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.


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.


Preview

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

Lowdown

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.


Another case of almost

Preview

Trepidation as to where our goals would come from with Aubameyang’s absence, heightened by Mustafi’s unexpected inclusion and unpredictability, topped off with Mike Dean and his proclivity to be a bastard, give penalties against us and generally act like an egomaniac. You could say I had my doubts. Sheffield United have been this season’s revelation (closed followed by Leicester) and a win always felt like a tall ask. 3 losses in our last 4 home games also didn’t help matters.

Seeing Saka and Martinelli in the starting lineup went some ways in allaying these feelings, just because they’re two players I always enjoy watching. On paper, it felt like the right approach, despite Arteta’s limited hand with Sokratis sidelined through illness and Nelson picking up a suspected hamstring injury in training.


The Match

It was a frenetic start, one which didn’t necessarily suit us, and Sheffield were surprisingly open. The times I’ve watched them this season, they’ve always struck me as disciplined and compact, so it was a welcome change but not without it’s dangers. Sheffield have some real quality in their deliveries, and Mustafi’s early nerves led to some wayward passing which only exacerbated my worries. In fairness to him, he did eventually settle and put in a respectable shift alongside David Luiz, who continues to look like an entirely different player to Emery’s interpretation of him. I wouldn’t say we set the tempo, but it at least felt like a home game in our approach.

I wondered if Pépé would struggle against Sheffield for the same reasons. He sometimes has the tendency to “overrun” with the ball, trying to beat one too many players or not releasing early enough. Instead, some of our best play in the first half came from him, skipping through players with ease and giving them real problems. There’s a real dearth of goals in this team – particularly from midfield – but with a few more deadly additions to this team, I think we’ll see the best from the Ivorian. He’s been steadily improving as the season’s progressed and the end product is slowly materialising.

While our midfield shape and balance is considerably better under Arteta, I still have my doubts with how the trio of Özil, Torreira and Xhaka quite slot together going forward. Markedly better defensively, there’s still a real lack of incision going forward. Özil isn’t the force he once was and for all the renewed fight shown since Arteta’s arrival, his end product on paper still leaves much to be desired, with just 3 assists since the start of last season. We need alternative goalscorers and those numbers just don’t add up, regardless of the work-rate and more subtle offensive contributions Özil makes.


While we enjoyed a degree of freedom in our passing and movement, particularly down both wings and “through the channels”, it felt like that was rather the length of our leash afforded to us by Wilder (and given the circumstances of our goal, I feel like that’s a fair assessment). Take nothing away from Martinelli or Saka though; the cross might have looped fortuitously but it was just rewards for the pair, who were dangerous and tenacious all afternoon. I’d thought the first half was petering out, but we saved our best period of pressure for the dying moments. There’s no luck involved in that positioning though – that was a striker’s instinct goal – and it’s why Martinelli is our second-highest scorer this season. I’ve never liked terms like “tap-in merchant” (not that Martinelli is by any measure, he just happens to have scored quite a few goals this season from close range), because it really isn’t a common trait. Some players seem to be born with it, some players have the ability to learn it but most fall short and it’s often the difference between the good and the greats. It’s obviously still incredibly premature to be making prophetic claims about Martinelli’s trajectory, but for me, he’s our brightest prospect and his performance yesterday was just another convincing entry in his repertoire – and that’s saying something given how many exciting academy players are making that leap into the senior team.

Saka also had another impressive afternoon, enjoying plenty of snaking jaunts into Sheffield’s half, while still looking far from out of place defensively. I know he had experience in that position at youth level but it’s another thing entirely to seamlessly assume the role at senior level, especially when he’s been deployed in a range of positions this season. It might be a bit of a stretch, but I’m beginning to question whether we actually need to bring in any more fullbacks. I’d be hard pressed to choose between Bellerín and Ainsley from what I’ve seen this season, and we now seem to have a choice of three left backs. It’s an interesting question of development and coaching when you see two players perform so well in Ainsley and Saka; both athletic, both products of the Hale End academy and both are really seizing the opportunities they’ve been given, rising to the challenge of playing outside of their “favoured” positions. I’d even argue they’re outperforming their naturalised counterparts in some aspects but that’s not an entirely fair comparison given the injuries that have plagued Tierney and Bellerín.

