughable.

Ignoring the obvious financial benefit from having a seat at this table, the thought of watching Arsenal get ravaged on a weekly basis by Europe’s elite is not an exciting prospect. I watched from the stands as Arsenal lost to Bayern 5-1 on my birthday a few years ago. Who wants to watch that every week? To those that think it will make Arsenal more competitive, I would simply ask – how? Arsenal won’t be getting any more revenue than the other founders and they’ve already proven to be less shrewd than most in the transfer market. Any domestic gains will feel hollow and undeserved, and that’s if they’re not thrown out of the Premier League entirely – which I wouldn’t begrudge. Arsenal’s inclusion in the group is only marginally less embarrassing than Spurs’- nothing more than a balance sheet application through the lens of profit maximisation.

It’s a giant leap in the wrong direction for football, exacerbated by a steady and wilful acceptance for the sport to be governed by money over merit. Given the unity in announcements, withdrawal from the ECA and reaction from all governing bodies affected, it doesn’t appear to simply be a case of posturing and hot air either. At this point, government intervention seems to be the only port of call, and relying on the British governing party to do anything right is a tall ask.


My personal sentiments are pure alienation. A club that once stood for something, that had the honour of the first ever televised match, the first foreign manager to win the Premier League, the first and only to win the league unbeaten, among many other commendable achievements on and off the pitch. I had already begun to feel distanced from the club when Kroenke arrived, only 2 years after I’d mocked United fans at the 2005 F.A. Cup Final with chants of “USA, USA, USA”. The first step towards the transition from a club with identity to “just another franchise”. Defending the club when friends would make jokes, their own clubs in lower divisions maintaining a relationship with fans.

Besides hardly ever even seeing Silent Stan, fans also had to suffer the indignation of listening to his unqualified, layabout son act as if he had anything worthwhile to say. Arsenal are nothing more than a portfolio segment to them and they’ve taken the easy road to get their returns.

Their stewardship has also coincided with grotesque hypocrisy off the field, with Arsenal supporting communities like LGBTQ and Black Lives Matter while burying their heads in the sand over China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims, even going so far as distancing themselves from Mesut Özil when he publicly criticised their treatment – all to satisfy the Chinese money train. Laying off 55 staff a year before securing a £350m windfall, after already boasting the most expensive tickets in the Premier League with no on-field return on investment for match-going fans.

After a mostly frustrating season, Arsenal were just showing signs of promise again with their progress in the Europa League, which has now been tainted and may even see Arsenal thrown out of the competiton, although the legal precedent for such a move may still protect them. Even if they were to go all the way and win, it’s going to feel hollow and meaningless when the Super League takes off because those efforts were ultimately pointless.

Looking beyond club football, this even threatens what is, for me, the pinnacle of the football “experience” in international competitions. It’s hard to say how serious FIFA and UEFA are when they threaten to ban players from competing in future competitions, but splintering the playerbase (under the assumption that affected players would form their own international tournaments as well) would be disastrous. It’s moving the goalposts of what to look forward to as fans, and the aspirations of players.


Today should have been a good day with José finally getting the boot (again), but he’s only walking because Daniel Levy is no longer worried about paying him off.

Closer to home, Arteta claims to have been out of the loop, and Jürgen Klopp has always opposed the idea. I can’t speak of the rest, but presumably anyone taking a stand against the proposal is going to get the boot. I’d be very interested to know what the players made of it, and I’d imagine the threat of international bans would be the biggest deterrent but who knows what the club is telling players behind the scenes. All I would urge in the mean time is to stop buying merchandise, cancel memberships and stick to piracy to get your Arsenal fix until everything becomes clearer. I doubt it’s possible to nip this in the bud before it takes off, but there’s not much else to do in the mean time.


Fulham

This seems like a distant, unpleasant memory at this point and it’s almost pointless to relive but I’ll give it a shot.


