The starting XI did not give me much confidence to be honest, especially the forward line that was missing Auba and Saka…but there you go, maybe this is the game that will trigger Willian and Pepe’s fortune at AFC! What a game they had!
However, there are few concerns to be talked about:
Another early goal conceded and in a very amateurish way…it was embarassing
ESR’s injury before half-time. Let us hope it is not too serious but I am afraid that we won’t see him for a couple of weeks.
After conceding in the most stupid way possible, we regrouped and controlled the game and from that point onwards, the Foxes were nullified until the 96th mins when Ihenacho had a good look at goal. But overall, we really managed the game well and we applied good pressure to level the game and then to take the lead. I really liked the beginning of the second half as well where we still wanted to control the game. A good afternoon overall and a good team performance and credit to Arteta for his team selection.
Here are the ratings:
Pepe and Willian had a good game today.
They basically were the difference:
Pepe getting fouled for the FK that led to goal 1. FK dispatched by Willian who racked up an assist.
Pepe’s shot leading to the PK, expertly taken by Laca.
Pepe starting and ending the move for the third goal with a nice lay-off to Odegaard whose brilliant pass to Willian led to another Willian’s assist.
Leno – 6.5 – Tidy job. Not at fault on the goal. Cedric – 6.5 – Tidy job on both ends. Shame that his crossing was off today. Luiz – 7.5 – A goal and a good attitude. Mari – 6.5 – At fault on the goal conceded but then was solid and kept Vardy out of the game. Tierney – 7 – Industrious as always. Xhaka – 6.5 – A poor start followed by a solid display. El Neny – 6.5 – Fought hard. Needs to be more adventurous with his passing at times. Pepe – 8.5 – A nuisance for Leicester throughout the game and did not shy away from his defensive duties. MOTM for me. ESR – 6 – An annoying injury but not his usual confident self until the injury either. Come back soon! Willian – 8 – 2 assists and a good level of effort! Was nice to confirm his good performance vs Benfica with the solid display today. Laca – 7 – Took his PK well and held the ball well when needed.
Odegaard – 7 – A good game for him despite a very lampe pass that could have led to a Leicester goal. Auba and Partey – N/A – Was nice to see Partey again and Auba had one good chance too in his few mins on the pitch.
Arteta – 7.5 – Great team management and selection.
Here’s a cheery thought: Jamie Vardy has scored 11 goals against Arsenal in 12 appearances.
It’s a phenomenal record and recalls the nightmare years when Didier Drogba could wake up of a morning, look at his diary, see he was due to play Arsenal and know that it would be another scoring day for him.
Vardy got the only goal when Leicester beat us at the Emirates on October 25th. We had plenty of possession in that game but, inevitably, the Foxes hit us on the break and grabbed the winner.
I looked back at the match report I wrote after that game. With hindsight it is clear that it took place at a time when our problems were only just beginning to really show themselves. We had won three of our first four Premier League fixtures, losing only to the reigning champions, Liverpool. Then we lost to Manchester City and then we played Leicester… and things went further downhill afterwards.
Including the City and Leicester games, we had a run of 10 games where our record was W1 D2 L7. Even worse than the results themselves was the way we were playing: in a constipated, unambitious style and formation that made it almost impossible to create scoring chances let alone take them.
With what now seems at least a modicum of foresight I wrote the following: “I’ll leave it to the better tacticians among our commenters to get into the nitty gritty of what we did wrong, but the big picture was that we lacked creativity, we were slow to the point of glacial in moving into attack and too many players were below par…
“I back El Patron to find the answer, and I’m sure it will be something to do with the way we set the team up, but we haven’t found it so far.”
Whether Mikel Arteta found the answer or it found him (due to injuries and Covid absences) is a point for discussion, but since changing our personnel and shape against Chelsea at the end of December we have been on a much better path. Admittedly a path with ups, downs and potholes, but one that at least seems to lead somewhere positive.
So what does that mean for today? I think it means we can have a reasonable expectation of success. Last time we played Leicester we had as much chance of creating an opening as a power drill with a bit made out of plasticine. Today it’s different. We have players like Saka, Tierney, Smith Rowe, Aubameyang and Odegaard who can really hurt our opponents.
Today Leicester will face attacking movement, intelligence and finishing multiple times more dynamic than what confronted them at the Emirates.
Our problem may well be at the other end. Vardy never seems to miss against us and Leicester have other outstanding players in fine form including James Maddison (who is doubtful for today with a groin injury) and Harvey Barnes.
Barnes has been scoring a lot of goals this season but I feel that if we can stop Vardy – Leicester’s talisman against us – then we have a very good chance of winning.
How do we stop Vardy? We need to score first and ideally get a two goal cushion so that we do not have to spend long periods chasing the game. It’s when we are desperately probing for a goal and, therefore, stretched at the back that Leicester invariably hit us on the break with Vardy.
