Arteta maintained his commitment to honesty being the best policy, saying “it was a point gained because I don’t think we deserved anything more than that” and I don’t see any room for argument there.
All things considered, a draw wasn’t the worst result after 3 consecutive wins and Brighton have earned their place in the table. Given the air of despair that hung over the club after the opening 3 games, a loss may have sent the more hysterical arm of the fanbase back down the rabbit hole. For the players and Arteta, winning the North London derby in such emphatic fashion for it to then be undone the following week would have left an equally sour taste.
With no midweek games for either, Brighton were in the same boat as Arsenal but their intensity set the tone for the match and unlike last week, Arsenal were on the back foot for the majority of the game. There won’t be many more opportunities for that to be an excuse, especially without taxing European away fixtures but Brighton, much like Brentford, are smartly managed, tenacious and organised.
In terms of projects, Graham Potter finally seems to be on the right side of xG and even though they failed to score again on Saturday despite managing 21 efforts at Ramsdale, few troubled him. Smith Rowe almost snatched a lead but expecting Arsenal’s youngest to always deliver when they’re most needed is a tall ask. Instead, it was Arsenal’s two (relative) elder statesmen in Partey and Aubameyang that were the most ineffective.
When Lacazette was introduced in the 72nd minute, Arsenal had a better hold in the final third but it’s not like it makes any sense to drop Aubameyang after a good performance in the North London derby. In many ways, his selection is always complicated by his captaincy. Without it, some situational flexibility could be justified from time to time and there is clearly a willingness to justify his contract even if the fit isn’t quite right tactically. His involvement was limited and he had far less joy against Dunk and Burn than against Spurs. This was particularly felt when Ramsdale was forced to go long – which was often the case thanks to Brighton’s effective press. In failing to win either the first or second ball, the ball was often back with Brighton and Arsenal’s disconnect between their midfield and front three was a standout problem on the day. Martin Odegaard also had a forgettable day and was the first to be replaced.
Arsenal’s best men on the day were the busiest defensively. Mr. Sambi Lokonga continues to quietly go about his business in a very tidy manner and got through a lot of work under difficult circumstances. White and Gabriel managed another clean sheet and handled Brighton’s aerial threat and constant bombardment of the box well, with Ramsdale also more than playing his part. The crucial diving interception he made was worthy of a point alone and it’s now 4 clean sheets in 5 for his Arsenal career.
Like Brentford. Brighton are a team that will take points off better teams than Arsenal this season purely because they don’t give you handouts if you’re having an off-day. Arteta’s job is now to raise the levels of those off-days and continue finding ways to win points that we don’t deserve while producing more days like last Saturday when we are at the races.
You’d have thought by now that the mighty Topspurs would know better than to tempt fate so early into a new season but they just can’t help themselves.
Fortunately, they never do learn and a mere 3 games later, Arsenal have edged ahead in the table and figuratively leapt ahead of their rivals. Spurs looked beleaguered from the first whistle to the last and that isn’t intended to downplay Arsenal’s performance in the slightest. It reminded me of Arsenal’s final games under Emery when the players downed tools and looked entirely unconvinced of what they were being asked to do. Nuno is only 6 games into the job and while he was far from their first choice coach, the real issues lie in their ramshackle squad and a certain wantaway superstar (although “white dwarf” would have been a better descriptor for his performance yesterday). While I may not have always seen the light with Arteta, his players’ commitment has never openly faltered and now that he finally has his team, the players are doing his bidding with a real sense of unity.
After the game, Aubameyang spoke of “having a chat among the players” after the loss to City and as it coincided with the international break, something now feels different. For the first time in a long time under Arteta, I feel like I’m understanding what his intentions are and the slender victories against Norwich and Burnley were slender not because the games were close but through a lack of finesse when it mattered. The ball is moving quicker now and the right players continued to pop up in the right places. I’m sure the fixture and venue helped but that first half performance was simply a continuation of the last few weeks of football.
It should be difficult to pick out individuals in a performance where no one was less than an 8 out of 10 but there are somehow still front-runners in the race for plaudits. Saka looked nothing like the player that had been on the fringes of our opening games and came away with a goal and an assist. Smith Rowe continued his impressive start to the season with the end product that has often escaped him and I love everything about his game. Gabriel picked up where he left off in man-handling Harry Kane. Tomiyasu is still yet to be dribbled past in the Premier League and had more ball recoveries (8) than any other player, as well as the most touches and the only joy Son found all afternoon was made possible by leaving his shadow. Aubameyang worked tirelessly, did two things he supposedly can’t do in linking up play and winning first balls, scored in front of the The King with his own celebration and made sure his money was where his mouth was with that statement trim. Ramsdale with a Seaman-dubbed “worldie”, utterly livid at failing to keep out Son’s rocket from close range, instrumental in beating the press and marshaling the back line (as well as the ball boys). Ødegaard, the metronomic workhouse that continues to bring shape and drive and Partey looking back to his best.