I remember being pissed off at VAR for the umpteenth time this season. Ruling out more perfectly acceptable goals under the same pretenses that allowed Fulham’s penalty to stand, which just so happened to be one of the most egregious dives I’ve seen all season. Not one but two professional officials failed to see the man take flight with both feet. Gabriel was clumsy to have two stabs at the challenge but never in a million years was that a penalty.

Arsenal had more than enough chances to win the game, as stupid and infuriating as VAR was, and this tells you all you need to know:

It was another case of being punished for not taking our chances. The cutting-edge that ripped Slavia Prague apart was gone and Mohamed Elneny came in to do this against a team battling relegation:

I really wish he couldn’t keep doing this. No one cares if you have 99% pass completion when they have all he conviction of a wet blanket. It really tells you all you need to know.

Lacazette was also struck down when his hamstring went, and the timing really couldn’t be better as Aubameyang continues to recover from malaria. Eddie Nketiah was finally able to wet his beak again and despite the fact that he’ll no doubt be leaving the club in the summer, will probably be getting some minutes in the coming weeks to attract some suitors.

I think that’s just about enough.


Featured image courtesy of Tim Stillman @Stillberto

Welcome home to Unai’s Sanitarium

Sometimes, football can be wonderfully simple. Last night, Arsenal were faced with a simple task of keeping their season alive by staying in a competition. 90 minutes to win, against a team with a “formidable” home record who hadn’t lost a game since November 2019. Unfazed by the prospect of facing their dear, high-collared Basque-Transylvanian in the next leg, or what may lie beyond.

The tone was well and truly set before the first whistle was even blown, with a predictable kind of standoff. There’s not much use getting into the finer details of that, but it’s safe to say that every player out there had more than usual to play for.

Arteta was steadfast behind his new discovery and besides Smith Rowe coming in for Martinelli, the things that made them tick against Sheffield were left well alone. Pépé was still brought back over to the left wing to accommodate Saka on the right, who then left a Smith Rowe-sized nook. There’s an emerging beauty in this, because besides the centre figure in all of this, it doesn’t seem to bother them in the slightest where they’re actually played. At this point, Saka’s played in virtually every position on the pitch, Pépé is comfortable on either wing and Smith Rowe is human polyfilla.


The Match

As time goes by, it would be all too easy to forget that it wasn’t as straightforward as the half time scoreline suggested. Until Smith Rowe’s goal was ruled out, I was thinking “we’ve actually got a game on our hands”. Their ‘keeper had remembered how to pass and they were almost slick on the ball at times, and it was easy to see why they’ve won the Czech First League for the last 3 seasons.

There were glimpses of what was to come. Players slipping their marker, even in their own half as Chambers did, Pépé looking keen to hit them early (not that he had to wait long anyway). It wasn’t a meekness from Arsenal but rather a case of finding their feet and not taking anything for granted. On my second viewing of the first half, knowing what was to come and the cut-throat manner in which they did it, I realised it was really just patience because they had the same kind of zip and tempo as they’d shown against Sheffield United. Given the comparative strength of reigning champions in one league and a team well and truly anchored to the depths of another, I half-wondered if Arteta’s preparation for this game was simply showing them the first leg on repeat. Slavia were poor in the first leg and Arsenal’s waste and lethargy gave them a free pass.

I still didn’t expect a disallowed goal to open the floodgates, especially in that manner, but therein lies the power of some “fear factor”. In flashing that shot past the ‘keeper, Saka and players like him make you think twice the next time they’re running at you, because they were saved by a technicality rather than their own merits. Having an offside decided by a toe’s length is never fun, especially when you have to wait for 2 minutes in the dark while they deliberate but I like to think about what Slavia were going through in that time. The crowd nervously jeered the decision and celebrated as if they’d scored themselves but the players just looked relieved.

There was so much to like about the first when it did actually come, though. Not only was it the most important, for the win conditions of the tie and belief, but it was technically and tactically superb. After Pépé’s jinxing run and cross was dealt with, Arsenal won the ball back on the edge of Slavia’s box. Immediately played across to Chambers, he slams it into Lacazette’s feet who takes the sting out completely to lay off Smith Rowe. This was already looking good from a technical standpoint, but the concentration of quality in such few touches between Smith Rowe and Pépé is what makes this.

