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.


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.

Arsenal’s Jekyll and Hyde Routine Continues

I’m all kinds of speechless. If it were not for the club’s record signing producing two moments of absolute perfection, this would’ve taken a very different direction. Many things need to be said about the rest of the game but I’m delighted that there’s now no room for doubt that Pépé is off the mark. His performances have been steadily growing in recent weeks – he was hard done by to have been replaced against Sheffield – and now he’s well and truly announced himself. Emery’s reaction when Pépé swept that ball home in the 92nd minute was quite a sight. I don’t know the Spanish for “thank fuck for that” but that’s what sprang to mind when I saw the look on his face.

Last night’s performance served as another entry in the Jekyll and Hyde routine we’ve adopted this season. Usually this competition has been a cathartic experience – an escape from the kind of dross we’re often subjected to in the league – but besides an actual fist pump and shouting “YES” for Pépé’s second, I was quiet all night, besides the odd eye-roll and stifled bit of nondescript abuse under my breath.

Anyway, I had to get that out of the way before moving onto the actual game. Such a bizarre night. According to @Orbinho, it was the first time since records began in 1992 in the League (and 2006 in other competitions) that we’d scored two free kicks in a game and he shares the accolade with Herr Ronaldo, Suárez, Bale and Neymar for achieving it in a Europa League or Champions League game. No pressure.

Keen to belay the criticism following the abject reception of yet another muddled midfield against Sheffield, Emery’s trust in Project Youth was a welcome sight (and perhaps a cry for help) heading into the game last night. Any hope was quickly dashed in the 8th minute when Vitória made their way into our box with relative ease for the 3rd time. Given the changes, it really does suggest that our problems are more systematic than down to the individual. As ever, the overriding question is: why does Emery’s Arsenal invite so much pressure? Whether by design or otherwise, it’s an unerring feature of the team. It was an interesting setting given the amount of changes Emery made; with the exception of Joe Willock, the starting lineup was changed completely. What did not change, was our capacity to make unforced errors, constantly invite said pressure and offer very little in way of attack.

Rather interestingly, it was both Tierney and Bellerin – often lauded as our eventual saviours to all our problems – who were both brilliantly deceived by Adams’ deft Cruyff turn. A well-taken goal but I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. For those in doubt – our problems really do run deeper than us simply not having our first choice fullbacks fit. Who would’ve have guessed?

Willock was lucky to not be responsible for Vitória extending their lead after a careless pass, but where he was lucky, Maitland-Niles’ was not. Both were subsequently replaced at halftime for their similarly young, ever so slightly more experienced counterparts. In fairness to Maitland-Niles, such an absence from (by his own admission) his preferred position would have played a part in some of his naivety but the finish from Duarte afforded him no such sympathy. I do feel he has a future with us in the midfield; his composure, work rate and defensive ability is still plain to see. His opportunities may be limited for the time being, though.

For a team of Vitória’s calibre, a team that had not scored in their last two games, to find it so easy to attack last year’s finalists was nothing short of astounding. 37% of possession at half time with 3 shots out of 10 on target to our 8 and 1. A story we’ve heard before. We were lucky to only concede twice.

More of the same came after the break in spite of the changes to our midfield, it seems to be a recurring feature of this team that personnel changes (with the exception of one or two gems) have little effect on the kind of chances we create. It only took 25 minutes for a scattered symphony to cry out “We’ve got Özil, Mesut Özil…” to ring around the ground. Just the two deaf ears it fell on.

Amidst the doom and gloom, there was plenty of promise shown by both Martinelli and Emile Smith-Rowe. The latter made a great return to the team and on another day, once he’s back in full swing, he perhaps may have had a brace after squandering two great chances. The Brazillian had no such issues though, and with his first real sniff of goal had already added another to his Arsenal account. Having led from the front, with even more tenacity than Alexandre Lacazette who is often playing like a bat out of hell, I was glad to see his efforts rewarded. He’s still raw and lacking in composure at times but the boy definitely knows where the goal is. Whether he can make the leap into translating these kinds of performances into League goals will be the next challenge.

Bellerín was quoted after the game as saying “sometimes you need individual magic” – the worry is this seems to be our preferred method of attack under Emery. It’s no surprise given the array of talent he has at his disposal but I’m still baffled every time we play at the sheer lack of playstyle going forward. It’s truly alien to me, both as as Arsenal fan and a football fan. Vitória recently lost to a semi-professional team in a domestic cup, have lost every game of the group stages thus far and still.. somehow.. managed to play us off the park – our own park – for large parts of the game. Every time they went forward, they played with purpose, cohesion, pace and on another day, they could have had 4 or 5. I really don’t like the feeling of “getting away with it” that more than a few of Emery’s victories come attached with.

This result was another damning continuation in this side’s struggle to create meaningful chances. Pépé’s introduction was a welcome change and we saw more of the quality he brings to this team besides his goals, as we came close with several of his deliveries from set pieces and the wing. I still can’t help but wonder what the man could do in a better system, though. He has such an arsenal of trickery at his disposal and yet we rarely see him able to make use of this in the final third where he flourished for Lille last season. With any luck, this will at least give him some real confidence to take forward against Crystal Palace. Until then…