The only omissions are White, Tierney and Xhaka and each of them still played their part, and that’s exactly what you want going forward. That’s not to say that there’s no room for mistakes and this performance was the exception rather than the norm for the time being, but doing the basics and winning games is a great foundation to make those mistakes less costly when they come around again. Given the age of this squad, it’s an inevitability and the crucial aspect is having the patience to weather the storm.
When Arteta’s vision was most difficult to understand, it was in there being no tangible or obvious benefit to the negatives. It’s why I would use words like “delusional” and “stubborn”, because he looked out of ideas and unwilling to change. He seems to have undergone some personal growth where he has actually taken a step back and reevaluated his options. For what it’s worth, he also seems to be enjoying the little things if his celebrations were anything to go – you can’t not love that. Speaking of putting your money where your mouth is, to his credit, Arteta is another who has done just that. I don’t think anyone expected Tomiyasu to walk off the plane and into the team but he’s done precisely that and plugged a leak that many other right backs and inverted left backs had managed to do. When upwards of £30m for a “back-up goalkeeper” was thrown around for some double relegation reject, most, including myself questioned the logic when there were other supposedly more important areas to address. Who’s laughing now? It was one thing to sign him in the first place but for him to usurp Bernd Leno so quickly is unprecedented. For now, being bolder has been paying off for Arteta and now that he can apply his structure to a committed and at long last – balanced squad – he can continue to nourish their potential.
Strangely, I’m not going to labour the points of the match too much because they speak for themselves. The goals were all sublime and fell to the three players most in need of some confidence in front of goal. They were all well-taken, distinctly Arsenal and sufficiently devastating for the local tourists.
Seeing their crestfallen, slobbering talisman halve his transfer value in one afternoon was a thing of beauty and watching him stand on the ball like some sort of bedraggled tribute act to their badge paved the way for Saka’s goal. In case anyone needed a By The Numbers…
Some may point to some contentious decisions going Arsenal’s way and to that I will say.. “I didn’t see it”. In all seriousness, the most they could complain about is Xhaka perhaps fouling in the build-up to the second but if VAR wants to wave play on, so be it. The “penalty” claim on Kane is classic “3 goals down Harry” behavior and there was nothing in it, nor would it get a second look if it was anywhere else on the pitch. After the number of times both he and Son have taken a flop in this fixture, it was about time they got their comeuppance anyway. If you leave yourself clutching at straws after such a performance, I suspect it’s because you have nothing else to cling to.
After they were blown away in the first half, it was no surprise to see some proper game management come into play and for all of the possession Spurs were afforded, little came from it. They might have squandered some opportunities but besides Son’s goal, nothing felt clear-cut and the result was never in danger.
Going forward feels like uncharted waters. With momentum underfoot, and the first win against a team Arsenal appear to be in direct competition with, they now go to Brighton who finally seemed to have escaped their xG disparity. It’s another huge step in the right direction but to improve on last season’s finish, Arsenal need to find a way to dig in and grind out winning streaks throughout the season – not just when their backs are against the wall. As we’ve seen, a few wins on the bounce can make the world of difference but there’s a long way to go yet and we’d be fools to fall victim to the same mistake as the chickenheads.
Were Arsenal able to avoid under-hitting simple passes, I suspect it would have been quite a comfortable scoreline. I also suspect we would have avoided a penalty scare. Since we can’t make simple passes, it was a nervous wait for the final whistle and another win that left wanting.
I don’t think it’s much of a conspiracy theory to chalk up some of the under-hit passes to some gamesmanship from Burnley and their neolithic groundsman. It would also be incredibly naive of Arsenal to assume that every ground is going to be as lusciously smooth and well-watered as London Colney and the Emirates. We’ll never know how much it played a part in curtailing some promising passages of play but in the end, Arsenal had to settle for a win decided by a single, glorious set piece.