After Smith Rowe’s point-blank shot was blocked, he takes out three Slavia players. With 3 touches. The first to nutmeg one, the second a deft touch to evade a challenge and the third through the legs of another defender. It was still hardly on a plate for Pépé, because he was forced to quickly get his body across to ride the challenge. There was also no real opening to shoot first time because the ‘keeper was out just as fast, standing his ground and Pépé needed to set himself but the finish was effortless. I thought his strength and finish was good in the first leg and this was a cut above. And who doesn’t love an ear-pointing celebration to a stunned crowd?

From there, it was a piece of cake. Less than 2 minutes after Smith Rowe’s goal was ruled out, Arsenal were legitimately in front. Within 9 minutes, the tie was over. The second was down to more fluid, technical quality. Playing the ball into feet and moving quickly, with Smith Rowe peeling off Saka’s shoulder to anticipate the third ball, which came in from Chambers over the top. Even if the penalty wasn’t given, Arsenal had flooded the box anyway and probably would have found another but Lacazette stepped up to do his usual.

The third was just as technical and devastating. Starting with a header into feet from Xhaka, Smith Rowe was available (as always) for a one-touch layoff to Partey. No additional touches from him, straight into Chambers who shimmies past one player before feeding Saka. Once he had the ball at his feet, it was trademark Saka and they gave him too much space so he could pick his spot. I don’t know what made him go near post, whether it was a move from the ‘keeper or watching his far-post effort denied earlier but it left everyone else dumbfounded and that was that.

From there, it all got a bit boring. After being starved of goals for much of the season, I wanted blood but it wasn’t to be. In some ways, we played like City once they went 1-0 up against Arsenal. Control, back down into second gear, no stress. And that, presumably, is what Arteta wants on a regular basis.


Four changes at half time from Slavia and presumably some kind of bollocking put a redundant tourniquet on the tie, and I did wonder if Arteta might have done something similar because there were some meaty challenges flying in on some players that we really couldn’t afford to lose. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

There was still some pressure to resist after the break but there wasn’t a single player that put a foot wrong. Partey was immense in midfield and led the way in the metrics he usually dominates, the backline was resolute and Slavia weren’t even able to manage a shot on target on their home turf. The level of control and concentration never dipped and the scoreline was a perfect reflection of that.

Lacazette’s second was the icing on the cake and a nice throwback to the player that first arrived at Arsenal. Granted, that time isn’t too long ago but it’s nice to be reminded that he still has that in his locker and I’d forgotten how much I miss his “angry” finishing. Even in the pits of this season, seeing him asked to do things that didn’t look natural or be something that he wasn’t, he’s through the other side looking sharp and the first leg miss already seems like a distant memory (almost). With Aubameyang’s malaria contraction, the timing of Lacazette’s purple patch couldn’t be better because he’s sorely needed to make this system work, If anything, it’s a shame Arteta didn’t arrive at this point sooner but playing without “recognised” fullbacks is perhaps the key.


Beyond

This is where the fun begins, and I’m not talking about the Fulham game. The prospect of facing Unai still fills me with dread. The idea of Unai in the minds of Arsenal fans is rightly tainted, but he’s back where he’s comfortable, doing the same kind of things that put him on the map. Arteta has shown some real nous already in tackling the big occasions head on but this is a different kettle of fish entirely. While I suspect the days of the never-ending-overlap-into-horseshoe-lather-rinse-repeat are behind Unai’s Villarreal, I still worry about what the maniac has in his locker. His Europa League record speaks for itself and he knows this Arsenal team better than all but Arteta, and will no doubt be watching Arsenal’s performance in the knockout stages from dawn ’til dusk.

