Surprises everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then.

A picture is worth 1,000 words…

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

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

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

The Match

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then.

Boring, boring City

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All to play for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


After a such a promising run of form, trying to come to terms with how that momentum has ground to a halt in these last two games is a fraught process. I don’t want to go over old ground but there are similarities with the match against Wolves that can’t be overlooked. In the same way that Luiz switched off before half time on that occasion, half of Arsenal’s back line were apparently unaware that the match had kicked off yesterday.

It was a recurring feature of the afternoon for misplaced and sloppy passing but Cédric’s weak pass to Gabriel very much set the tone. That mistake was bad enough and was then compounded by Holding not being tight enough to Watkins and that was that.

Consistency is something that continues to rear its head in all shapes and sizes and as much as the club and fans would be right to bemoan inconsistencies with officiating, they become easier to swallow when you haven’t already pressed the self-destruct button. The club took great strides in January to root out several of the repeat offenders but we’re not quite there yet. It’s an impossible task to stop these careless moments entirely but at the moment, it seems to be the biggest spanner in the works for Arteta.

While we’re on the subject though, I’d just like to succinctly and angrily get my point across just how fucking bad referees have been lately. In general. Mike Dean’s ridiculous red card for Bednarek has already been rescinded after he failed to spot a blatant dive even after consulting the pitch-side monitor and he then went and sent off Soucek for the most blatantly accidental elbow I’ve ever seen. As for the Arsenal game, off the top of my head:

  • Saka fouled by the last man, running through on goal
  • Lacazette very clearly fouled by Martinez

A red card in the first half and a penalty in the second are difficult to get past and I don’t think either decision was even remotely contentious. Peter Walton of course disagreed, saying “from a subjective point of view, has Lacazette used that [shirt pull] as an opportunity to then lean on the goalkeeper?” and that “VAR is not there to get the correct decision”. While he may not be in the job anymore, it would be a fair assumption to make that many that still are share these nonsense, contradicting thoughts.

We then also had to endure systematic, rotational fouling on Saka which is becoming the normative tactic to deal with him and it’s only a matter of time before he’s seriously injured. There was a deliberate handball charge-down by Traoré(?) that was deemed not bookable, so too for a late challenge by Trezeguet and I’m sure I’m missing a few more. I hate that these incidents play such an important part in assessing a performance but it also feels disingenuous to simply chalk them up as something we have to deal with each game. At the very least, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the last two results have been heavily affected by factors beyond our control.

Therein lies the importance of finding a solution to these silly mistakes, though. The team has to reach a point where they are not dependent on VAR or the officials to do actually do their job – they’re not fit for purpose and it’s not going to change any time soon. It’s sort of like if you had toothache and the only dentist available was insisting on using dynamite, you’re better off using some string instead.

Going 1-0 down in the first minute certainly shouldn’t be the death knell, even if it was against a team we’re in direct competition with. Arteta said that “we controlled every department, we dominated the game completely but we just gave them the goal”. That just about summed it all up, but the domination we were afforded was equally indicative of what Villa afforded us.

If I was a Villa player watching how Cédric and Bellerín played, I’d probably be alright with having less possession because it was pretty dreadful stuff from the pair of them. The substitutions from Arteta also left much to be desired, with Aubameyang once again ghosting through another cameo and certainly not the right fit for breaking down Villa, at the expense of Lacazette and his combination play. Willian’s introduction after Thomas Partey’s untimely injury was another performance I never want to think about again, with a passing map that was almost entirely comprised of Kolasinac-like backwards passes. It also served to undo one of the only things that was actually working on the day, which was Pépé down that left flank. It would be hypocritical of me to say he was wrong to bring on Willian after he had a better performance the other day (by his standards) and that it’s an important part of rebuilding a player to reward them as such, but he simply isn’t serviceable and we can’t keep hamstringing ourselves all the time trying to make it work. Martinelli is a player who Arteta is clearly still figuring out but we’ve surely reached a point where whatever he is doing wrong should only be seen as collateral.