One notable divergence that stood out to me was Ainsley’s distribution. I don’t know if it was circumstantial given how stretched the game was, or if it was by direction but he tried quite a few “ambitious” passes. Rather than going through the motions of playing out from the back, there seemed to be an urgency to release the ball quickly. One advantage of having a retrofitted midfielder at right back, I suppose. Mustafi and Luiz also had their moments, with the former actually having the best of the bunch with a 45+ yard diagonal long ball, which I wasn’t actually aware he was capable of. He’s obviously a confidence player (that’s the only way I can rationalise some of the things I’ve seen him do) but after settling into the game, he rose to the challenge.


I don’t usually like to dwell on “what could have been” with decisions going against us. We know officiating leaves much to be desired but the cocktail of officiating we were served up today – served in a polonium-210 chalice – was a real source of ire for me.

For me, it’s a blatant penalty, the kind you often see given on an almost weekly basis. Atkinson took all of 10 seconds to decide in the eye in the sky, Mike Dean apparently didn’t get the memo for referees to start consulting the pitch side monitors and we were denied. It’s nigh-on identical to the penalties we conceded against Vardy and Zaha this season. Zaha’s was even over-turned by VAR, which was for me, a softer penalty. Whether Pepe would have been dispossessed is completely irrelevant, contrary to some of the inane punditry chatter I had to endure.

I thought about shoehorning quite a lengthy exposé into this piece but I don’t want to bore you to death after a disappointing result, so that will be the subject of an upcoming standalone piece instead. For now, you can mull over the following:

Food for thought…

I appreciate that Premier League officiating is no easy task. What I can’t abide with is the staggering levels of inconsistency and prevaricating we see so often. If I hear that officials are being told to use pitch-side monitors, I expect to see that across the board. Some referees got the message, some didn’t. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise though, as Mike Riley sits atop of PGMOL, the organisation behind match officials in England.

For those unaware of what that means, Mike Riley is the same man who deemed this (apologies for the link, the bastards don’t allow embeds) wasn’t a foul, never mind a straight red card, the same match where the Neville Brothers and the rest of those knuckle-draggers kicked the ever-loving shit out of Reyes to their heart’s content. Oh, and gave a penalty for that Rooney dive. PGMOL’s in safe hands, eh?


As solid-ish as our defending had been, a 1-0 lead never felt like “enough” and it came back to bite us. In fairness, it was a fantastic finish – Leno left with no chance – but it was a “second ball” that wasn’t closed down quickly enough. I’ve said that time and again this season and it only takes one lapse in concentration to undo an otherwise fairly comfortable afternoon of defensive work. In the end, we were perhaps even lucky to get away with a draw, if not for some heroic defending and timely blocks.

Speaking after the game, Arteta largely rued our inability to find the second goal, even going as far as saying that “someone putting the ball into the top bin is a difficult [thing to learn from] – it’s part of football”. He was happy with the overall performance, which I think the majority will understand. In his short time at the club, we are still seeing improvements from game to game, and while we’re struggling to maintain leads and close games out, as opposed to struggling to chase games we should be winning, there are still plenty of positives to take from yesterday’s performance.

There’s not much in the way of rest, as we travel across the river to Chelsea on Tuesday evening. It’ll be another tall ask to come away with a win, but there will be many looking to make amends after we narrowly missed out against them on 28th December.

Here’s to hoping we do. Until then.


Sources:

BBC Sport

Transfermarkt.com

Down on luck, all square

Preview

The Palace game was an opportunity to see Arteta’s Arsenal in a more “settled” state. You can chalk up each of our previous games under him in a different light:

First game; no one’s expecting miracles overnight. Second game; an immediate challenge – as underdogs – where we fell at the final hurdle. Third game; walk in the park. Fourth game; a classic, dicey F.A. Cup game with the pressure of expectation on our shoulders.

This was the first time where we had an opportunity to see a “normal” Premier League game. As we all know though, nothing is truly normal in a league where newly-promoted Sheffield United sit comfortably (and deservedly) in 6th, Leicester City have recently won a Premier League title and Mourinho has somehow weaseled his way into the Spurs job.