The tie itself is so heavily laden in unpleasantry. Arsenal depend on this Europa League thing working out until the very end, and Unai just so happens to be the most accomplished Europa League manager out there. It would be humiliating to bow out against him after his dismissal, and the thought of that doesn’t bear thinking about but my main concerns are simple: I think it’s going to be difficult. The language is no longer against him and he’s clearly wasted no time in getting back to what he does best. Villarreal are also a much better side than any team we’ve faced thus far in the competition, and there won’t be the same room for complacency and average-ness that we’ve sporadically seen against Benfica, Olympiakos and Slavia. For Arteta, it’s a chance to claim another scalp in world football and an important defence of his credentials. The scriptwriters appear to be back in action with this one.

The bare minimum

A win was the bare minimum, and they got it. Sheffield are not good, they’re rock-bottom and going down, Chris Wilder and his magic are off into the sunset and they have a squad with nothing to play for. I also didn’t think Slavia Prague were that good either, which still leaves me with a lingering disappointment.

It’s difficult to isolate this game without the Slavia tie acting like an unpleasant, context sandwich. Putting that disappointment to bed was at least made easier by Arsenal showing they can actually play some football. I’ve been critical of Arteta tinkering too much for his own good this season, so it’s only right to acknowledge when he also gets things right, regardless of the opposition. Saka playing as a No. 10 should have been more obvious, because he has all the right tools to excel there, so it was hardly surprising that looked comfortable there on the day. He found a new understanding with Pépé when usually their paths rarely meet, and both were able to tie things together with Lacazette ahead of them (when he wasn’t dropping back to the halfway line).

This wasn’t what I anticipated when I saw the team sheet and was starting to panic at the prospect of Ceballos playing at No. 10 instead, but Arteta seemed to be one step ahead of everyone. Granit Xhaka was the missing piece of the puzzle at left back instead of Saka and he did his job. In the absence of David Luiz, having another option who can whip the ball over to the opposite flank without issue and reliably play out from the back, it wasn’t such a crazy change. I wouldn’t want to see Xhaka covering there against anyone with even the slightest bit of pace, but it’s good to know that Arteta has some surprises in his locker.


In some ways, having some fodder like Sheffield United at hand was a convenient reset. Lacazette was able to put Thursday’s howlers behind him and given Aubameyang’s illness, Arteta could well be trusting Lacazette again this Thursday and will need him doing more of the same. It was also obvious to see the benefits he enjoyed in having runners either side of him and players to combine with. Simply put, I can see more problems this Thursday if Arteta reverts to some of our more pace-averse options in wide areas.

I really liked the way we set up: 3 defenders, Partey the pivot in front making a diamond; Ceballos, Martinelli and Lacazette linking up on the left, and Saka, Pepe and Chambers linking up the right. Good to have a triangle on each side to create rotations

Martinelli and his boundless energy was nothing short of what I expected, but given his rare opportunities in actually starting games – his last coming against Man. United when he was hooked at half time – it was important to see signs of progress. He was clearly desperate for a goal, shooting on either foot before he got his tap in, but the speed and directness of his play were the eye-catchers. I think it’s all well and good for Arteta to speak about protecting players and how highly he rates them, but I still don’t really buy it as an excuse for not playing Martinelli more. He’s clearly raw and might not do what Arteta says down to a tee but if his English in the post-match interview was anything to go by, I’d much rather have Arteta explain that to him and give him more time to learn on the pitch over his Brazilian counterpart. With Nketiah’s recent lack of playtime, and Balogun finally getting a contracted sorted, I’m also now far from convinced when Arteta publicly simply backs a player – playing time is what matters.

Playing time also matters when you’re striving for consistency, and in Nicolas Pépé, he has perhaps suffered most on this front. In the last two seasons, only Aubameyang and Lacazette have more goal involvements, which is unsurprising that he’s only bested by these two given the differences in playing time and consistent spells in the team. Even though so much of what he does is rough around the edges, there’s still more than enough to like and the biggest catch of all is end product. If a player misplaces passes more often than the team’s metronome, I’m okay with that. His responsibility is in the final third and as evidenced by those goal involvements, he is clearly doing the right things there. His shot that afforded Martinelli the tap-in was well-placed, and this was after he’d intercepted the ball and then burst into the box after resisting pressure (worth noting that the interception came after some excellent press from none other than my main man Willian). Simply put, his efforts on goal and involvements in the box are often there or thereabouts and yet, he’s often had his starting place swept out from underneath him immediately after “disappointing” in big games, even when the rest of the team disappoints too. I’ve made this point plenty of times before, but I can’t help but mention it again when his potential is so glaring.


