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

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

Featured image credit to @Chris Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going forward

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

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

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

The gift that keeps on giving

Never mind 2020 being a bad year for the world. The 19/20 season truly is the gift that keeps on giving for Arsenal Football Club. You could not make this shit up. Two games back, three players injured, two of which seriously. The first two I’ve no qualms with but the circumstances of the third and the rest of the story are so utterly maddening, it’s difficult to come to terms with them and think rationally.

I’m incredibly reluctant to make excuses for performances that fall short of the mark but on this occasion, it would be dishonest to not highlight the significance of a player scoring a last-minute winner when they arguably should’ve been off the pitch an hour earlier. I have every intention of covering where we fell short today from a footballing perspective but I can’t idly ignore the systemic treatment this club has endured for the last 20 years at the hands of match officials. The tired rhetoric that Arsenal “don’t like it up them” that has been propagated over the years and allowed to fester is partly responsible. The likes of Sam Allardyce, Tony Pulis, Troy Deeney and on this occasion, Rio Ferdinand as he sprang to Maupay’s defence. In that time, we’ve seen Eduardo and Ramsey suffer broken legs, we’ve seen Debuchy’s Arsenal career cut short, we’ve seen the likes of Reyes and Wilshere’s ankles whittled away by “proper” British players and now we’ve seen Leno suffer what appears to be an ACL injury. The common denominator isn’t unfortunate, freak accidents but systemic, targeted approaches set forth by managers to disrupt our style of play. While we may not play the same free-flowing football that forced teams to adopt this kind of approach in the first place, we are still suffering.

It was also the second time this season that a player has committed 6 fouls without reprimand against Arsenal. Both games were officiated by Martin Atkinson. By comparison, it’s only happened twice this season for all other teams combined. (Credit: @Orbinho)

I’ve spoken at length at the pitiful standards of officiating in the Premier League and even in these two games back, we’ve seen City’s defender man-handling of Nketiah go unpunished while Luiz walks. Today, Lacazette is booked while Maupay escaped, despite our goalkeeper being stretchered off in agony. It’s even more comical when you realise that Maupay was even trying to claim a free kick for Leno handling the ball outside the area, as well as doubling down during his post-match interview to stoke the fire some more.

There were some disappointing scenes amongst the Arsenal ranks both immediately after the incident and at the final whistle. I found it completely alien to see players exchanging some casual high and low-fives with Maupay after the incident; thinking back to the likes of Keown or Vieira and trying to imagine them doing the same thing if someone had so carelessly injured a player. Rather than setting things straight on the pitch, we conceded late and only then did emotions boil over again, which begs the question – why couldn’t we play with that kind of intensity and character?

Drawing a line under that and taking the match at face value, the scoreline sullies the taste left by an otherwise improved performance. The problem is, this squad of players – whatever iteration lines up – finds ways to not kill games off at one end and switch off at the other.

Seeing the likes of Pépé and Lacazette come into the team was a sign of ambition to create chances and although Brighton are not in any way comparable to Man City, it worked for large parts of the game. There was a frustrating tendency to hit hopeful balls into a box that was dominated by players noticeably taller than most in Arsenal’s ranks, but we were at least able to create some half-decent chances. On another day, Saka’s curling effort dips under the crossbar with Ryan well beaten, Lacazette’s header nestles in the bottom corner and Aubameyang beats the offside trap (which admittedly looked level but Michael Oliver didn’t spend long deliberating over that one). Lacazette also come close with a stooping header and Aubameyang had his fair share of efforts but as we’ve often found this season, it took a moment of individual brilliance to break the deadlock rather than a well-orchestrated team goal. By this, I don’t mean to say that every goal should be akin to Wilshere’s against Norwich but the dependency on such moments to bail us out of games has been a recurring theme this season.

Credit where it’s due – it was a brilliant goal by Pépé and he’d had the beating of many throughout the game. With a legitimate referee, he would have found many more openings if players had actually been disciplined accordingly but it is what it is. It’s not the first time he’s bailed us out this season and despite being played out of position, he produced when we were in need of a spark today. He still finds himself further out wide than he would probably like, but we have to remember this is still very early days in Arteta’s system as he continues to tinker.

We saw glimpses today of what Arteta may be hoping to develop, in having two highly capable players in Saka and Pépé on either side of the pitch who can actually beat players. Deeper into midfield, the likes of Guendouzi and Ceballos were once again lacking in this department and even if it’s makeshift until more personnel can be brought in during the summer, this may be how Arteta is hoping to “unlock the door” in front of goal. More interestingly, Saka found himself deployed more centrally and didn’t look out of place (nor does he anywhere).

There’s also a summer quandary as to whether Martinez has what it takes to lead from the back until Leno’s return, which appears to be some time away. He’s our longest serving player and while we’ve got a good idea of his kind of level in the Europa League, it’s another matter entirely to assume the role of first choice keeper. It can sometimes be the making of a player, to suddenly have an opening and get a run of games under your belt but I haven’t seen enough of him yet to make that call. He was immediately forced into a smart save after coming on and was commanding in the box amidst Brighton’s “aerial superiority”, which is very much what you want. There’s certainly nothing he could’ve done against either goal; the first saw us caught sleeping on a set piece as it was scrambled in after a simple manoeuvre while the second was actually a well-worked goal from a Brighton perspective.

Going forward is now a dim prospect. The Champions League is surely now dead and buried and anyone who thought things would pick up after we’d been inevitably dispatched by City has been brought back down to Earth.

Arteta said afterwards that “…the challenge we all have at the football club, [is] to rebuild to something that is worth the club we are representing”. Rebuild is a phrase we’ve heard bandied around for some time and it’s difficult to discern what would actually constitute a “rebuild”. There are obvious deadwood candidates that need to make way in the summer and there are some harder decisions to make on the futures of several players who could help finance this rebuild. For now, it just feels like we have to play the season out and hit the reset properly in the summer. We head to Southampton on Thursday and will be an equivalent test to the Brighton game, but here’s to hoping we don’t have an equivalent result.

Long time no see

I must admit, I wasn’t chomping at the bit at the prospect of football returning behind closed doors, especially when they’re the doors of the Etihad. With the dust from COVID still far from settled, the feeling of prematurity very much got in the way of my enthusiasm, along with the fixture itself. We’ve become somewhat of a free pass for them in the last few years and even with 3 months to prepare, I wasn’t at all convinced the outcome would be any different than usual and seeing the starting lineup very much cemented that belief.

The whole premise took some getting used to, though. The Emptihad – even more so than usual – to the tune of canned atmosphere and the odd pundit littered around the stands. All very strange. What transpired was decidedly less strange.

