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.


Goodbye Rot

Thumbnail courtesy of the great Poorly Drawn Arsenal


I can’t tell you how relieved I am to be writing from a position that isn’t despair – not only because Arsenal finally won a game of football but because I genuinely don’t know how else I could have addressed our problems.

It had all the makings of an opportunity for redemption: the Bruised Banana, the steadfast Gabriel Martinelli given his full debut, Pépé coming into the starting lineup to ensure Aubameyang wasn’t forced out wide, fending for scraps. The build-up was far from pretty, but when these three came together with a goal apiece, it was Christmas come early.

Were West Ham poor? Yes. Are they the first poor team we’ve played? No. Were we poor for large chunks of the game? Yes. The difference? We actually won.

The win might have come later than expected as we received no such “new manager bounce” in his first two games in charge, but given our dicey December schedule, it will be a good platform to build on. Looking ahead to next weekend, all I hope is that City don’t get up to their usual tricks of decimating teams after a loss. A loss to them will be another damning blow in their title chase and they will give us a game; I just hope Freddie is as bold as he was today and rewards those who made a difference.

Preview

I was surprised to see Ainsley Maitland-Niles come back into the side before realising it was from a complication with Hector Bellerín during warmup. Less so with David Luiz being dropped, but a welcome and refreshing change of mindset to see out-of-form players being dropped. It felt like a clear statement of authority from Freddie – interim though he may be – that there are consequences if you play like a clown (Sideshow Bob comparison not actually intended, but always welcome).

From my point of view, besides the highly-questionable Sokratis, this was the kind of form-based lineup I’d wanted to see. Despite his recent declaration, AMN is a tidy and athletic player so I had no issue with him deputising and with Chambers playing at right centre-back, he can shoulder some of the defensive responsibilities which have sometimes drawn scrutiny to AMN.

Sticking with the central pairing of Xhaka and Torreira was also the right decision in my book. Despite the result against Brighton, I still felt there was more balance to our play despite the vulnerability on the break (as this very much feels more like a team and/or system problem). Not chopping and changing as Emery so often did will hopefully put Freddie in good stead.

The Match

It was a senile start – and not one that would have come as much of a surprise given the spot of bother we’ve had winning football matches lately. A lot of “going through the motions”. That isn’t to say it was from lack of trying but more a circumstance of a team at near-enough rock-bottom (with sympathy to the likes of Bury, Bolton and Portsmouth). It goes some ways in explaining why it took 31 minutes to have a touch in West Ham’s penalty area.

It was a patient first half for the most part though, one without much in the way of incision but I would much rather see us dominate possession and bide our time than play deathball ping pong as we’ve done lately with the opposition.


As against Brighton, and countless other times this season, we were ultimately punished for not addressing the second ball. Hunger is everything in football and confidence aside, I just don’t get that burning desire to do anything and everything they can for the team in some of these players. Even in the 10-second build up to the goal, there were 3-4 instances of players just not having that conviction. Xhaka was perhaps the most guilty on this occasion and it’s just another entry in our lengthy obsession with making schoolboy errors. Not long after, Xhaka even played one of the most careless cross-field balls I’ve ever seen which could have easily punished us again. For his improvements under Freddie, the things he does sometimes…

Play to the whistle. Don’t play across goal. Don’t ball watch. Stay goalside. Putting up a laminate with some of these in the dressing room (or in a few, individual lockers…) might be a good investment.

Things were really quite poor either side of their goal, and it leaked into the beginning of the second half. We looked bereft of ideas and even the goal was a strange one. It came from nothing, just a slight up in the tempo as Torreira found a bit of space and found Kolasinac bombing down the left as he so often does. He did well to find Martinelli (one or two West Ham defenders might have been napping but that spoils the narrative) and he was as clinical as ever with both his and Arsenal’s first real sight of goal. It might have happened in the 61st minute but I’m happy with taking baby steps at the moment. I think he’s made a real case for himself with another hearty performance and while it’s better late than never, it makes you wonder how long ago he should’ve been starting games.

Not wanting to be left out of the limelight of “misused substitute redemption arcs”, Pépé demonstrated why he was one of the most sought after players in Europe with a great bit of individual skill and finishing. We’ve seen him try that kind of shot on more than one occasion, and he’s always looked sharp in the box but this was the first time he’s really delivered.

Not resting on his laurels, he immediately completed a crafty 1-2 with Aubameyang who made no mistake with the finish. After almost putting a “cross” into the stands not 10 minutes before, I was a bit concerned that even Aubameyang was losing his touch… West Ham didn’t put up much fight after that flurry and we might’ve even grabbed another.

Injury-worries aside, it was great to see Chambers doing the dirty work at the end as he threw himself headfirst into the challenge to win the ball towards the end, the sort that would make the Keowns and Koscielnys proud and the sort that really add up over the course of the season. Martinelli charging back to defend in the 93rd minute was on par with the kind of commitment we should be demanding from each and every one of them.

At the very least, these two really made a case for themselves and despite the change in calibre we’ll be faced with against City, I would like to see them both starting. Lacazette will be the obvious casualty of this arrangement, and although it’s at home and against a big team – two conditions he seems to thrive under – I would like to see some consistency in our starting lineups. There’s no reason he can’t come off the bench and make a difference if we need something but that’s down to Freddie. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he reverted to having Aubameyang out wide to accommodate Lacazette, favouring experience over form in such a game but we’ll have to wait and see.

Until then.