The real joy from this game was simply the goals, for a change. All too often lately, it’s been difficult to enjoy them. Fear of the bastard VAR swooping in like the bastard eye-in-the-sky that it is, fear of holding onto a lead and getting a result, the complications that come with scoring in two-legged knockout matches and caring more about the result than the performance. While every team outside the top two struggles to make up their minds about where they’d like to finish this season, I’ve taken a backseat with Arsenal’s domestic campaign because they’re hilariously inconsistent and I was frankly bored of having my hopes of a Top Four finish /I am delusional/ dashed every week.

Yesterday was a perfect throwback to simpler times when Arsenal would so routinely hound and toy with struggling teams. Xhaka, Ceballos, Pépé, Partey, Chambers, Saka and of course Lacazette all took part in the first goal and as bad as Sheffield were on the day, opening the account with a goal like that really hit the spot.

The second took some time to come, after an inevitable downturn, but seeing a player like Martinelli get his just deserts – even if it was only a tap-in – is good for the soul, as was his assurance after the game that he would be alright to play on Thursday.

The third was more thanks to individual quality, with Partey looking right at home as the centrepiece of the midfield. One deft shimmy was all it took to find space and undeterred by Thursday’s antics, Lacazette was happy to run off the last man and such was the quality of the pass from Partey, he didn’t need to take a touch and overthink anything. Maybe that’s the key to unlocking Lacazette’s full potential though, because he’s brilliant at penalties – find a way to stop him taking too many touches and it’s job done.

And in closing, a win really was the bare minimum and this feeling will no doubt be short-lived because Thursday is where it matters and the drubbing against Sheffield won’t help in the slightest if Arsenal fly back from Prague empty handed.

90 minutes to save a season

After Saturday’s non-existent showing against Liverpool, there was an expectation – or at the very least, some sense of hope – that it wouldn’t be in vain after Thursday. Despite how that match unfolded, Arteta was at least vindicated because Real Madrid hurt Liverpool in the exact manner which Arteta sought to try; he just so happened to lack a player of Toni Kroos’ quality who could float a 50 yard pass through the eye of a needle.

At any rate, Arsenal were gifted a “kind” draw and were playing at home. The conditions were as good as it gets, as quarter finals of discount European knockout competitions go, besides some self-inflicted squad limitations after Arteta felt the need to give Kieran Tierney yet more minutes and rush Martin Odegaard back from an injury he sustained in the international break. These absentees no doubt informed Arteta’s approach against Slavia Prague, whereby Willian was once again given the reigns to the left wing and Cédric returned at left back.

I have to clear one thing up before I go any further into what Arteta got wrong on the day and how individual moments of madness have once again hurt Arsenal, which is individuals also under-performing. You don’t expect £45m of Thomas Partey to drop a performance like that, underpinned by more wayward passing and shooting, as effortless as he was at times in gliding past Slavia players. You also don’t expect the best part of £50m in Alex Lacazette to do.. whatever that was in a 1-on-1 situation with the ‘keeper. His workrate has been faultless all season, which hasn’t been the case with many at the club – he even engineered the chance for himself – but I really couldn’t believe he did that. The appearance of “running in quicksand” is just about excusable because of that workrate but he still had more than enough time to do the right thing despite the Slavia defender bearing down on him, so why he’s shaped his body like that is beyond my understanding.

While it’s all too easy to toil over the what ifs; what could have happened had certain players that were on the bench instead been in certain situations that unfolded on the pitch and regardless of how crap we looked for much of the game, Arteta still has times like these to point at with frustration. Bukayo Saka was also once again wasteful in front of goal with an equally gilt-edged chance as Lacazette, and despite his meteoric rise into the fore, this is one aspect of his game which has suffered. You can probably chalk that up to being over-worked and under even greater pressure to perform, but he was more clinical when he didn’t have the weight of the team on his shoulders.