It was the first time we started with an unchanged team in successive games since this time last year, and with two wins under our belt, there was an opportunity to carve out a route to get back into contention of something worth fighting for. With only one point adrift of Palace, it was all to play for.


The Match

I don’t think anyone was under the illusion that we were actually on par with Palace, despite the point deficit. The first half performance demonstrated that there is still a gulf in quality between the two teams and no amount of Arsenal falling on hard times will change that.

Palace struggled with our intensity for much of the first half; already an early hallmark of Arteta’s Arsenal, and one I’ll be glad to see more of given the early lead we took.

That early goal was a reward for our early domination, but it also felt like an Arsenal goal again. Crisp, one-touch passing to round off a period of domineering possession. Luiz, like a phoenix from the ashes under Arteta, served as the ignition. As Palace were insistent on sitting deep, Luiz waltzed on in to Palace’s half, and it took 3 of our front 4 to unlock the door. Ozil to Laca to Auba, 1-0.

For whatever reason, we eased off after the goal and Palace (both the home support and the players) seemed to become increasingly riled over various “grievances” across the pitch. That’s not to say the goal was especially a circumstance of our easing off – they really didn’t threaten Leno but pressure brings goals. On this occasion, they were polar opposites in quality but they all count.

Speaking of which, Lady Luck really wasn’t with us today. That being said, you can never bet on luck and Arteta is unlikely to bemoan the circumstances of the equaliser or the dismissal. On another day, Luiz successfully blocks that shot and it doesn’t hopelessly loop over Leno’s head. Auba is a fraction closer to the ball, a few inches lower on the player. The misfortune even continued as the clock ran down, with Pépé’s agonisingly close attempt brilliantly tipped onto the post, only to ever-so-kindly rebound back into the keeper’s arms rather than the ensuing Lacazette. Luiz’s wayward 45-yard free kick into row M might have even nestled itself into the top corner instead (okay, that might be reaching).

The turning point, and the decisive factor in the game petering out was the dismissal. Despite our efforts after going down to 10 men, Arteta said it felt like we “lost two points”, which I think is a fair assessment given the chances we created even after this point. For all our officiating woes this season, this is one occasion where VAR has done its job in my book. It was a typical “strikers challenge”; no real malice but it was late, it was high, and ultimately Meyer came off injured. If it was an Arsenal player, we’d all be feeling aggrieved if Palace got away scot-free and we’ll be without Aubameyang for the next 3 games now.

There’s a silver lining in and amongst that news because after Eddie Nketiah’s recall from his loan spell at Leeds United, a door has opened for an early return back into the first team squad. While it still appears to be up in the air, Arteta recently spoke admirably of him, saying

I think it was a great challenge for him to work in that environment in Leeds. I think he’s become a much better player, a much more competitive player.

With Martinelli also likely to link up with Brazil’s U23’s Olympic Qualification squad, our options up top are going to be limited in the coming weeks and sometimes, a bit of luck like that’s needed to work your way into the first team. We’ve seen it with Ainsley this season; as Hector has struggled for fitness since his horrific injury, Ainsley’s quietly gone about his business to the point where he’s now managed to keep the likes of Rashford and Zaha very, very quiet in a position he doesn’t even claim to like (he was one of our best players on the pitch again yesterday, in my book). While Eddie’s chances were limited at Leeds, he still managed to grab some goals and just playing in the Championship will have done him the world of good in getting to grips with the kind of physicality needed if he wants to lead from the front. The question is whether his problems with finishing that plagued him previously will persist. He’s never had an issue at youth level, but apart from the odd Cup goal, he’s yet to really make a mark. With any luck, the watchful stewardship of Ian Wright will go some ways in changing that.


It’s still not getting any easier for Arteta, as we host Sheffield United on Saturday. They’re going to be organised, they’re going to be dangerous and we’re without our goalscorer and captain. This would be a really ideal time for Lacazette to end his rut, but in fairness, there’s still been a lot to like about his play lately despite the lack of end product. With Pépé becoming more and more involved, we’re still hardly lacking in offensive potency and we might even see some incoming traffic to bolster Arteta’s options. I still think he’s going to have his work cut out for us to come away with a win, but it’s still going to be an interesting affair and another big test.