The oft-used trio of Xhaka, Guendouzi and Ceballos is something I’ve never been convinced of from a balance perspective – they’re all reasonably technical players and can do a few useful things off the ball but the absolute dearth of creativity is something that’s always bothered me. None of them are what I’d consider a typical Arsenal midfielder. That being said, out of the central offering, Hale End’s Joe Willock is the only one who does have a bit of flair and Arsenalness about him but he struggled to find a footing in a game even before it began to effortlessly escape us as City began to turn the screw.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom from the onset; seeing Saka entrusted in a more advanced role, with Nketiah leading the line and Willock just behind was a sign that the lay-off period hadn’t shaken Arteta’s resolve in trusting these players. Before his untimely and costly injury, Mari had also been measured and calm, while Leno had lost none of his sharpness. Tierney also came back into the team and was dependable, if not a little hesitant going forward when given the chance to try and probe City’s back line. While the opening stages were bright, it became quickly apparent that our two warm-up fixtures had done little to prepare us for the kind of intensity of a Premier League game as lethargy seemed to set in around the half-hour mark.

The two injuries probably had a part to play in that, and losing Xhaka especially was always going to be damaging to Arteta’s game plan because he’s so rarely injured. The personnel lost wasn’t so much the issue as was the players who were called in to pick up the pieces. A player like David Luiz has never struck me as the level-headed, focused type, and expecting him to come into a game – even one as lethargic as this one was in the early stages – isn’t something I would say he’s at all suited to. A stark contrast that popped into my head after he was sent off was Per Mertesacker’s cameo in the FA Cup final; silencing doubters and running the show from the back after barely featuring all season. I find myself dearly missing someone like that on the pitch at times like these, as reassuring to know he’s still tinkering away behind the scenes.

The blunder for the first was bad enough – it was the kind of limp, half-hearted approach that you hate to see, like people sticking out a leg to try and block a shot only to see it loop over the keeper. The rain may have caught him off-guard as the ball skidded off the surface but that’s the beauty of concentration. If you’re concentrating, you don’t find yourself in these kinds of situations often. What we already knew before we signed him, is that he is not that kind of player. You can hearken to his experience, his influence in the dressing room, as a beneficiary to the youth and as a leader but whenever he’s on a pitch, there is always the possibility for that kind of blunder and he continues to cost us points.

Need I say more?

His 25 minutes were up when he hauled Mahrez to the ground and while I don’t have any complaints with the decision, it was typical that Anthony Taylor missed Nketiah being hauled to the ground at the other end of the pitch – the only difference being City’s defender using both arms instead of one hand to do so. De Bruyne made no mistake and that was 3 points done and dusted for City without breaking a sweat.

Without Leno, we may well have faced the same kind of scoreline we subjected Charlton to last week and with 0 shots on target and only 2 efforts on goal in total, we never looked capable of breaking City down even at full strength. Therein lies the problem, though, because our idea of full strength and those above us is starting to feel like a chasm.

There also comes the question as to whether we should give Luiz an extension. Given some of the defensive omissions from the squad, and despite the seemingly abundant depth we have at centre back, we are limited for match fit, Premier League level defenders. At this point, he’s already been a massive financial loss if you take his utility into account so that gamble lies with the oh-so-capable hands of Raul and Co.

While we’re on the subject, what’s even more maddening in hindsight is the slapdash approach to our transfer dealings, as details have emerged in recent weeks of just how much it’s cost to secure Davíd Luiz’ unique skill set – rumoured to be in the region of £24 million when taking other fees into account. We also have our star player hesitant to sign a new contract, one of our two brightest up-and-comers with only a year left (and neither in a rush to sign) and the biggest whale of them all collecting his pension while not even making the squad. Arteta referred to Özil’s absence as a “tactical decision”, which is eerily similar to the sentiments that Emery tried to peddle on a weekly basis at the height of our turmoil this season.

A far more worrying thought is the parent of these issues is a club that time and again demonstrates a disinterest in allaying this steady decline into irrelevance. The risk of signing a player like David Luiz was obviously weighted but where I suspect it unravels is where this aligns with the club’s actual ambitions. Like Emery’s appointment, he was seen as a stop-gap shortcut to get us back into contention in the form of a Champions League spot and neither has worked out. We now find ourselves in a position where Mustafi is quite possibly our best centre back, which, along with COVID, may just be one of the harbingers of the apocalypse.

Other acquisitions like Nicolas Pépé have been used sparingly and it remains to be seen if he has what it takes to make it here. The same can be said for Lucas Torreira. On the subject of these two, it may be that Arteta is looking to (or has been advised to) carefully juggle the squad to get them through these frantic weeks of congested football but I’m not entirely convinced of that theory given the track record of these two. Time will tell.

The really irksome part about this for me is, for all of the club’s faux-savvy attempts to appear conscientious, it’s hard not to see the club as nothing more than another corporate shill when you consider the hypocrisy of its support for Black Lives Matter but distancing from Mesut Özil’s communiqués on causes important to him and millions of others. It’s one thing to be at your wit’s end with the man as a footballer but this is a fundamental human failure and can’t have helped with his seemingly abject attitude towards football these days.

I’m not sure where the buck stops exactly (although I have my suspicions) – whether it be the Kroenke’s or Raul and Co., but one thing I am still quietly confident of is that Arteta has the kind of mettle that we need to steer us back in the right direction. I always find myself in agreement with what he is trying to do and by all accounts, he is held in high regard by people that actually matter. The question is whether he will be given the time and resources that are absolutely necessary to enable him at Arsenal.

Rocky seaside cup tie for the kids’ day out

A cup tie such as this was a nice opportunity to shake our European hangover, and a chance for one individual in particular to have some much -needed R&R.

That man was Aubameyang and while there were some other “high profile” omissions such as Mesut Özil, Bernd Leno and Alexandre Lacazette, the healthy smattering of youth was exactly what I expected to see in such a tie.

Pompey are a team close to my heart because I was born barely 5 minutes away from Fratton Park and have seen a fair few games there over the years. The noise they made last night is the same as you get week in, week out – even in the depths of League Two, where they were still pulling crowds of 16,000+ on the regular (it only holds 21,000). It perhaps caught one or two off guard, and Pompey started with the kind of intensity you’d expect in any tie against lower league opposition, especially those with such a formidable home record this season, having only lost once at home all season until last night.