With that in mind I would like to see us start on the front foot and with a lot of attacking aggression.
As far as team news goes, we have a full squad to pick from apart from Rob Holding who remains unavailable because of concussion protocols.
I really, really, really want Arteta to put Smith Rowe back in the central attacking position behind our front striker where he operates so well and seems to have a psychic understanding with Saka. As I said before our last game, my preferred front four would be Lacazette as the point with Aubameyang – Smith Rowe – Saka behind him.
However, El Patron seems to be a little bit in love with Martin Odegaard and may well start him in what should be ESR’s position again. Odegaard may well come good, but as I’ve said before (a) he’s on loan and (b) he has not so far looked as good as our home grown star in the making, Smith Rowe.
Aubameyang is in terrific goalscoring form and whether he starts on the left or down the middle he will carry the biggest threat and will make Leicester’s defenders nervous every time he gets the ball.
Here’s the team I expect to see:
Bellerin – Luiz – Gabriel – Tierney
Xhaka – Partey
Saka – Odegaard – Pepe
It’s great that Partey is fit again and can partner up with our very own Duracell bunny in deep midfield, Granit Xhaka.
Further forward I’m guessing that Smith Rowe will be rested and Pepe will be given a chance on the left, where he has looked good in recent outings.
The form book (and the pundits) have this one down as a home win. I have a sneaky feeling we’re going to come away with all three points.
It has been bugging me for some time that Gabriel Martinelli seems to have fallen out of favour with Mikel Arteta.
The young Brazilian burst onto the scene towards the end of Unai Emery’s tenure at the helm of the good ship Arsenal and made a huge impression.
Bukayo Saka was emerging into the limelight around the same time and I remember thinking “these are both great prospects, but it’s Martinelli who looks destined to be a superstar.”
In the 2019-2020 season he made 15 starts in all competitions, plus 10 more appearances as a substitute. In those games he scored 10 goals and had four assists – a spectacular return for a then 18-year-old (contrast it with his compatriot Willian who has had the exact same number of starts and sub appearances so far this year as Martinelli did last season and has managed zero goals and four assists).
After that blistering start to his career, comparisons were being drawn between Martinelli and a young Cristiano Ronaldo. The lad has speed, determination, skill, intelligence, plays with both feet and can head. What’s not to like?
However, since Uncle Unai got the chop and Mikel Arteta arrived, Martinelli’s chances have been few and far between. So far this season he has made only five starts and three substitute appearances.
Admittedly the situation has been complicated by his injury record, but it is mystifying to me that in games where we are chasing a goal and where Martinelli is on the bench he almost never gets a look in.
Does Arteta just not fancy him? A year ago El Patron gave some telling quotes about the youngster in one of his press conferences:
“He needs to digest a lot of things,” said Arteta. “The better you do, the more you have to start to digest what people think about you. He has to think ‘Now, the opponents know me better, the spaces are smaller, I am going to have more attention. I still want to do what I was doing three weeks ago or four weeks ago, but now it’s not happening’. As a young player, you need to go through that. The mental side of it is a process.”
At the time some saw that as a bit of a warning to Martinelli that he needed to improve in a way that Arteta was demanding. Others interpreted it as a sign that the boss had reservations about him generally.
Whatever that improvement was that Arteta was demanding, it does not seem as if El Patron is convinced it has happened yet, because Martinelli is just not getting the game time that we fans would like to see.
Perhaps the player’s injury record goes some way to explaining the paucity with which he is used (because we are being careful with him), but I am beginning to worry that Martinelli will soon be thinking the Portuguese equivalent of “sod this for a game of soldiers” * and will start seeking a move.
He signed a long term contract extension last July, reportedly securing his services until 2024 with an option to extend to 2025. But we all know that if a player is really unhappy – if, for example, he is not getting the chances he feels he deserves – then it’s not all that hard to start agitating for a move through agents, media contacts and so on.
I really, really hope that doesn’t happen.
I’m not a coach or any kind of football expert, I’m just a bloke who has been watching the game intently for more than 50 years, but to my eyes Martinelli is an absolute gem. If he left N5 I have no doubt he would emerge somewhere else as a world class superstar and we would be left with an awful lot of egg on our face.
If we can start playing him and he starts to gel with Saka, Smith Rowe, Tierney and others then we may have the basis of the next great Arsenal team on our hands.
Come on Mikel: sort it out.
*Isso é injusto para um jogo de soldados (according to Google translate: apologies to Portuguese speaking readers if it sounds like nonsense).
It was a rollercoaster ride in Athens last night as Arsenal came from behind to book a berth in the last 16 of the Europa League.
