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.

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.