Until then.


Small edit: forgot to mention the many, many red cardable challenges we’ve been on the receiving end of this season that have gone unnoticed. I don’t have any issues with Auba’s red but I have a really big issue with inconsistency, especially given how dangerous some of those challenges have been.

Two Halves, One-Nil

Even if Leeds weren’t the league leaders, the Championship is an incredibly competitive, physical league and nothing to turn your nose up at. The fact that they are the leading team meant they demanded respect in our team selection and performance. It transpired that Arteta knew as much but there was a 45 minute delay in that message getting through to the players…

Regardless of Aubameyang’s absence through “illness” (and hopefully not indicative of any, more nefarious dealings), our starting lineup showed the kind of intent you’d expect but what unfolded was far from pretty, at least from an Arsenal perspective.

The Match

Sokratis at right back isn’t something I’ll be jumping to see again (as much as I enjoyed the constant shithousery, which was a far cry from the cool, calm and collected player we’re used to) but with Ainsley’s absence from the squad, we didn’t have too many options here. Based on some of the challenges we saw, it was a good job he was left out because the idea of Sokratis facing Zaha in 5 days time really doesn’t bear thinking about. No chance to bear-hug or tap-tackle someone when they’ve already left you in the dust.

Holding came back into the middle with his first appearance since 9th November. His rustiness was to be expected and it showed, up against the likes of Bamford – a tricky character, and the epitome of Leeds’ bullish style leading from the front – Holding struggled in the early stages with some misplaced passes and jittery play. Luckily, most of the team was playing like they’d been injured since 9th November so he didn’t exactly look out of place.

I really didn’t care much for the first 20 minutes. There’s something that feels inherently wrong about being dominated for possession, on your own turf, to lower league opposition but that is the situation we found ourselves in. They were even out-Arsenaling us, seeing a shot crash off the crossbar after some neat one-touch passing. Seeing Martinez peppered with shots was an eerie reminder of Emery’s Arsenal, facing 7 shots (to our single shot) inside this period. Having so much experience on the pitch left these players with nowhere to hide, with Luiz, Xhaka, Holding, Martinez and Guendouzi all misplacing passes, needlessly inviting danger in the opening stages. If not for Martinez and some solid goalkeeping, we may well have gone behind.

There’s always an air of smaller teams “having a go” in cup games – having been in the situation myself , albeit at a significantly more irrelevant level – you do get an extra 10% in every sense. The saving grace was the hope that Leeds wouldn’t be able to maintain this kind of intensity for 90 minutes.

As half time approached, Özil had managed just 9 touches – the fewest of any player. Somewhat understandable given the abysmal standards of our passing and his lack of service but quite the contrast after his performance against United. In fairness, the distance he covered and the intensity of that performance leaves me with some sympathy and he redeemed himself in the second half, integral to us eventually finding our feet in the tie.

The goal was a bit scrappy and Leeds will have surely felt aggrieved to be behind after creating so much, but that is invariably the difference between teams in different divisions. Arteta had clearly given them a kick up the proverbial* but it wasn’t exactly vintage – more of a half-Nelson, if you will. All it took was an injection of quality and pace from Pépé, a ball into the right neck of the woods from Lacazette and someone on the end of it.


In the end, it was enough to see the game out, with a far more resolute performance – at both ends – in the second half. It was the kind of response we needed and we’re through to the 4th round. One advantage of playing such a strong team is it’s another game under Arteta’s belt that’s representative of what he has to work with on a day-to-day basis. Blooding the kids in the League Cup and early stages of the Europa League is a valuable experience, but in Arteta’s case, he’s still getting to grips with our formation, lineup and playing style and making wholesale changes can disrupt that learning process. More to the point, I don’t think a youthful lineup would’ve coped with Leeds tonight.

Still, it’s another win and another clean sheet. We now have 5 days of rest and preparation ahead of our 6-pointer at Crystal Palace. I wish I was joking but they’re actually a point ahead of us, so it should be an interesting match.

