Rocky seaside cup tie for the kids’ day out

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Until then.


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.

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.