That’s not to say we were being played off the park – a recurring theme under Arteta is one of lethargy, particularly in the first half. It’s strange because his first few games were exemplified by our noticeable shift in workrate – right from the off – but there’s this creeping feeling of late. We dithered in possession, had little movement in the final third and were second to the ball for large swathes of the first half. This certainly wasn’t helped by some of the industrial challenges flying in that are perhaps more typical of the lower leagues (and generally less stringently punished). There was no change in this attitude towards such challenges last night because Mike Dean was in charge and there was no VAR to stop him, though it’s not like his ego ever allows his decision to be usurped anyway. He even took to making the rules up as he went along by booking Guendouzi for his deliciously pedantic, John Cleese-esque placing of the ball.

Lucas Torreira was on the receiving end of one such challenge and while it wasn’t inherently malicious or late, it was one of those scissoring challenges which can so often leave players in a heap. It did on this occasion as well, and while the subsequent reports allayed any fears of a really serious injury, he’s still likely to face some time out. He seems to be on the fringes of Arteta’s plans and it’s a shame to see because by all accounts, he’s had quite a cocktail of frustrations over the course of the season. He’s also a player who I still feel is not being used to his full potential, but that’s for another day.

I wouldn’t say we necessarily deserved the goal – or even expected it given the source – but it was strangely enjoyable. It’s always interesting when you see defenders get into shooting positions; some have it in their locker and some really do not. I always used to laugh at Kolo Touré because he had more than a few speculative efforts from range but he once hit the bar from about 35+ yards out and I stopped laughing at him after that. On this occasion, Sokratis was ready to coolly volley home a whipped cross from Nelson, who had put in some equally-fizzed deliveries prior. In typical Sokratis fashion, he was all very casual when it came to celebrating the goal but the kind of technical ability to dispatch such a cross is just one of the many differences between Premier League quality footballers and “the rest”.

It makes you wonder what course the game would have gone if not for that rare piece of first half quality, but it unlocked the door for a less pressured second half. Invariably, they began to play with the kind of exuberance you would have expected to see when you first saw the team sheet but there’s always a degree of trepidation in the aftermath of such a setback as last Thursday.

The final numbers perhaps exaggerated the level of our domination – 73% possession, 15 shots with 4 on target to Pompey’s 11 and 4 respectively – but they seemed deflated even at 1-0. The tie was killed off by Eddie’s second and the training ground match it was transformed into went some ways in explaining the statistical disparities. It was the result of more quality wingplay from Reiss Nelson, who – for lack of a better term – absolutely skinned Seddon at fullback and put in another fantastic delivery. Eddie was a touch fortunate but he’s always shown the capacity to be in the right places and he was rewarded. It hasn’t always paid off for him in recent weeks but this is another step in the right direction and gives Arteta something to seriously think about with his selection process in the coming weeks. Form is everything in my book, at least.

Being a former Spud, Jermaine Jenas elected to give David Luiz Man of The Match over Reiss Nelson, which I and many others were suitably bemused at but there we go. Considering he’s just come back from an injury, he looked sharp and hungry to impress, and he has the quality in the final third which we’ve often found ourselves wanting. Another selection dilemma for another day.

Speaking of which, we’re now due to face Man City away next Wednesday, following West Ham at home after our fixture list has been rearranged. With everything to play for in the league, and teams around us facing difficult fixtures, 4 points would be a good take-home but we’ll have to wait and see.

Until then.


Foreword and Foreshadowing

Arteta said after the game that we “paid the price for missed chances”.

For me, that just doesn’t sit right and it feels like a very cheap summation to a very disappointing evening, of which is steeped in damages that extend well beyond this match. One of two unlikely doors into next season’s Champion’s League has been slammed shut and the other hangs on a knife’s edge.

Most crushing of all was the realisation that this felt like the beginning of the end for Aubameyang’s Arsenal chapter. I’m barely going to bother addressing the miss in the dying stages of the game – we shouldn’t have been in a situation where we needed a goal in the 120th minute after taking an away goal advantage, while fielding a full strength team at home. Anyone doing so needs to give their head a serious wobble.

Instead, I feel like we should enjoy him while we can because as it stands, I wouldn’t begrudge him leaving to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing for Real Madrid and he’s certainly a player of their calibre. More to the point, he’s too good for us and we could do with the cash. I don’t mean to be callous because I think Aubameyang has been an absolutely fantastic signing; he immediately silenced those who questioned his “attitude problem”, he proved he can score in the Premier League just as he’s done everywhere else he’s played and he’s even carried us on his back for a good chunk of the season. That’s 20 goals in all competitions for him this season – despite the largely patchy service and insistence on not making him the focal point of our attack. The only saving grace from last night was that stupendously timely bicycle kick, which was another slice of perfection from our main man. He’s bailed us out before but it wasn’t enough on this occasion.

I’d really hate to be wrong but this man doesn’t deserve to be slumming it in the Europa League at the peak of his career, not even making it through the first knockout stage while being expected to track back and put balls into the box. It’s just painful when you see what he can do with the right service. It’s one thing when the likes of Bayern Munich and Barcelona give you an uninvited colonoscopy but it’s not what you expect from Olympiacos.

The Reluctant Match Report

Everything goes out the window when you look at the circumstances of our deserved exit last night. I don’t know why we decided to start the game in neutral, never mind 1st gear but it took an awfully long time to even start taking the game seriously. It might have adopted the same kind of openness we saw in Piraeus but our air of unwillingness or inability was apparent.

It took until the 76th minute to even register a shot on target and for much of the game, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy at how eerily similar it felt to watching us under Emery. Zero penetration through the middle, over-emphasis on developing our play on the wings and absolutely no coherence in the final third. Throw in some brainless defending and the recipe is near-enough the same. We might have had 19 shots and the lion’s share of the possession but it counts for nothing when you barely trouble the opposition keeper and besides Pépé’s shot, he barely had to make a save. While the end product was largely lacking, the Ivorian was one of the few at least trying to take the bull by the horns and make something happen amidst a sea of ineptitude.

I should have known something was afoot when, until his untimely (and probably costly) exit, Mustafi was comfortably our best player on the pitch (like Tyson Fury making his ring entrance on a throne comfy). He really was everywhere we needed him to be, he put his body on the line on more than one occasion and it was another entry in a series of quite solid performances ever since he got David Luiz sent off against Chelsea. Make of that what you will but I at least wanted to praise a man for turning a corner when I’ve slated him as much as I have done. For what it’s worth, he somehow manages to pull off the platinum blonde as well (it’s dark times when I have to resort to talking about a player’s hair – that’s how much I don’t want to relive the intricacies of last night).