Leeds will be rueing their chances all the way down the M1 (and M621) but they’re likely to have a chance at redemption next season, with a sizeable buffer between themselves (and West Brom) and those vying for a chance at the playoffs. I don’t usually care to talk about the opposition, but some of the football Leeds played tonight was worthy of being in a red shirt with white sleeves and would suggest they’ll make a great addition to the Premier League next year. Once a mainstay of the division, their fall from grace was prolonged but they look like a team ready to compete in the Premier League again and Bielsa’s extensive experience and expertise will stand them in good stead.


*This was later confirmed by Lacazette after picking up the Man of the Match trophy, who simply said “he shout a lot”. The contrast to Arteta’s face when he was informed of his players’ perception of the half time talk really was something.


Unfazed

That is a man who is – safe to say – thoroughly uninterested in placating every player (or journalist) with frivolities and will step on toes if needed. This is exactly the sort of behaviour we’d heard he was capable of, even as a player, and the kind of response he garnered from the team in the second half would suggest he’s exactly the kind of man we need going forward. A coach demands respect and for whatever reason, the dressing room was the first thing Emery began to lose.

Given some of the reports to emerge regarding individuals in the squad mocking Emery (for his accent and inability to communicate clearly, much like the circumstances that led to his undoing at PSG) you’d perhaps wonder if a man of such inexperience as Arteta would struggle to command the respect needed but that look on his face has put any doubts to bed, for me. If he’s doing that to a reporter who’s just doing their job, I’d love to be a fly on the wall when Arteta started addressing the wayward passing and domination we were subjected to in the first half! We’ve been missing some of this no-nonsense stuff for a while and coupled with his insistence on doing training ground exercises by the book, these are all positive indicators going forward.

Palace will be a different kettle of fish but we at least have time for a breather after a tumultuous December. Rumours of wholesale change in the transfer market have been doing the rounds, but I suspect it will be predominantly outgoings. Your guess is as good as mine, given how secretive Raul and Co. were in the summer, so until something actually happens, I’ll be keeping quiet, twiddling my thumbs and hoping for a quality centre-back and central midfielder.

Until then.


A Belated “New Manager Bounce”

What we saw last night felt like another step closer to Arteta’s “end product”, despite being only three games deep into his tenure. The kind of response he’s received from these players, even at this early stage, really is palpable. There was intensity, desire, organisation and effort, and we’ve seen each of these in every game we’ve played under him. It may not have quite come together against Chelsea but taking one win from these two fixtures is still quite an achievement, particularly given the manner we approached each of them. It’s also one thing losing to Chelsea in such a manner, but the prospect of consecutive home defeats wasn’t an idea I wanted to linger on and it was important to get an early win to allay any premature judgement about his appointment.

In spite of our continued insistence on breaking the worst kind of records – we were on our worst home run in 60 years – we were at least unbeaten in matches at the Emirates on New Years Day heading into the fixture. That didn’t exactly fill me with belief, which also wasn’t helped by the purple patches the likes of Rashford and Martial have been enjoying lately but in reality, Leno was rarely forced into any meaningful saves.

It may be early days, and I really don’t want to let my imagination run wild – we said similar things in the early days of Emery, but last night was really enjoyable and full of interesting individual and collective positives to sink your teeth into.


Standout Individuals

Arteta’s messianic-like ability to resurrect players is the first thing I’d like to address because the turnaround he’s achieved in such a short time-frame is nothing short of impressive.

I, as well as many others, had all but written off Sokratis. He’s a player who I thought was beyond salvaging; even though he looked like a shrewd, stop-gap signing last season with plenty of good performances under his belt. What we’ve largely seen from him this season genuinely made me question if he was a professional footballer and not some bedraggled yokel unwillingly dragged out of the pub to help out. David Luiz has also been a source of ridicule this season, a player seemingly well past his best whose qualities had been reduced to the once-a-season worldie free kick and the occasional 50 yard pass. His performance against Chelsea, and his Man of The Match-winning performance last night would say otherwise, with United’s attack being almost entirely stifled. Besides a few audacious efforts from range, I’m hard pressed in remembering if Leno even had to make a meaningful save, such was the defensive strength. The news of Calum Chambers’ ACL injury (and 9 month prognosis on the sidelines) had me grimacing at the prospect of a return to the wrong-side-of-30 defensive pairing we saw last night but it turns out shape, positioning and actually having a functional midfield in front of you might just be a recipe for a good defence. It also turns out defending properly makes it easier to win football matches.