For that, I say “thank you” to Martin Odegaard and whoever pushed that deal over the line because I really dislike Burnley and it is the civic duty of every team in the league to turn up each week and edge them closer to oblivion. The youngest squad in the league dispatched the oldest and no amount of the typically abrasive Turf Moor antics could unsettle them. In the case of Odegaard, the goal was really the icing on the cake for his performance. After squandering a chance or two against Norwich by not pulling the trigger, it was a nice way to put some doubts to bed about a so-called lack of end product. He was obviously helped by the fact that Ashley Barnes has bricks for brains and decided not to jump (and there’s a delicious irony about these so-called “hard men” neglecting their duties when it mattered most) but it didn’t take anything away from the strike. With Partey plugging the holes behind him like some sort of plumbing-trained cephalopod, Odegaard led the team in the next phase of the pitch from start to finish and worked tirelessly to unsettle, disrupt and create. It was clear that these two were also missed against Brentford in Arsenal’s other “winnable” game but they provide a spine to build around.
At the base of that spine now also sits a defence that actually resembles something functional. I’m not surprised in the slightest that Ramsdale kept his place, and besides being closed down successfully on one occasion, was the perfect remedy for a side like Burnley and now has two clean sheets in two games. He brings a similarly calming presence to the side that we also saw with Emi Martinez and part of that is down to his swagger. Snatching and holding onto crosses despite being man-marked by Wood and Barnes, bizarre two-footed jumping catches to deter any charge downs, immediately stepping in to keep the knuckle-draggers away from Tierney and the deftest of touches to deny Vidra after an awkward backpass. His distribution was varied and decisive, finding the likes of Smith Rowe and Aubameyang in space on the halfway line and he was also alert to Cornet’s effort when Burnley finally got a sight of goal.
For someone who’s supposedly weak in the air, Ben White seemed to handle himself just fine if this is anything to go by:
Most aerial duels won
3/5 ground duels
5/8 aerial duels
83% pass completion
And even if he is worse than those statistics suggest, this is precisely why centre-back partnerships are so important and he just so happens to play next to an animal in the making. He hasn’t always fired on all cylinders and he still has a lot to learn but Gabriel looks capable of going toe to toe with just about anyone on his day. Between them, they look to have a balanced skill set and even if White can struggle on occasion, Tomiyasu is already looking like the perfect accompaniment after another impressive shift.
It was especially easy to place the spotlight on the defence because going forward, there’s still work to be done. As much or as little as the pitch may have played its part, too many of Arsenal’s shortcomings were inexcusable. Errors in judgement, sloppy touches, short passes and tame finishing are all to blame for the scoreline remaining 1-0 and the subsequent pressure at the other end. While the left side dependency has waned, Arsenal are still guilty of hopeful, half-baked attempts in chance creation and there are far better sides than Norwich and Burnley to see off this season. Aubameyang was once again starved of opportunities, and of the front three, was the most effective in creating chances which isn’t right. While Pépé’s off-day was easier to swallow after his contributions against Norwich, I have some concerns about Bukayo Saka who hasn’t looked himself at all this season. Sloppy in possession and lacking a cutting edge, I wonder if he simply needs more time off or at the very least, time on the sidelines to work his way back into the team. After slating Willian’s involvement for 6 months on the grounds of meritocracy, I’m inclined to be consistent in saying it may be time for someone else to take over from Saka for the time being.
While brief, a return to the Maitland-Niles/Lokonga pivot was a convenient Plan B to see the game out, and both did well to stretch the game and provide welcome relief for the back line. Whatever’s transpired between Ainsley, his representatives/family and Arteta has obviously cleaned the slate for the time being and his diligence seems to be repaying that renewed trust. When you make such statements about where you see yourself playing, the only way to really prove yourself is on the pitch and with Arsenal’s currently limited midfield options, he finally has an opening. Having someone like Thomas Partey to learn from is also an invaluable mentor and he’d be stupid to throw it away if that’s where he sees himself playing.
The Champions of August (trophy not included, see terms and conditions) and all round media darlings lost 3-0 today to Chelsea – without players missing. The table is set for Arsenal to go above them after a stonking 4-0 win and because that is a possibility, I’m convinced it’s going to happen. As much as this Arsenal struggle to create chances, I’m sure it’ll all come together when it matters most. On a more serious note, it’s the first litmus test of the season against a team that Arsenal are competing with in terms of the big picture. They have another bricks-for-brains troglodyte in Eric Dier that Arteta should be focusing his efforts on exploiting and a (14th choice?) manager that has already ridden his luck getting them to 7th place. Your move, Amazon.
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.
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.
As noted in today’s Gunners injury update video – it comes down to severity. If it’s a grade 1, then that’s typically 7-10 days. High chance of recurrence but Arsenal physio & training staff have been really good managing hamstring issues this season https://t.co/QOSBy2X5U8
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…
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.
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.
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.
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)
Kevin De Bruyne
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.