That’s where things get difficult for Arteta, because irrespective of the chances missed, none of the performance was pretty. I once again found myself asking questions like “where does this rank against Emery’s ugliest performances” and “have substitutions been outlawed?”. I really, really disliked Emery’s brand of football for the most part and I really, really disliked seeing Willian tamely cross the ball on his weak foot straight into the first defender for the 87th time of the match.

When Arteta first assumed this role and managed to grind out some results by making the team more secure at the back – virtually overnight – it felt like a necessary evil to sacrifice some Arsenal-ness going forward in the pursuit of results. As is abundantly clear, results haven’t exactly been there to fall back on this season and to make matters worse, every time green shoots appear, Arteta resorts to napalming the fuck out of them. Since January, Arsenal’s best performances have come when Aubameyang has been played centrally. He also happens to be signed to a lucrative, long-term contract which carries presumptions about what exactly he means to the team and to Arteta, and serves as an approximate valuation (cough Willian cough cough Mkhitaryan) of the player’s ability. After being sent back out to ply his trade on the left wing against Liverpool, he was dropped from the starting lineup entirely against another team known for playing a high line.

He might have fluffed his half-chance, but his pace was the precursor to his pass through to Pépé, because he gave the defender something to worry about. It’s also disingenuous to say that the efficacy of both his and Pépé’s pace can be explained by Slavia simply being worn out at that point; they’re both fast and they both relish running into space in the final third and can do that at any stage of the game. Saka and Lacazette both had golden opportunities alone with the goalkeeper too, and both failed. It’s a convenient time to do so, but I’ll go on record again in saying that Pépé is our second best finisher after Aubameyang and when he actually gets opportunities in the right area, he’s as reliable a finisher as he was at Lille. It’s not the first time he’s bailed us out in Europe, and the goal had a bit of everything. He timed his run, left the defender in his wake, was strong enough to resist the pressure once he slowed down in possession and the finish was sublime. The pair did that with 12 minutes on the pitch together.

Pépé is a player who continues to be used sparingly, with a unique place in the squad as having a far smaller margin for error than any other player, while Martinelli isn’t far off in this regard. Both come in stark contrast to dear, old Willian, who can seemingly do no wrong because he’s obedient. I don’t know where this unrelenting aversion to flair comes from, but sooner or later, he’s going to have to just throw the kitchen sink at this project and let these players express themselves.


Changes once again came too late, the first being in the 73rd minute with hardly enough time to have an impact, or rescue the tie when the inevitable happened. The less I say about that inevitability the better, but that’s what you get when you play a right-footed player at left back, and Gabriel played his part. Cédric then compounded the error by losing his man at the back post and that was that. As competent as he’s been at right back (that being as far as I’ll go to compliment his performances there), we’re perhaps beginning to see why he was Southampton’s backup right back.

It’s also precisely what we deserved. Arsenal were wasteful, but so too were Slavia. Arteta was punished for once again failing to make changes in a timely manner and he has now left himself with the unenviable task of going abroad and winning to save his skin, as well as Arsenal’s. Even if he manages that, which is far from a guarantee, I still find it hard to see Arsenal posing a threat to some of the more serious outfits left in the competition.

I also found myself wondering how Arsenal would look today had Freddie Ljungberg taken over from Emery permanently. He may not have guided Arsenal to a 14th F.A. Cup, but I find it hard to believe that the league position would be any worse than it is now and even in his short time in charge, we saw glimpses of trying to play football with the shackles off.

I don’t doubt that there’s a good coaching brain in Arteta’s head. He’s worked wonders in some respects and clearly there are still players who buy into some of his mantras because managers have lost dressing rooms over less. Where I have concerns is his inclination to repeatedly make the same, very obvious mistakes. His game management has rarely been convincing, players continue to be misused and played out of position, injured players are being repeatedly rushed back in desperation and meritocracy appears to be lost on him. The match against Slavia was just another notch on the belt of disappointment and self-inflicted misery.