Xhaka is another player who deserves a great deal of credit after his performance last night. It was far more reminiscent of International Xhaka than Emery’s Xhaka and it’s now clear to see that a double-pivot with Torreira gives us the most balance. The latter impressed for a 3rd game in a row, and I hope to Christ that’s another step in ensuring he stays at the club after some worrying rumours circulating about a possible return to Italy. Emery was disinclined to use him, for some unfathomable reason, but thankfully Arteta can see what’s in front of him. This emerging partnership is something that has been so dearly missing this season, with a lack of consistency in our starting lineup an impasse for any kind of consistency.

Özil is another who seems to have taken to Arteta’s Arsenal like a moth to a flame. He was influential against Chelsea but his influence waned after Jorginho’s introduction. Last night saw him roll back the years with a domineering performance that was closer to what many expected to see on a regular basis after his last bumper contract renewal. He covered more ground than any other Arsenal player, and was the most he’s clocked in more than 2 years. Not one for running just for the sake of it, he also managed 10 ball recoveries, which was the most of any player on the pitch. While I think we were good for a few more goals last night (and I’d have dearly loved to put United to the sword – overdue since the 8-2 and yet to be avenged), the front 3 with Özil combined well again last night and when Lacazette remembers how to shoot, they’re going to do some damage. That being said, Lacazette’s work rate and hold-up play more than made up for another rocky night for him in front of goal. Despite Aubameyang’s best efforts to provide for his pal, it wasn’t to be.

While we’re on the subject, I thought it was another inspired performance from Aubameyang, who seemed to be trying to redefine his own meticulous standards of work rate. The obvious similarities between him and our most notable No. 14 (sorry, Theo) – the pace, the goals, the flair (on and off the pitch) – begin to diverge when we’re without the ball. Although Henry contributed the odd, lunging “strikers” tackle, he would rarely be seen filling in at fullback, something Aubameyang’s been seen doing on several occasions this season when the likes of Saka and Kolasinac make those surging runs forward. He relentlessly harried the United backline as well, and forced more than a few errors out of them with his pace and tenacity. Had he been greedier, the scoreline may not have been so kind but his selfless attitude is commendable and last night felt like a captain’s performance. There are other leaders in this squad – David Luiz and Granit Xhaka are obvious names in this discussion – so to see them all having an influence is great to see.

Ainsley’s also really starting to develop some consistency in his play; the end product is still a work in progress but for a player who identifies as more of a holding midfielder, he seems to have all the attributes of a solid fullback and I’d be interested to know if he’s beginning to change his tune.

On the opposite side, Kolasinac returned from injury with another bullish performance and I’m sure there were more than a few United players who were glad to see the back of him when he was forced off after 69 minutes. Hugely influential in the first goal with his deflected cutback finding the mark, the positivity he displayed in his runs throughout were causing United all kinds of problems. He’s one of he few players I’d argue actually improved under Emery this season (though I’m not sure who to attribute credit to for that), as he’s become far more reliable in defence while making more intelligent ventures into the opposition half. As it stands, Tierney will have his work cut out to usurp him based on his current form (provided his injury isn’t serious).

The four changes to the team we saw against Chelsea were all brought in for different reasons; one returning from injury, another deputising for an injured starter, one returning for reasons we don’t fully yet understand (though both Xhaka and Arteta now seem to be suggesting that he is here to stay) and the last being given an opportunity to make a point. It wasn’t a vintage performance, and he may have only lasted an hour, but Nicolas Pépé made the same kind of statement as he did after curling in two direct free kicks when he bailed us out against Vitória. The numbers speak for themselves:

If that wasn’t enough, he also left Luke Shaw and a few others scrabbling around on the floor like the peasants they are, which is always fun to watch. He’s a player who telegraphs their intention from a mile away – you know he wants to get onto his left foot, so it seems to obvious how to stop him, but more often than not, he got what he wanted and on another day, his other effort would have curled inside the post as well. He was also instrumental in creating the second, with a pre-assist earned from a wicked delivery. Mesut Ozil’s left foot is nothing to turn your nose up at but deliveries like Pépé’s pre-assist aren’t really something in his locker, so it doesn’t hurt to have some variety in set piece specialists. While Reiss Nelson has also impressed under Arteta, we saw plenty from Pépé last night that went some ways in reaffirming his price tag.