Besides a brilliant freekick from Xhaka, I can hardly remember Martinez being tested and it was our debutant who was the far busier ‘keeper. For all of our “domination”, Villa were unsurprisingly more threatening in the eyes of xG and besides Ødegaard’s late, blazing miss, it felt like a game where the equaliser was destined to escape us. If it’s any consolation, I at least thought Ødegaard had another good performance – missed chances aside – and a double-8 pivot alongside Smith Rowe is a viable option.

At this point, I think I’ve looked at the league table enough for one season. If we can’t be consistent, it doesn’t do much good to play the “what if” game and our luck has just about run out for making something of this season domestically. I’m loathed to say we should only be focusing on the Europa League for the rest of the season because there’s still a great deal of benefit to finish the season as strongly as possible; it lays the foundations for next season after a (hopefully) busy summer transfer window and we still need to maximise our ability to attract top talents, of which reputation plays its part. For now though, the sooner this season comes to an end, the better.

Silly season back on track

Sometimes football tricks you into feeling safe and cozy, even optimistic. Last night was a brutally sudden reminder that we are in fact… never safe.

After being deliciously lulled into this comfort zone by 46 minutes of some of the best football I’ve seen under Arteta, the game was turned on its Sideshow Bob-shaped head. I can’t remember seeing such division over a decision as the Luiz incident, but from my understanding and desire to be objective, by the letter of the law, he had to walk.

Watching it in real time, I thought the same as everyone else – Luiz has done that Luiz thing again where he needlessly makes a last-man challenge instead of just letting the player score. What actually appears to be the case is Luiz was a victim of an incredibly grey and non-sensical area of the rules.

Law 12 of the F.A.’s Handbook – Fouls and Misconduct

SENDING-OFF OFFENCES: denying a goal or an obvious goal-scoring opportunity to an opponent whose overall movement is towards the offender’s goal by an offence punishable by a free kick

DENYING A GOAL OR AN OBVIOUS GOAL-SCORING OPPORTUNITY: where a player commits an offence against an opponent within their own penalty area which denies an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity and the referee awards a penalty kick, the offending player is cautioned if the offence was an attempt to play the ball; in all other circumstances (e.g. holding, pulling, pushing, no possibility to play the ball etc.) the offending player must be sent off.

It’s clear where the grey area catches Luiz. The contact was minimal and entirely accidental, albeit avoidable since Luiz was out of position and should have known better than to get too close. It’s a penalty every day of the week, and I would be aggrieved if an Arsenal player was brought down in similar fashion. Unfortunately, it just so happened to find that sweet spot with “in all other circumstances”. Where the referee’s defence unravels, is not only by Craig Pawson’s repeated and unaccounted ability to make the right decisions (see below for a game of “odd one out”), but by Law 5 of the same handbook.

Law 5.2 – Decisions of the referee

Decisions will be made to the best of the referee’s ability according to the Laws
of the Game and the ‘spirit of the game’ and will be based on the opinion of the
referee, who has the discretion to take appropriate action within the
framework of the Laws of the Game.

If the laws of the game find equivalence between tackles that endanger opponents, violent misconduct and persistent fouling with an accidental coming together that just so happened to be in the penalty area, then surely the ‘spirit of the game’ should prevail. A penalty is punishment enough – the odds are overwhelmingly in favour to convert the chance – and recent changes to the ruling have even sought to reduce the incidence of these double jeopardy scenarios. This unfortunately relies on the assumption that referees are actually capable of making well-reasoned, objective decisions on a consistent basis.