The complacency that we saw at the start was just as evident after scoring; a time we were often so vulnerable to under Emery. Aubameyang’s goal led us to believe that penalties were out of the question; our death sentence came in assuming Olympiacos would simply roll over and die.

That decisive away goal came as a result of an unchecked cross, with David Luiz and Sokratis both fast asleep as El-Arabi slipped between them. It’s a difficult game to come into for Sokratis but therein lies the problem with this squad; we have the illusion of depth but when it comes down to it, many of these players are not up to the task. Maybe that’s why Mustafi was so desperate to stay on.. he’s finally become self-aware. Lest we forget, all of this was made possible by the generosity of Bernd Leno, who, rather than blasting the ball to kingdom come, decided to invite those plucky Athenians in for a taste. Obviously, he’s another player on a very short list of those who have gone above and beyond this season but it was such a kick in the teeth to see. It really summed up the kind of lackadaisical approach we’d seen for most of the game.

Rather than bore you with the finer details of what exactly went wrong, I’ve elected to highlight just some of the circumstances which unfolded.

  • Home advantage and away goal advantage, with a full-strength team
  • Luiz’ culpability in both Olympiacos goals (like letting the only 6’6″ man on the pitch ghost into our six-yard box)
  • Set piece frailty
  • Uninspired, lifeless offensive performance relying on Auba’s brilliance to break the deadlock
  • Mustafi’s untimely exit after a Man of the Match performance
  • Leno trying to be Neuer
  • Auba, of all people, failing to hit the target from 6 yards
  • Another away goal European exit

In some ways, the heartbreak from conceding so late may have been the difference between Aubameyang hitting the target and not. We’ll never know but I think it’s a safe assumption to make that seeing such a capitulation would be a distraction. His career aspirations have been well-documented and as the clock ticks on his career, nights like tonight really are make or break. No amount of sweet nothings in his ear from Lacazette at the 105 minute mark will make up for the crushing nature of last night’s defeat.

Speaking of which…


I really thought Mikel got it badly wrong last night. Not in his starting lineup but in his in-game management, because it really is baffling to me that Lacazette was still on the pitch deep into extra time.

Yes, he’s found himself back amongst the goals. Yes, he’s still probably a long way off being confident again. But that’s what substitutes are for. When someone is playing badly, or is off the pace, or is ineffective – you make a change. We have one of the hottest teenage prospects in Europe frothing at the mouth at the prospect of playing, so why not use him in a game that was crying out for change? The other two substitutions also failed to make an impact and while that also points to said illusion of depth, leaving the ineffective Lacazette on for so long was criminal.,


We face Portsmouth at Fratton Park on Monday. It’s one of the liveliest venues in the country and they will absolutely be up for it. Arteta will be well aware of this, but his team selection would do very well to also appreciate that it won’t be a walk in the park.

Beyond that, we face West Ham in the league, which we are now all-or-nothing on. There’s nowhere to hide, there’s a huge ask and I’m just not sure if we have the personnel for it. Olympiacos dealt a hammer-blow, but we were the ones who handed them the sodding hammer.

Smash and Grab


There were few surprises in the starting lineup for me; Olympiacos are a team we’re grown accustomed to over the years as fans, but as one of the evicted teams from the Champions League, they were nothing to take lightly. Their only home loss this season was after a visit from Bayern Munich and we all know what they’re capable of (I was lucky enough to celebrate a birthday at the Emirates the night of our 5-1 drubbing…).

With Mrs. Özil expecting, there was a gap in the heart of our attack that Joe Willock assumed, as he occasionally was asked to do in the turbulent days it Emery. We also saw a return to the surprisingly-not-shit-at-right-back Sokratis, as well as Matteo Guendouzi returning to the squad after his “disagreements”. I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the gutter press would have you believe and it’s hardly a revelation that a 20 year old isn’t yet zen-like in his obedience. He still had a point to prove though, because he’s slipped down the pecking order in recent weeks, if not months. Martinelli also returned to the starting lineup as Pépé made way, and I must say it’s quite nice to have that kind of depth.

The biggest deviation was Bernd Leno. We’ve seen it under Wenger and Emery, this insistence on placating the Number Two with cup appearances and I’ve never really warmed to the idea. I get that it’s a difficult one because goalkeepers are generally injured far less frequently, so opportunities are few and far between but given what is at stake, I don’t think we can afford to be taking risks at this stage. I don’t know how much Arteta will have seen from Martinez and while we put in some good performances in the group stages, he has looked a bit suspect at times and the knockout rounds are a different kettle of fish. He’s certainly improved but I’d still personally take Leno every day of the week. Sometimes, you just have to be patient for an opening; we’ve seen it with the likes of Bellerin, with Szczesny and even Saka and Martinelli this season, as they all jumped at the chance of cementing their place in the first team. Goalkeepers are slightly different in these regards because they’ve only got one position they can play (except perhaps sweeper-keeper Neuer or a set-piece specialist like Chilavert) but I’m sure there’ll be more opportunities for Martinez before the season’s out.

The Match

I didn’t really know what to expect heading into the fixture, aside from their intimidating home record but you always have to take it with a pinch of salt with teams from such leagues because it’s fair to say that UEFA seedings are somewhat skewed. The away leg was the only fixture I was concerned about and it was important to tread carefully.

They definitely started the game on the front foot, as you’d expect and we were perhaps treading a little too carefully, as they probably should have been 1-0 up in the first 5 minutes with a close-range header. It took us some time to grow into the game, and the midfield partnership I’ve been most critical of was once again lacking in it’s basic role as a transition to attack. There’s much to like about Guendouzi but he does need to work on releasing the ball quickly, as we saw from Ceballos at the weekend. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that Olympiacos set the tone of the match almost immediately; they were going to kick the shit out of us. In fairness, we didn’t shy away and the referee (being that he wasn’t provided by PGMOL) was actually on the money when it came to dishing out cards.

Despite Joe Willock’s best efforts – and the ideal canvas to do so with such a vast pitch – his ball-carrying ability was hampered by his flaky end-product and I can’t help but think he’s still being asked to be something he’s not. There were still good aspects to his play, his quick-feet and awareness on and off the ball finding a few openings and drawing some fouls but his rawness is still apparent. The same can be said for Martinelli, who struggled to make an impact on this occasion. It was a bit of a surprise because given the in-your-face approach from the Greek side, I thought he would rise to the challenge as he’s so often done but it wasn’t his night and he was sensibly taken off on the hour mark.