Arteta & The Collective

In some ways, looking back at last night makes me frustrated because even at this early stage, it’s plain to see that our players were being largely misused these last 18 months. No one was suggesting that we simply had a bad squad, and you can ask questions about the level of commitment the players applied to Emery’s vision, but that’s as much indicative of Emery’s failings as it is of the players’ disinterest. If a former player (who only left us as a player 3 years ago) is coming in – with no managerial experience whatsoever – and whipping these players into shape, commanding respect and commitment to his project, it really beggars belief when you cast your mind back.

Maybe that’s what makes Arteta special? We don’t know yet. Pep and Arsène are no fools but I don’t think anyone expected such an immediate identity to emerge. It’s natural to draw similarities to City and their tenacious press and regimented system, but replicating so many traits so quickly is quite a feat. While he may not have been the first to coin the term, Pep’s “Five Second Rule” (where you have 5 seconds to try and regain possession) was evident last night and it’s that lack of urgency that has so often been our undoing this season.

There seems to be real unity across the board too; from a pre-match team huddle on the pitch, to the group celebrations both on the pitch and among Arteta and his staff. It was just as clear in their work ethic on the pitch; I can’t remember a performance where I felt every player earned their wages as they did today. Both David Luiz and Sokratis acknowledged in their post-match interview that they weren’t quite able to maintain that intensity for 90 minutes but it’s very much a work in progress. What we saw against Chelsea, not 3 days ago, was built upon today and this time, our organisation saw the job done.

To have so many standout performers on an individual level is also something to really get behind. The defensive partnership, the Torreira-Xhaka pivot, the fantasy team front four, Özil with another 90 minutes under his belt, Pépé’s growing influence, all with a healthy smattering of youth and academy prospects… I’m genuinely excited. Up next, we have an F.A. Cup trip against Championship-leaders Leeds, which will be another kind of test and an opportunity to see some more fringe players given opportunities, and an opportunity to build some momentum.

It’s early days but an emerging pattern seems to be starting games as we mean to go on, with high intensity. The players are obviously still acclimatising to the kind of conditioning that Arteta demands but that doesn’t happen overnight.


A tame goodbye

If Mikel Arteta was in any doubt as to the enormity of the kind of overhaul we’re in need of, this was surely put to bed after today’s drab and impotent affair. Before the game, he’d made it abundantly clear to the players why he was there:

“I will be in the stands at Everton. I want you to know that I will be watching your attitude, your efforts and body language. I will see what you do when you lose the ball, what your attitude is and what you do when you have the ball.”

There’s no excuses and certainly nowhere to hide from such a no-nonsense statement. Emery was a victim of his messages supposedly not being understood so we’ll soon see how much that holds up. I thought such a declaration, along with it being Freddie’s last game, might have lit fires under some of our under-performers, or even just those looking to impress but in reality, it was another rudderless performance when we were on the offensive.

While Everton were nothing like the side that dispatched Chelsea, they had at least benefited from the “new manager bounce”. Not taking anything away from Freddie, but he doesn’t quite have the same level of imposure as Duncan Ferguson, what with the convictions for assault after an on-pitch brawl and having apprehended and hospitalised multiple burglars. On the day though, they were dragged down to our levels of mediocrity, which perhaps goes some way in explaining how we managed to come away with a clean sheet. Christmas miracles…


Freddie’s last entry (for now?) was another show of faith in our youth, though somewhat borne out of necessity as Saka once again came in for the injured Kolasinac. Still, it was the first time we’d started a league game with three teenagers since 2007 and the youngest starting eleven in the league since 2011.

