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.

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.