It gradually descended into one of those dogged, stretched games – even in the first half – where nothing in the way of concrete chances emerged and besides a Lacazette shot that went the wrong side of the post, we didn’t look overly threatening. Thankfully, after shaking the early hesitation, we gradually assumed some semblance of control. It was nice to see us unhurried in possession, playing out from the back and at least trying to develop our play going forward.

It was also the first game in quite some time where I thought we actually looked quite solid defensively; Mustafi’s calamity-free streak continued (which goes a long way in the whole “not conceding” malarkey) so we actually got to enjoy what he is good at. He’s often been lauded for his surprisingly good ability in the air despite his more meagre stature (for a centre-back), with one header in particular that he fired from inside his own half finding its way to the opposition goalkeeper. It would appear that David Luiz has slowly proven that he was a shrewd purchase after all, with another experienced and calm performance. One of the pundits also noted how vocal he’d appeared to be, and this is something that is often lost on viewers from afar – we’ve been screaming for a proper marshaller of the back line for some time… and one of those freekicks is bound to fly into the top corner eventually. I think I’d quite like one before the end of the season, preferably against Liverpool.

The introduction of Ceballos and later Pépé brought some welcome cutting edge to our front line, and despite the former failing to find the latter with a golden opportunity, instead opting to shoot himself, they both helped in stretching the game in our favour. I don’t know if it was just an illusion but the pitch really did feel noticeably bigger, as is often the case on the continent. While the game felt “leggy” throughout, the pitch size happened to be a welcome buffer when Mustafi found Aubameyang with a 45+ yard crossfield ball. He did well to keep it in, and few would have had the pace to do so. It just so happened that one of the few others who could have done so was bombing forward on the inside and for the 9th time this season, Saka was the supplier. Few have been so welcome and so valuable and Lacazette finally showed the conviction that had otherwise been absent, finding himself between the defenders – in the right place – and he got his reward.

It was a really brilliant goal, something I didn’t know we were capable of having suffered from lethargy for so much of the season. It reminded me a lot of this incredible Liverpool team; so often you’ll see the likes of Van Dijk or Alexander-Arnold fire an inch perfect ball which is then dispatched within seconds by the likes of Salah or Mané. We were just as clinical and the duck is well and truly broken for Lacazette now.

It definitely wasn’t undeserved and it very much felt like a game that would be decided by a single goal. We’re now in the driving seat ahead of next week and two good wins – WITH TWO (2!) CLEAN SHEETS – will put us in the best possible position to address the resurgent Everton on Sunday. It’s another “6-pointer” because they’re only 2 points ahead of us and are still arguably a team in contention for the now-coveted 5th place. Ancelotti’s a very capable manager and despite the success we’ve enjoyed over Everton over the years, this is another must-win game that will see us tested.

Until then.


Winter Break, Happy Days

The “Big Picture”

The winter break was an unfamiliar entry into the Premier League calendar but no doubt served as a welcome opportunity for some respite and reflection. There are several players in this squad that will have been more grateful to see such a break but the spotlight was well and truly on them now, with nowhere to hide as we approach the “business end” of the season.

Although news broke of the better-late-than-never unearthing of City’s financial criminality, it remains to be seen whether any punishments will come into effect this season, so the prospect of Champions League football via the traditional, domestic means is still unlikely. That being said, teams around us are heading into a difficult period of fixtures and it’s not like Arteta’s going to be telling them that this season is a write-off. It’s still all to play for and this is why it’s so crucial for these players to make a case for themselves and to prove to him that they deserve to be here. Dead wood is a term that’s often bandied around about this squad and the summer will no doubt see another clear out. Who will make the cut will very much depend on Arteta’s assessments as the season plays out.

We still have the prospect of another good Europa League run but whether Arteta has the nous for knockout football remains to be seen. I’d still fancy our chances of going far, but there’s plenty of tricky teams to get past that have dropped down from the Champions League group stages.


Newcastle were without a win since 2011 and without a goal since 2014, with Steve Bruce’s personal managerial record even more woeful; just 2 wins and 6 draws from 29 matches. The signals were there but whether we could shake our obsession with drawing was another matter.

Ever the pragmatist, Arteta wasn’t afraid to put his two weeks of tinkering to the test by giving Eddie Nketiah his first Premier League start ahead of the struggling Lacazette, while Martinelli was dropped from the starting lineup to accommodate Aubameyang. Despite Sead Kolasinac’s return to fitness, Bakayo Saka was given the nod ahead of him. That came as less of a surprise than Dani Ceballos joining Granit Xhaka in the centre of midfield, but Arteta knows a thing or two about number 8s from Spain.

The Match

The first half can mostly be described as.. chaotic. With little to no discernible shape, Newcastle looked just as likely to score as we did. Steve Bruce and Newcastle seemed to have put their horrendous records behind them and it felt like unfamiliar territory, with the pace and directness of their two wingers giving us plenty of cause for concern. It’s fair to say we grew into the half and if not for the last 10 minutes, you would have been hard pressed to give any details on Eddie Nketiah’s involvement in the game. In fairness to him, those behind him were hardly playing their part either on another day, he might have put his one effort on goal either side of the keeper with his first-time effort.

Saka was my only real positive take from the first half, as he gave us more of what we’re coming to expect – gutsy, surging runs, the odd ambitious shot but most importantly, was the intent.

The Arse got a kick up the aforementioned and the second half was almost night and day to much of what we saw in the first; there was that crucial bit of urgency and movement and it only took 9 minutes of this uptick in tempo to unlock the door. Credit where it’s due – Dani Ceballos was the main man in the opening stages of the second half, and as he began to get things rolling, Mesut Özil began to find the time and space that can sometimes elude him when the midfield setup behind him isn’t working. It was the former who picked out a loitering Pépé and after shaking off his first half inconsistencies (by that I mean wasting multiple set pieces by failing to beat the first man), he perfectly floated the ball onto the forehead of the goal-side Aubameyang. He still had plenty to do with the finish, but he applied the kind of finish that any young, aspiring forward should be looking at frame by frame. All in the neck.

The best of the bunch came only a few moments later and there was just so much to like about it. With Alex Iwobi’s departure, I was worried our list of “players who love a nutmeg” was looking bare but Saka is beginning to make it a habit. It’s one thing to nutmeg a player in a Premier League game, but to do it when you’re boxed into a corner by two opposition players, and then put it on a silver platter for Pépé is something else. His post-match sympathies went as far as saying “whoops”. That’s 8 assists in all competitions for Saka this season, more than any other player in the squad, while Pépé has a Premier League-high of 5.