One of the core dependencies of consistency is accountability. You can see it in every aspect of the game; bad players get dropped and rotated, the manager position at some clubs is like a carousel and yet the worst thing that can happen to a Premier League referee is a slap-on-the-wrist-demotion for a few games and then they’re back to their usual antics. The best kind of referees are those that go unnoticed and yet here we are with blatant egotists like Mike Dean who undeniably revel in the spotlight and treat the sport like an exhibition. Without accountability, standards will stand still and it’s part of the reason no Premier League officials went to the last World Cup after Clattenburg dropped out (and if his recent revelations about Spurs are anything to go by, the tournament was better for it). This was the first such instance in 80 years and it doesn’t look like much has changed since.

These same egotists even had to be told to consult the pitch-side monitors – unlike the rest of the European leagues’ referees who actually had the humility to do so. Aaaanyway, that’s quite enough of that.

Arteta was understandably perplexed at what he’d just seen but praised the reaction, saying the desire to win, even with 9 men, was “magnificent”. I can’t argue with that and as mad as the circumstances were, not much has really changed in the grand scheme of things. The league is still a mess but the performances are still headed in the right direction, and I can live with that. The emergence of an actual shape and balance to the team has done wonders in recent weeks and Wolves looked there for the taking. After being critical of our slow starts on several occasions, that idea was absolutely blown out of the water. Within 10 minutes, Saka had already had already been denied three times, by woodwork, VAR and the keeper and on another day, we’re already 2 or 3-0 up.

The goal itself was a continuation of Pépé’s recent form, and was another step in the right direction as he continues to repay Arteta’s trust. Winning the ball back was one thing but the tenacity he showed and the weak-footed finish showed a different side to him and at this point, he should keep his place on the left wing. I think it’s clear at this point he’s a confidence player and it’s essential to not make the same mistake twice by dropping him after a strong run of form.

After half time, it was clear that damage limitations weren’t on the agenda and if not for an absolute worldie from Moutinho, I’m confident that we had the means to get something from the game. What later transpired very much put that dream to bed but the intent was always there and that at least is commendable.

I really did think I was watching Lehmann-incarnate with Leno’s moment of madness. It isn’t something we’re used to seeing and it was obviously a circumstance of what the game was demanding, but it gets more and more awkward every time you watch it. He’s got some ways to go if he wants to usurp “Mad Jens” – he hasn’t started making a habit of assaulting players that get too close to him or taken a piss behind an advertising board during a match but that was some serious disconnect between mind and body. Joking aside though, I think it’s fair to chalk this up as an isolated incident and shouldn’t take anything away from his season. I’m not entirely sure about what that means going forward and I’m now sick of trawling the rule handbook, but I think we lose Leno for our next game against Aston Villa on Saturday.

Those that remained were forced to run their socks off even more than they already had been doing and while it’s common practice for “10 men scenarios” in training, I doubt there’s much precedent for 9. Credit has to go to them for not capitulating and they almost miraculously snatched a goal back, but that was that.

Anyway, if by any chance you haven’t completely lost your minds thinking about officiating and VAR, I’ll leave you with this depressing compilation.

All square

In the cold light of day, coming away with a draw was perfectly palatable and yet I can’t help but have an underlying feeling of “what could have been”. Bruno Fernandes callously and petulantly raking Xhaka’s calf – adverbs so often used to describe Xhaka after the numerous red cards he’s seen – could easily have seen him taking an early walk down the tunnel in a universe where VAR actually makes sense. There were also notable absentees from the starting lineup, who may have made the difference in an otherwise closely-contested affair, with United having no such problems on this front.

A draw still doesn’t take anything away from what was another step forward in the right direction and a testament to this increasingly streamlined squad, whose depth showed more resilience and ability than they’re perhaps given credit for. With Tierney once again ruled out, it was another chance for Cédric to justify his questionable contractual situation and despite picking up an early booking, he produced another dependable performance played out of position. With the late timing of Saka’s injury reveal, Pépé was also given a fighting chance to surprise United’s preparations on the opposite wing. He may not be a like-for-like replacement to Saka, he was our best attacking threat on the day and if not for Maguire’s block, would have slotted past a beaten De Gea. He not only got through a lot of defensive work, but is also beginning to show signs of development at long last; fewer occasions where I felt he boxed himself into a corner or held onto the ball for too long and he continues to find himself in the right areas.