Absenteeism

After a fortnight of pointless and poorly-timed internationals, I was eager to see more from the team that fought back from 3-0 down against West Ham.

The team that faced Liverpool had racked up plenty of minutes and air miles in that time, and you never quite know what to expect after an international break. These “problems” weren’t unique to Arsenal, but you’d be fooled into thinking they were with the most abject performance of the season.

Arteta was quick to take responsibility for the loss, saying “they were better in every department. I take the blame, it’s my responsibility. They were the best team by far … they won every duel, every second ball, every challenge. To be fair, I’m in shock. I didn’t expect that one coming“. There comes a point when taking responsibility in such a manner starts to feel like a hollow gesture, particularly when he says he “didn’t see that one coming”, because West Ham did the same thing two weeks ago – the only difference was Liverpool sustained those levels for 90 minutes. That’s not to suggest that Arteta has simply been resting on his laurels these past two weeks and hadn’t done his homework, but the coldness of the performance felt all too familiar.

Theory and Practice

Deploying Aubameyang on the left works in theory. I’ve said it before that Arteta’s a tinkerer – sometimes too much for his own good – and I can see why he would try it again here. With the heart of Liverpool’s defence still on the treatment table, and Alexander-Arnold far happier in the opposition’s half, it looks like an obvious space to exploit. After all, it was the same way Arteta was able to edge past Man City in the semi finals of the F.A. Cup and beat Liverpool in the same fixture last year. Where this theory unravels is simple; Jürgen Klopp is not an idiot. He will have taken one look at that lineup – without Luiz and Xhaka – and seen that midfield is where Liverpool can hurt us, even with James Milner scooting around on a walking frame in his 74th season in the Premier League. Klopp isn’t going to fall for the same trick twice and Arteta’s inability to reinvent what works has been a recurring issue. Instead of slipping in behind, running at the last man, Aubameyang found himself doubling up with Tierney to stop the likes of Salah and Alexander-Arnold doing their thing. Liverpool broke the deadlock because Aubameyang once again didn’t feel like closing down the cross.

I’m prepared to die on this hill, but Aubameyang has never truly looked good on the left wing. His ability to score from there is in spite of the position and teams are savvy to what he can actually do beyond score goals, which is.. not a whole lot. What makes matters worse is if he doesn’t score, Arsenal might as well have played with 10 men. He seems increasingly reluctant to do the hard work he was once happy to do when Arteta first arrived, is an ill-fitted captain when he’s not happy (i.e. not scoring) and was once again culpable in his defensive duties. His captaincy was appropriate last season when his performances were exemplary and he was the star man virtually every time he played, but times move quickly and he hasn’t satisfied these criterion on a regular basis for some time.

That might seem like some heavy criticism leveled at the player, but it’s quite the opposite. He was beginning to show signs of recovery with goals in the league and Europe when deployed centrally where he belongs. If you can’t play him there, don’t shoehorn him in somewhere else where he clearly isn’t comfortable. Him being played out of position doesn’t excuse him failing to close down two crosses in as many games that directly led to goals but it’s asking him to be something he isn’t. It’s a problem exacerbated by his captaincy, because you can’t have a captain that isn’t in the starting lineup every week and taking it from him now is hardly going to help his confidence.

He’s by no means the only thing Arteta got wrong yesterday, but his inclusion exemplifies a wider problem that continues to hinder Arsenal. When things aren’t rosy, there are few in the squad capable of still competing. There are plenty of irritatingly overused soundbites to describe that phenomenon; fight, spirit, bottle. None of them really explain why a team doesn’t bother to show up, or doesn’t seem to care when they concede one, two or even three goals. Unlike West Ham, the fightback never came yesterday and the inability to do so is at least influenced by the opposition, but what it really boils down to is personnel. With the vocal spine and youthful exuberance ripped out in Luiz and Xhaka, Saka and Smith Rowe, there was no one to set things straight on the pitch or inject some life. The exception in Ødegaard, after his high-profile orchestration of the fight back two weeks ago, will have also been on Klopp’s mind, and Liverpool made him suffer. Lacazette and Partey were the only two left to pick up the pieces, and while neither had a bad game, they were the best of a bad bunch.