It turned into a bit of a romp, one which perhaps flatters us but then again, it was par for the course for Steve Bruce and Newcastle. If not for the woodwork and some more conviction in their finishing, it could have been a far closer contest. That didn’t happen though and I don’t care because we not only won a game, we put the game to bed, have finally shaken our negative goal differential and no amount of poor officiating could stop us*.

*(That’ll be the world’s fastest offside call on Özil which ended up being wrong and would have seen Aubameyang with a tap in and the most ridiculous booking I’ve seen all season on Saka).

Speaking of which, Özil’s polarising performance was a frustrating one; he demonstrated again today that in the right setting, he has still got it. He was effortless in possession, was the architect in dictating our play in the final third and his movement and vision was unmatched on the day. He was rewarded with a goal and ran his socks off, as he so often does (much to the ire of many who wrongly assert that he’s “lazy”). And yet, he still has the capacity to not make a stamp on games, which is where my frustration lies. On this occasion, the surprise approach to our midfield ultimately paid off with one of Ceballos’ best performances for us and it went some ways in highlighting the significance of having a functional midfield behind Özil if we want to get the best out of him. His contract will take him to 2021, which means we have another 18 months of tinkering but when he plays like that, any and all frustrations go out of the window.

And just when you thought Lacazette was only due a cameo, he rounded off the romp by hoodwinking the keeper – and himself – with one of the luckier finishes you’ll see this season. They all count though and it was important for him to break this spell before it got anymore out of hand. In the end, it was just rewards for his work rate these past few weeks because for all of his ineptitude in front of goal lately, there’s so much more to his play and we need him firing on all cylinders again.

Ultimately, in the context of the final score, you’d say we were very lucky to keep a clean sheet, with Saint-Maximin in particular causing us all kinds of problems. It was also another blunder-less Mustafi performance, so there’s that.

After the game, Arteta had this to say of Bakayo Saka and I couldn’t agree more:

“It’s a big project but he’s performing like a senior player and he has the courage to play every day, to make decisions to risk in the final third and he got rewarded again”.

The league table isn’t pretty but to borrow one of Arsène’s catchphrases, I’m happy taking things “one game at a time”. We’ll be going to the all-too-familiar Olympiakos on Thursday, which is no easy task. Thankfully, this will have raised spirits nicely after their summery winter break.

Bleak afternoon in Burnley


Bleak. Bleak as it gets. Comfortably our most disappointing performance under Arteta, and for the first time, one in which I did find myself questioning our starting lineup. Aubameyang’s return was an obvious boost but as has so often been the case, the difficulty was in finding not just a place for him, but the best place. To me, it doesn’t make sense to shoehorn our star player – we should be shaping the team around him and maximising his potential. Emery tinkered with him, and we’ve seen he’s still able to score from these less than favourable positions – the problem is, it’s always felt like he’s scored in spite of them. I can full appreciate that formations aren’t set in stone and there’s a degree of fluidity but every time I see Aubameyang plugging away out on the wing, it’s just maddening.

Speaking of maddening, Matteo Guendouzi had another poor afternoon and was as wasteful in possession as I can remember. Midfield continues to be the thorn in our side and Arteta doesn’t seem to have the remedy. Nicolas Pépé didn’t even feature in order to accommodate the front three of Lacazette, flanked by Aubameyang and Martinelli and it just didn’t work. His pace in transition was dearly missed.

Contrary to how the rest of the game unfolded, on another day our two centre-forwards would have had a goal each inside the first 15 minutes and we wouldn’t be sat here feeling disappointed. They were not only golden opportunities, but incredibly poorly taken from each of them.

It’s not often that Aubameyang actually finds someone with a cross – and that’s not a slight against him, we just rarely seem to to score from aerial crosses – so to see Lacazette not even hit the target was incredibly disappointing. That’s now 1 goal in 21 away games, the last being against Huddersfield. For an outlay of the best part of £53m to only manage an away goal against a team once again languishing in the Championship is a difficult one to swallow.

How do you drag a player out of mediocrity? We know what Lacazette has in his locker but goals are always where the buck stops for a striker. I’ve been patient with him in this drought because there’s plenty of other qualities he brings but at what point does his presence serve as a detriment to the rest of the team? Aubameyang and Martinelli are both arguably better suited to lead centrally as it stands. I’ve commended his work rate, hold up play and overall utility but there comes a point when you need something from him and it’s not like he’s being completely starved of opportunities. That being said, as the game progressed, we once again saw how much this team struggles to create meaningful chances but that’s another matter.

Aubameyang didn’t exactly cover himself in glory either. Regardless of his absence, which can sometimes excuse rustiness, a player of his quality should be putting that chance away every time. It was a fantastic ball over the top from Luiz and I don’t quite know how he managed to miss-hit it so badly but for not one both two of these chances to not find us a lead was unforgivable. We knew Burnley were a second half team – they’ve scored 20 goals in the second half of games this season compared to 8 in the first – so it was essential to take these first half opportunities.

In the end, it was a miracle we even came away with a clean sheet. I knew it was coming but I still didn’t quite expect the level of onslaught we ended up facing in the second half and without some solid defensive performances and a healthy dose of blind luck, we wouldn’t have been so lucky.

Burnley were spurning chance after chance and it was only by blind luck that we weren’t behind. You felt like something had to change, with the less-than-lethal Lacazette and impotent Özil, and it was the latter who made way around the hour mark for Joe Willock. More to the point, Mesut Özil is another divisive figure who, despite plenty of qualities, simply doesn’t justify his obscene wages and has never lived up to the levels we knew and expected of him when he was offered said obscene contract we’re now shackled to. He sometimes shows up at home but his away form is simply untenable. You could argue it’s hypocritical of me to once again be lambasting Özil but given how tight-lipped Emery was on the matter, we could never fully rationalise his decision to so often leave the German out. He’s really got nowhere to hide at this point and no amount of praising Arteta in the press will change that.

Willock at least brought an immediate injection of pace going forward and the early signs were promising – it was a stark contrast to the lethargic transitions we’d grown accustomed to yesterday afternoon. I thought Willock had an excellent game the other day and stretching Burnley went some ways in relieving the bombardment at the other end. I now find myself in the position where I’d rather see us trialing other players in that position as this season meanders towards “write-off” territory.

Much like Burnley, it’s not that we were without chances – it’s just neither side took them. Burnley spurned the lion’s share of the chances and on another day, Jay Rodriquez’ effort flies in off the underside of the bar. Meanwhile, Arsenal spurned yet another opportunity to close ground on our rivals (I use that term very loosely these days – it seems alien to consider the likes of a Wolves and Sheffield United in those terms but that is our level).