It was also the first time since the opening matchday where I thought Willian was actually a Premier League-level footballer. After Martinelli was taken off at halftime, I assumed there was some kind of injury but Arteta cleared this up in his post-match interview, explaining it was a “tactical decision”. His first real involvement was to waste one of our best chances of the game, but given the fact he’d only just come on, the first touch and unconvincing finish was a bit easier to swallow thanks to the rest of his performance. It wasn’t long before he put the ball on a plate for Pépé’s aforementioned chance and he got through a lot of defensive work.

Both sides enjoyed peaks and troughs and but save for Leno’s brilliant denial against Fred, it was a match dominated by centre-backs making a name for themselves. After some typical Luiz-mania that threatened to rear its head against Southampton, he rose to the occasion and earned himself a Man of The Match award (after his left-footed 30 yard volley and umpteenth unsuccessful freekick were overlooked). His partner in Holding once again lead the way in headed clearances and was a £78m-cheaper version of United’s slab-headed counterpart. We perhaps rode our luck at times with the intensity of United’s pressure as Rashford and Cavani both squandered some great chances, but so too did they after Lacazette saw his freekick cruelly denied by the underside of the crossbar.

All square

In the end, that’s another clean sheet, and more notably it was against a United side who have been rampant since their defeat to Arsenal at Old Trafford. I never bought into the idea that they were genuine title contenders – they’ve rode their luck in recent times and if the two team’s relative positions in the league table are anything to go by, the gap is far closer than the points tally would suggest. It’s probably still “too little, too late” for making something of this season but an emerging theme is that this club is once again difficult to beat. It seems strange to have had such a quick change in fortunes – especially when one of the key catalysts was a 20-year-old academy product – but the sport is as fickle as it gets.

Going forward, it gave more minutes to Partey who I still don’t think is operating at full potential yet. While he may have been uncharacteristically poor in possession, he was an important cog in stretching United and breaking up play alongside Xhaka and while it was a brief introduction, bedding Ødegaard in the team is one less thing in the to-do list.

With the absentees seemingly all close to a return, it feels like things may be coming together just as we head into the business end of the season. I’m buoyed by certain players reaching new, lofty heights like Saka and Leno and others like Lacazette have seemingly returned from the dead and are once again integral to what we do. If a few more can really step up to the mark, we might just be in business. I can’t help but always look ahead to our tie with Benfica, because that’s the one that stands out as really mattering but with so much congestion in the top half of the table, I’m still confident that we can make something of this season one way or the other.

Point proven

It was important to get back to winning ways as the business end of the season looms, with so much still to play for. After an early exit from our own tournament, to which many – including myself – questioned given the number of changes made, Arteta was eager to set the record straight and clearly had a bee in his bonnet.

“We had five players in the FA Cup that couldn’t play … I want to make that clear. The ones that played today they were to play some part of the game.”

Given the calibre of players missing, and the convincing manner in which the league tie was won, it makes the F.A. Cup defeat easier to swallow. There were still notable absentees to contend with like Tierney and Aubameyang, which makes the result all the more impressive.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit worried given how the early stages of the game unfolded. A missed golden opportunity… here we go. Concede from a set piece after a lapse in concentration. Scriptwriters are back to work…

It’s another game which actually benefitted from a lack of supporters – even away from home – because they could crack on without the background drone of disappointment, and they did just that. In fairness to Lacazette, although I was bitterly disappointed to see him denied in real-time, McCarthy was out with such speed that it made life difficult. Also, speaking from experience, having a chance fall to you so early in the game is always a surprise and sometimes you haven’t quite found your feet yet. Even then, McCarthy was lucky to get just enough on the block to deny any rebounds and as we later found out, rushing out like Prime Neuer isn’t always the best idea…

We’re still by no means a first half team – far from it – so the immediacy to which the players responded was refreshing to see.