In reality, it was all a bit dull. A complete lack of movement, quality and creativity in the final third left us with only one attempt on goal in the 44th minute. Arteta’s interim role as overseer seemed to have little change in urgency or eagerness to impress either.

For what it’s worth, although they found plenty of time and space, Everton never troubled Leno in the first half and it was the sort of game that neutrals walk away from feeling like it just stole 90 minutes of your life. We’ve reverted back to being a “second half team” for much of the season and I hoped for their sake and ours this would be the case again, both for a send-off and thanks to Freddie and to give Arteta a small foundation to work from. In reality, besides a shinned effort from Aubameyang that was well saved by Pickford, we never came close.

What we got was an away clean sheet (what even are those?) after, by our standards, quite a solid defensive display. Granit Xhaka even tried to throw a spanner in the works in the dying moments with a chipped back pass to Leno with several Everton players bearing down on him but thankfully the German was as surefooted as ever. It’s times like that with Xhaka where the only thing that springs to mind is this:

A real hand-in-mouth moment that might have cost us on another day and I’m sure Arteta was just as baffled.

In fairness to the rest of the team, it was probably one of our best defensive performances of the season. We didn’t afford them a single shot on target, players were putting their bodies on the line to make blocks, we were clearing the ball quickly and generally didn’t look quite so chaotic.


I usually try and avoid naming names, except for the obvious suspects who seem to enjoy making fools of themselves but as there was so little to talk about, the game at least was a way to evaluate some of our squad as the reins are passed over once more.

The first name that springs to mind is Reiss Nelson. I really thought he’d press on this season after impressing in the Bundesliga, to the point where he’d be at the top of our list of “best youth prospects”. In reality, he’s struggled to make an impact this season and is quite far down the pecking order. Ineffective in open play, wasteful from set pieces, I would like to see him take another loan spell, perhaps domestically on this occasion – and somewhere he is guaranteed playing time. He has plenty of good qualities but compared to some of our other youth players, he’s still lacking a certain something.

Granit Xhaka is one whose days are numbered, I feel. I’ve spoken at length in the past about the target on his back and a degree of scapegoating but after reports of his open desire to leave and the dust still settling after his on-field outburst, his performances are still far too inconsistent. While we lack experience in midfield, a January departure as Arteta arrives may be a fitting agreement for a player who just isn’t right for the job he’s being asked to do. As a player, Arteta was the polar opposite: assured in possession, level-headed (mostly) and we anchored a reasonably successful team around him. The only thing the two have in common is they’re both on the slower side, with Arteta’s technical proficiency being the decisive factor. How much sympathy he’ll extend as a manager remains to be seen.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Calum Chambers are two players who have quietly improved in recent weeks. They’ve both struggled to define themselves, not necessarily through fault of their own but rather their malleability and (relatively) better conditioning than their counterparts. For the time being, Arteta will have no option but to continue playing them but I would like to see some semblance of consistency in our defence if we’re to have any chance of replicating the defensive performance we saw today.

Mesut Ozil, the problem child, continues to be a problem. The reason for his exclusion was as blunt as it gets, and Arteta will do well to continue Freddie’s strong stance on such a matter:

“He walked off, took his things and kicked them. I said at Arsenal, that’s not how we behave. Mesut was injured but I would not have picked him for the squad because I want to make a stance that that’s not what I accept from an Arsenal football player.”

With any luck, the rumours about his proposed loan move to Fenerbache will come to fruition.


He’s spoken at length already, both prior to and after his appointment, about the kind of football Arteta will demand. I don’t know about him, but I don’t think we have the personnel to do that right now. Although some of the up-and-comers might have it in their locker, they haven’t been coached how to yet and there’s plenty others who we know definitely don’t. The immobility of the midfield and lack of creativity are perhaps the biggest challenges that may give him more than a few sleepless nights.

The consolation of the manic Christmas fixture list will at least give Arteta plenty of opportunity to get to grips with the realities of this squad’s shortcomings. Whether he’ll be given what he needs in the January transfer window remains to be seen. Burned before, KSE may point to Emery’s fate after a summer many touted as a success in the transfer window but Arteta can’t be tarred with the same brush.

Onto Bournemouth on Boxing Day and another fresh start.