We also now wait on yet another left back complication, and it’s a real shame that Saka’s fallen victim this time. Burnley really are Stoke 2.0 and Dyche even had the audacity to say this afterwards:

“It is lovely to watch when people are falling over, [it’s] my favourite part”

It’s especially aggravating because it goes some ways in propagating the incessant abuse we’re subjected to by opposition fans. Yes, Guendouzi is a massive wind-up merchant. But booing an 18 year old and then having a manager come out with responses like that is something else. This sums it up nicely:

Anyway, there’s no use stooping to their level and despite his injury, Saka still had another exciting part to play. With any luck, it’s just a knock because without him, our list of players who can “make things happen” is just grim.

That’s now 13 draws and counting. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to win a Premier League game. If it’s any consolation, I’m still excited to see us play but looking at the league table is still a depressing sight. We host Newcastle next (who are level wit us on points) so we’re surely in for a treat there, who doesn’t love a six-pointer?! In all honesty though, the Europa League once again looks to be our only salvation and it can’t come soon enough.

Until Saturday.

Almost Routine

With an average age of 22 across midfield and our forwards, it was considerable trust in Project Youth against an experienced Bournemouth side, despite the 6 changes Eddie Howe made after their weekend win.

Despite this healthy smattering of youth, Bournemouth seemed quite content with us having the lion’s share of the ball in the early stages. We said thank you very much, and our two brightest prospects combined to create an opening, for which Saka took full advantage by absolutely leathering it. It was one of those finishes where you’re not entirely sure if he intended to let the ball run that far across his body, but gives you the chance to really open your body up and let loose. Fair to say he did just that.

A resourceful fan dug this up, and I don’t think “Podolski-esque” is far off – he really generates a lot of power with minimal back lift and he gives us another avenue for end product which we’ve been dearly lacking.

That’s now 7 assists and 3 goals in all competitions this season. Not bad for an 18 year old in his first season at left back (not that he spends much time in his own half when he is played there). I’ve also spoken at length (link) about the need for partnerships to really prosper, and although it’s early days, the synergy and awareness we saw for the first goal was a glimpse. Saka had this to say afterwards:

“We train a lot together, we speak a lot … every time we’re speaking about how we’re going to beat the defenders and how we’re going to get in behind and score goals”

I wouldn’t necessarily expect that kind of gumption from two 18 year old’s but maybe that’s what continues to set them apart. It’s completely believable as well, because Martinelli didn’t even seem to look up before making the pass.

Joe Willock also deserves huge credit, and was one of our star performers for me. With two pre-assists to his name, it was his clever body shield/feint that opened up play for the first goal and he also found Saka bombing down the wing for our second. After finding himself maligned in the darker days of Emery’s tenure, in which it often felt like he was expected to somehow drag us into the light along with some of the other youngsters, I was worried about how long he would take to recover. What we saw last night was much more in keeping with what Willock can actually do, and he’s also one of the few players in this squad who can carry the ball in the same manner we became used to with Aaron Ramsey. I was disappointed to see him forced out wide after Ceballos’ introduction (who was tidy enough but it remains to be seen whether he’ll survive the window), but we needed change.

I was also especially pleased to see Eddie Nketiah starting; it’s one thing for Arteta to say he was impressed by Eddie’s attitude and to keep him on the books, but it’s another matter to throw him straight back into the mix. I thought before the game that it was important for him to make a case for himself, whatever role he found himself in. His curtailed loan spell was ultimately disappointing despite grabbing a few goals early on in the Championship, and he’s now returning to a team where he finds himself further down the pecking order than when he left.

The goal will go some ways in doing so, and he continues to demonstrate that ability for being in the right place at the right time, but he’s often struggled to replicate this formula for the first team despite the dividends it’s paid him at youth level. Mike Dean was frothing at the mouth at the prospect of ruling out an Arsenal goal in the VAR netherworld, but even after his desperate attempts at replicating the “ENHANCE” scenes from CSI, he couldn’t scrape together enough evidence to rule it out. It really was pathetic and one of the most ridiculous VAR deliberations I’ve ever seen because not only was he not offside, he wasn’t interfering with play. We had the reverse spiked cocktail of referees as we were served against Chelsea, so if Abraham wasn’t offside for Chelsea’s second, I don’t see why they took 3 minutes to decide on something that was obvious in 3 seconds but there we go.

As for the rest, there were plenty of other very solid performances across the pitch. Prior to his unfortunate injury, Mustafi was almost looking like a player you might actually consider paying £35m for (in this market), and he now will likely force our hand in acquiring someone to cover for him before the month is out.

Matteo Guendouzi, often finding himself on the bench in Arteta’s first full month in charge, put in the kind of performance that put him on everyone’s radar in the first place. He was assured on the ball, fulfilled his defensive duties and also continued to demonstrate his innate ability to absolutely boil the opposition fans’ piss with ease. I do symphathise with them at times, because some of the antics we’ve seen Guendouzi pull (and get away with) must be utterly infuriating to be on the receiving end of, but he’s ours and that means we have to (mostly) back him. The diving, play-acting and goading of opposition fans doesn’t really sit well with me but everything else he gets up to is fair game. We suffered against the dirty tricks the Boltons, Stokes and Burnleys used to pull for far too long, and every top team has a player who’s “a bit difficult”. I think Matteo fits the bill here, and I hope he boils Sean Dyche’s piss on Sunday because that gravel-gargling toddler always has something to complain about when we face Burnley.

Granit Xhaka also put in another reassuring performance, and he seems like an entirely different player under Arteta. He may have lost the armband, but I still value his ability to lead by example and for the time being, we still don’t have a player who can dictate a game like he does. I don’t know how Arteta’s managed it but both deserve credit.

I didn’t care much for the late scare Bournemouth gave us, nor the lengthy injury time but we weathered the storm and in reality, we were in control for most of the game.

Looking ahead to Burnley, I imagine we’ll revert to our normal Aubameyang-less lineup, with Lacazette flanked by Martinelli and Pépé, though Arteta will have selection dilemmas in midfield regarding the central pairing. Burnley’s combative approach is likely to be a better fit for Torreira than Guendouzi, but neither would be inappropriate so we’ll have to wait and see. Teams around us are heading into a difficult run of fixtures, as seen below, so the Burnley game gives us a real opportunity to seize any openings that might present themselves. We’re still outsiders for a top four finish, but I feel like this team is slowly gaining momentum and stranger things have happened.

