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.
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.