Down on luck, all square


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.

Arsenal vs. Crystal Palace: a muddled mess

It’s not often that I’m completely at a loss for words but what I saw this afternoon was such a muddled mess, I’m really struggling. For the second time in four days, the result lay on a knife-edge and where Thursday was the yin, today’s performance was certainly our yang.

Saving the customary omission of Özil, I thought today’s lineup was just about our strongest available to Emery when I saw the teamsheet. His refusal to use Lucas Torreira appropriately in his teams certainly complicates this decision, but that was my take at least.

The frenzied first half started predictably enough – a free header to Crystal Palace in the 3rd minute, which could’ve easily put us behind. That predictability soon went out the window in the 7th minute with Sokratis’ stabbed finish after a crucial knockdown from the much-maligned Granit Xhaka. Pépé really didn’t waste time picking up where he left off after Thursday, with his contributions to the first and seconal goal a welcome change in set piece quality after what has been a frustrating period without a natural provider from these areas. The second in as many minutes came from another unlikely source but to score twice from set pieces against a team with Gary Cahill at the centre is a positive sign at the very least. Whether we made the right choice in opting for Luiz over Cahill is another matter entirely…

There was a degree of fortuity and scrapiness with the goals but I’ll take them any day of the week, if anything for Aubameyang’s sake and sanity that there are actually goals elsewhere in this team. I’ve spoken at length about our over-reliance on individual brilliance (“there’s no ‘i’ in team but there’s five in individual brilliance” isn’t a quip I want Emery to learn anytime soon) so it really was a bizarre juxtaposition to be 2-0 up inside 10 minutes thanks to a goal apiece from our centre-halves.

The early goals seemed to give us an edge and I was pleased to see us winning 50/50s and the like. We were competitive, were playing with pace and actually created some chances from open play, with Lacazette and Pépé coming close and Aubameyang almost finding himself through on goal – on another day, his first touch wouldn’t be his undoing and we’d likely have been 3-0 up. It wasn’t to be though and the predictability of our vulnerabilities came back to bite us. The first real chance Zaha had to run at us, he used to full effect and (eventually) won his team the penalty. I don’t have any complaints with Atkinson’s decision being overturned – Zaha might make the most of it but there’s enough deliberate contact and I suspect many would be aggrieved if someone like Saka or Pépé was on the receiving end. Milivojevic made no mistake but that was to be expected after his consistency at Selhurst Park last season.

Despite all the positivities of the first half, I was a bit taken aback by the half time statistics: we may have had the lion’s share of the chances but we were second-best for possession and total passes. For a team to be 2-0 up at home inside the first 10 minutes to post figures like that is cause for concern. Until this season, the Emirates has been a stalwart of our strength and I would hate if it were to lose that certain “je ne sais quoi.”

The heroes of the first half resumed their usual responsibilities of lax defending and ball-watching with their complicity in the second goal, which was so damning in so many ways. Questions can be asked about why Xhaka – a man who is 99% left foot (except when he’s shooting strangely) – was deputising as a right back, but he’s still got to do better in preventing the cross. The real blame lies with David Luiz however. Saving a cursory glance when it was already too late, Luiz seemed completely oblivious as to Ayew’s whereabouts and his ballwatching was painfully basic. A man of his experience has got to do better but therein lies the problem – we all knew about some of his tendencies before we signed him. He’s good for grabbing a goal, can take some wicked free kicks but when it all comes down to it, he’s a defender and time and again, we’ve seen these kinds of amateur mistakes from him.

The highs of the first half head start quickly unravelled and the chaos we’ve become accustomed to returned. Chances became few and far between and I honestly don’t remember us even creating a chance in the first 30 minutes of the second half. It was at this point that the match really reared it’s head with the departure of Granit Xhaka. We needed change and for the second time, Xhaka was the sacrificial lamb but the real question is whether he’s a a deserving scapegoat (no more ovine/caprine idioms from me now).

I had real sympathy for him as he came off. One of my lowest points as a fan was attending the infamous game where Eboue was hauled off after coming on as a substitute to a chorus of boos. The Emirates was ugly that day – I was ashamed to be there – and I felt the same feeling in my stomach today. “Class is permanent” is one of our unofficial mottos and what I saw and heard today was the polar opposite to that. I’m not Xhaka’s biggest fan but what he was subjected to was absolutely unacceptable. I very much feel like he is the biggest victim under Emery’s Arsenal; seemingly the first name on the teamsheet but to some, the chief architect of our problems. If there’s one thing that can be said about him, he always gives his all and to see him jeered like that and his reaction was sad – I don’t blame him in the slightest for his pained and explosive reaction. It was almost symbolic him ripping his shirt off and then heading straight for the tunnel – I do wonder what the fallout will be from today’s episode. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no place in football for being fickle – you either get behind the team or you don’t bother at all. More to the point, no good can come from that kind of treatment. By all means, rant ’til your throat is hoarse after the game but there’s no excuse for what we saw today. David Luiz was more culpable for the goal in my book, and yet Xhaka is the one leaving feeling aggrieved. Our problems run far, far deeper than one man.

For the second game in a row, Ozil was serenaded – the creative dearth in this side again evident. The clock ticked down and I again found myself wondering if we would even create a chance despite Emery throwing on Saka and more strangely, Kolasinac.

That chance did come around and just as VAR giveth in the first half, it taketh in the second. I’ve been crying out for consistency in Premier League officiating for some time. I never thought VAR would be the answer but for it to not only add even more inconsistency – seemingly swinging from one game to another depending on the relative egos and whims of the referee on the pitch against the ones in the back room – it’s already on several occasions realised the fear of many, that it would kill the excitement, for fans and players alike. Seeing Sokratis score and celebrate in such a manner, only for the buzz to be swept out from under him was devastating, both as an Arsenal fan and a football fan. This feeling was only compounded by the ridiculous nature of the decision, which was nothing more than a 50/50 that Chambers happened to win. If VAR was actually paying attention, surely the body check on Chambers prior to his alleged infringement would’ve taken precedence but that may just be asking too much of them. I know many fans have felt eqully aggrieved this season and although many expected their to be teething problems, VAR seems to be exceeding expectations of frustration.

Another bad day at the office for Unai’s Arsenal, and one which I feel has done lasting damage in more ways than one.