Matchday 25

  • Burnley vs Arsenal
  • Sp*rs vs City
  • United vs Wolves
  • Leicester vs Chelsea
  • Palace vs Sheffield
  • Southampton vs Liverpool

Matchday 26:

  • Arsenal vs Newcastle
  • Wolves vs Leicester
  • Chelsea vs United
  • Villa vs Sp*rs

Matchday 27

  • Arsenal vs Everton
  • Leicester vs City
  • Chelsea vs Sp*rs
  • United vs Watford

Credit to /u/Kolosalsnatch for the observation

Until then.

The Best Kind of Draw

Where to even start?

Usually when I write, besides some preliminary research about the fixture and the odd snippet that springs to mind over the course of the game, I’ll write the day after because it brings some balance and/or sanity to my reflections. I have absolutely no interest in doing that today.

This is one of those few times where you can just revel in the moment – it might be another draw but it is the absolute best kind of draw. First half red card, compounded by a converted penalty. Brazilian wonder-kid pegs them back in exactly the kind of manner we’ve come to expect from him. Game on.

Azpilicueta and that shit-eating grin. You fear the worst. Flashbacks to 28th December, more late heartbreak. ENTER CAPTAIN. Absent for much of the season, controversially replacing Ainsley who has been fantastic under Arteta, and he steps up when it matters most. Wipe that off your face César, and the rest of those muppets in the stands relentlessly booing Arsenal despite the fact Chelsea had two opportunities to play the ball into touch so Abraham could be treated. It was fairy-tale stuff and went some ways in healing the wounds from the first fixture.

This is what sprang to mind as soon as it went in. It might have been a different corner, but Chelsea seem to have form for letting our right backs waltz into a shooting position and have a go with their left foot. Nigel Winterburn also famously banged one in from distance but for the sake of consistency, today is about paying homage to our fan-favourite right backs.

It was so much more than these individual moments though – as a collective, they fought tooth and nail for that point and that is what the Premier League demands. Every player on that pitch put in a performance tonight – even Mustafi (and we will get to him, rest assured…), and I’d even go as far as saying that we looked better after going down to 10 men.

If I had to pick some standout performers, I’d be hard-pressed to even narrow it down. Martinelli for just doing all of the right things yet again, Saka for playing beyond his years, Hector for the ceremonious return, Xhaka for playing fantastically as a makeshift centre-back, Leno for keeping us in the game as he’s so often done.

The Match

As a starting player in our last victory at Stamford Bridge – back in 2011 – Arteta had some idea of what we’d be needing on the night. Any idea of what that might have entailed was quickly defenestrated, though – to the point where it’s almost pointless to discuss our performance prior to the sending off (we actually improved Post-Luiz).

And of course it would be Luiz – against Chelsea – to be on the receiving end. Obviously, the blame doesn’t lay at his feet though. The blame lies solely at the feet of a man who just bleeds calamity. You could argue that Luiz makes a bit of a meal of the challenge and should perhaps just let Chelsea score, but in the heat of the moment, you do your best and all eyes were on him after his surprise move north of the river.

And look – we’ve seen what can happen with scapegoated players having turnarounds, as has clearly been the case with Granit Xhaka under Arteta and while I don’t want to exclusively point the finger at Mustafi, I don’t feel that he’s as malleable (or salvageable). His propensity to make catastrophic errors has been proven time and again and no amount of emotional outpouring on social media seems to be able to rectify that. There just comes a point where you have to say “enough’s enough”, and Mustafi has long overstayed his welcome. It’s a shame because there’s so many technical qualities in his game; very good in the air, capable on the ball, he’s fairly quick and robust. It’s also a shame because other than the incident (and one or two misplaced passes after), he actually had a very good game – even bagged an assist! You just can’t say that outright though because of what happened. The one quality you absolutely, do not want in a defender, is calamity and nothing seems to change with him.

Under Emery, we very much felt like the architects of our own downfall. Arteta’s early reign seems quite the opposite so far; I really do feel like we’ve had some awful luck in these first run of games under him. Losing Chambers so early with a horrible injury, a few opposition red cards short – those lunging tackles on Pépé – a few penalties we might have had, penalties against us that weren’t.

The response after the red card really felt like a turning point. Besides a few nervy minutes as we tested the waters, we tightened up across the pitch and finally woke up. Much like the post-Jorginho portion of the match at the Emirates, Chelsea were keen to press and as much as they enjoyed possession, we stayed in the tie. You wondered who the sacrificial lamb might be, and Martinelli looked poised to make way but such was the response from the collective, Arteta resisted the urge to tinker.

You could say the manner in which we scored the first goal was fortuitous – the one day in his life that N’Golo Kanté makes a mistake. Take absolutely nothing away from Martinelli though, because what he’s done and what he continues to do is bordering on incredible. Having anticipated what was unfolding faster than Emerson, setting off from inside his own box, he only seemed to have one thing on his mind. Such is football, you rarely get opportunities to see such a lengthy sprint from a player, especially when they’re carrying the ball the entire length of the pitch (which is no easy feat when you have players bearing down on you). He was just completely unfazed though, to the point where I’m struggling to understand how we’ve landed this kid. Pépé was even to his right and while I’m sure he knew he was there, he only had eyes for goal. Given the occasion, the venue, the run and the finish, it’s one of our best goals of the season for me and if not for Bellerín’s timely entry, was the loudest I’ve celebrated a goal in quite some time.

And while we’re on the matter, what a moment for Hector. 367 days since that injury – against Chelsea – and he goes and does that. You know it’s a good finish when it nestles into the inside of the side netting, and to do that on your weak foot is no small feat. Chelsea’s reluctance to close him down also reminded me of one Ray Parlour, back in the 2002 FA Cup Final, with Tim Lovejoy proclaiming “it’s only Ray Parlour”, as he proceeded to curl one in from 25 yards. With any luck, Tim was also watching last night.

Arteta was glowing after the game, and rightly so. He spoke about belief and leadership and contrary to the narrative we so often have to endure, there was an abundance of fight. While I have my doubts about certain individuals within this squad, as a collective under Arteta’s stewardship, I’m optimistic. While our chances remain slim of achieving anything noteworthy this season, we are starting to show some signs of being able to compete again and I think that’s all the reassurance people needed. No one expected us to get over Wenger overnight, but we needed to see signs of progress and for the first 18 months after, we just didn’t see that. If at first, you don’t succeed…

Oh, and if they haven’t done so already, Raul and Co. need to throw money at Martinelli. Whatever the kid wants, give it to him. I don’t know how much money we’ve wasted on letting the likes of Sanchez, Ramsey and Sczcesny leaving on free transfers/pittances but even if we don’t see Martinelli’s best years, we need to make sure we’re compensated for his true value. It’s still very early days but I think we may have something special.

Until next time.