They’d started as they’d meant to go on, which was pressing as a unit as high up the pitch as possible. Lacazette’s pressure was enough to regain possession and having already threatened with the earlier through-ball for Lacazette, Xhaka was able to slip Pépé between the lines and he showed two things which have been known to escape him; strength and composure. Game on.

The pressing was relentless and Southampton were so often forced to go long, which was bread and butter for Luiz and Holding. I don’t know if Arteta adapted his approach based on what he saw on Saturday, but even going behind, there was a clear strategy and the rate of turnover was integral to the eventual turnaround. We’re once again showing a kind of unity in everything we do; without the ball, the press comes from the top down, with Lacazette and Smith Rowe interchangeably pressing Southampton’s last man, to Saka and Pépé both being hot on the heels of Southampton’s fullbacks, with the latter making the joint highest ball recoveries along with Smith Rowe.

The circumstances in which we took the lead were unusual by our standards, but no less than we deserved. With Xhaka once again collecting the ball and passing forwards into space, Lacazette without hesitation got his head up and played a first-time ball through to Saka. It later emerged that the two had spoken about this exact scenario before the game, so to see it come to fruition for them must do them the world of good. After Smith Rowe’s glowing praise of Lacazette’s help behind the scenes, it’s great to see things continue to come together.

As for the finish, I do wonder if it was a bit of Hot-Hand Fallacy that was McCarthy’s undoing, but his Fabianski-esque adventure still left Saka with so much to do. After nicking the ball past him, he somehow digs a shot out with his weak foot all in the same motion. I don’t know how he stayed on his feet or got enough power to put that away, but he did both and it was another special moment. In some ways though, I’m not surprised because he does seem to just take everything in his stride – on and off the field, if his post-match interview was anything to do by.

With the inevitable half-time pushback from Southampton, it was important to weather the storm and protect the lead, and they did just that. There were some customary concentration-lapses from Luiz, which will no doubt put his starting place in the lineup against United into question, but Holding was alert and steadfast as he’s so often been.

The clincher was another wildly different goal to not only the others in this match, but in general. What Cédric managed to do (not for the first time either) is something we’ve been accustomed to seeing from Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to great effect, and the other pieces of the puzzle were able to do his cross-field pass justice. I’m running out of superlatives for Saka but once again, I find myself questioning why and how he’s able to do what he does; just nonchalantly hits a side-footed half-volley on his weak foot – first time – and the cross is on a plate for Lacazette. Painfully casual and yet more end product. I dread to think how much he would actually be worth and who’s thinking about coming knocking.

That pretty much killed the game and after Ings made way shortly after, I was a lot more optimistic about our chances to close the game out, as much as I expected Kevin Friend to pull some kind of stunt to help Southampton on top of his inability to book any of them. Thankfully, we did just that.

Looking forward to the weekend, we have a duty to stop this ridiculous notion that United are in the title race. Not that I’m bitter, but they simply cannot win the league and they need stopping by any means necessary, sort of like the farce on 49. That means we’re going to need Partey and Smith Rowe to shake off whatever problems they’ve picked up (which thankfully don’t sound serious) because they are both a joy to watch.

Whether Aubameyang will be back in time is now less of a concern, and it might just be an opening to make something of one Nicolas Pépé. He’s been getting a lot of stick lately, but as I said in my last post, I still have a sneaking suspicion there’s a player in there somewhere. Still don’t know if that’ll be at Arsenal but for now, we have to try and make the most of him. In fairness, he does seem to rise to the occasion, with some of his best games coming in the final stages of our road to victory in the F.A. Cup, and one of his early performances away to Liverpool in which he gave Van Dijk more than a few concerns. I’ve no doubt he’s a confidence player and if he starts at the weekend again, I think there’s a chance for him to do some damage.

Until then.

Not this year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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