Depth

A problem that has been glaringly obvious for some time. Unburdened by international duty, a well-rested Dani Ceballos partnered Partey and saw his trajectory enter Stuka territory. Outright fear has been evident in some individuals this season and apparently, even a weakened Liverpool side was enough to do the trick. In Ceballos, there is a professional footballer that was good enough to be signed by Real Madrid and Arsenal. He has an eye for a pass, can play in tight triangles and can slip the press but yesterday was comfortably his worst in an Arsenal shirt and leaves the idea of signing him permanently after two sporadic years unpalatable. Doing even the simplest things wrong, like taking heavy touches, short and wayward passing and being dispossessed are more often associated with tiredness, whether that be mental or physical. In his case, there’s really no excuse for that kind of performance and Elneny was the only player available to replace him.

Elsewhere, Guendouzi and Torreira are two investments deemed surplus to requirements, while Joe Willock went closer to home to experience a different fight (and turn the screw on José). That’s three very different players that have been given loans for one reason or another. The unexpected loss of Granit Xhaka, whose otherwise seemingly indestructible body was undone by illness, shouldn’t be enough to completely break the functionality of the midfield but the options available and the tactical changes made by Arteta did just that.

Losing Kieran Tierney to injury in the one position with no actual cover is equally demonstrative of just how frail the depth of the squad is and while the club’s failings in the transfer market for the last five years and beyond is a tired and tedious subject, Arteta continues to struggle in finding workarounds. Cédric at left back is far from the player we’ve seen at right back, and while Liverpool were wasteful prior to Tierney’s injury, I’m also not surprised they broke the deadlock and put the game to bed down Arsenal’s left flank.

The natural segue to this issue is asking whether the results and performances accurately reflect the limitations imposed by the squad. As of today, Arsenal lie in 10th place and the three teams above all have a game in hand. If we’re talking about progress, as much as youthful green shoots and periods of free-flowing football lead to temptation, results are the bottom line and Arsenal have regressed even since Emery by that metric. The only chance of distinguishing between the two in terms of results would be for Arteta to go one step further in the Europa League, and judging by the last two ties in the competition, that would be a tall ask.


Within the confines of the match, the real question is whether the aforementioned absentees being missed enough to warrant such a lowly performance. Liverpool had already stopped their recent rot with two wins and two clean sheets in a row but Arsenal finished the game with an xG of 0.09, 0.06 of which was attributed to Pépé’s header that would have been ruled offside had it gone in anyway. It was also the 7th time in the last 13 games where Arsenal have failed to score at home (@Orbinho), which is nothing short of embarrassing and unacceptable.

Defensively, dominant as Liverpool were, I once again find myself taking issue with individual errors. Aubameyang’s failure to close down the cross was one thing, but 5’10” Diogo Jota was able to win a header against Holding and Chambers. That doesn’t take anything away from the delivery, which was sublime (Gareth Southgate is an imbecile and England will never win a major tournament with him and his stupid waistcoat at the helm), but it’s not the first time Holding has lost an aerial duel to someone at a height disadvantage. Until Liverpool broke the deadlock, I thought he was actually having a good game.

He’s clearly a player who thrives with his back against the wall, and given his comparative ability to Luiz on the ball, Arsenal were always going to lose some front-footed-ness with Holding in his place. What I can’t really understand is how he’s able to deal with players like Diego Costa but struggles – even aerially – against players nipping at his ankles and moving quickly in and around the box.

Leno’s contact might disappoint him but given how close it was, it’s understandable that he wasn’t fast enough to keep it out. I take more issue with the barn door he presented between his legs for Salah, and his distribution throughout left much to be desired. Gabriel’s sloppiness was the catalyst for Liverpool’s third and that was that.


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.