The game was scrappy in both meanings of the word (we had scraps of good play and of bad without there being any real flow to our football; but we kept scrapping to the end to earn the win).
It was the combination of Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang that made the difference for us, with a big slice of assistance from Kieran Tierney in between. SakaYang linked up for our opener and for the decisive goal in the 87th minute; KT dragged us back into it when it was beginning to look like we’d left ourselves too big a mountain to climb.
The draw for the next round is today – it would be nice if it was kind to us.
When Mikel Arteta announced his starting line-up last night I had some reservations. The back five seemed automatic choices given the concussion absence of Holding. Partey was available but presumably there was a desire not to rush him back to action too quickly so he was on the bench, with Ceballos and Xhaka anchoring midfield. So far so good.
But in the attacking half I was disappointed that Smith Rowe had been shunted out to the left wing to make way for Odegaard in the middle, and also that Aubameyang was starting as central striker ahead of Lacazette (I would have put Odegaard on the bench, ESR in the middle, Auba on the left and Laca up front). Saka, our best player by far this season, was on the right.
Benfica knew they needed an ‘away’ goal and could not just sit back. I thought they looked a lot more purposeful and progressive in the early stages than they did in the first leg. As for Arsenal, we played good football at times but were also extremely careless with the ball, misplacing simple passes and losing possession far too easily.
But it was Arsenal who took the lead in the 21st minute when a lovely pass from Saka invited Captain Auba into the opposition penalty area for a trademark finish – a little dink over the out-rushing ‘keeper.
Two-one up on aggregate, all we needed to do now was not make any stupid mistakes and try and get a third on the break. Well, this being Arsenal, you know how the script went from there.
We’ve had a weakness for conceding just before (or just after) half time this season and, sure enough, we shot ourselves in the foot in the 43rd minute. Ceballos stuck out a leg to foul a Benfica player just outside our box. There had been no need to make the foul as the player was going sideways and there was plenty of cover behind Ceballos.
Goncalves stepped up and placed a beautiful free kick past Leno into the top corner. Now it was 2-2 and our away goal advantage had been nullified.
In the second half we continued to have good spells, but also some very sloppy periods of play. Luiz and Gabriel were uncharacteristically indecisive at the back and both seemed to struggle with physical duels, which was a real surprise (normally they are both very solid when jockeying with opponents to get their head on a high ball, but not so last night).
Then came the 61st minute, and another error from Ceballos – this one much more egregious than his first. The Benfica goalie punted a long ball forward; Dani was in a deep central midfield position and, for reasons known only to himself, he decided to perform a headed back-flick, presumably intended for Leno. Unfortunately the Benfica striker Silva was in the vicinity and pounced on the ball, rounding Leno for a tap-in.
Suddenly we needed TWO goals to qualify (a draw would not be enough to take us to extra time and penalties because of the away goals rule).
I had my head in my hands and was thinking back to the first leg, when we should have put the tie beyond doubt but our bad finishing let us down.
El Patron made immediate changes, bringing on Partey and Willian for Smith Rowe and Ceballos and, luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long to get a foothold back in the game. Willian fed the ball to Tierney on the left as he attacked the penalty area. The Scot took a couple of great touches and slammed the ball home in the bottom corner.
We still had 23 minutes and any stoppage time to get a decisive goal – but could we do it? Following Tierney’s strike we had a very good spell of dominance and threatened the Benfica goal continuously. However, with about 10 minutes to go we seemed to be running out of steam and our opponents were playing some quality possession football to protect their winning position in the tie. For several minutes we couldn’t even get a touch of the ball.
We had added Lacazette to our attacking options by this stage (on for Bellerin), but it was SakaYang that eventually made the telling contribution.
We finally managed to get hold of the ball and Saka got into the Benfica area on the right hand side and put a perfect cross over to the back post for Aubameyang to head in unchallenged. There was a brief period of worry while we waited for VAR, but the goal stood.
Benfica went for it in the final minutes and gave us a fright with one moment when they hit the post, but it was from an obviously offside position and would not have counted anyway.
When the final whistle blew I can’t have been the only Arsenal supporter to breathe a huge sigh of relief. Our season is still alive; we showed character to come from behind and claw back two goals; on to the next round. Phew.
Leno – 6.5
No chance for the two goals and did nothing wrong otherwise.
Bellerin – 6.5
A decent game from Hector. He contributed to our attacking on many occasions even if things didn’t come off too often.
Luiz – 5
Not as solid as usual.
Gabriel – 5
Rare to see him muscled off the ball, but it happened several times last night and some of his passing was poor.
Tierney – 7.5
Made a huge contribution with his goal and worked tirelessly. I also get the feeling he’s not fully back to his best since his injury, so it’s exciting to think there’s more to come.
Xhaka – 6.5
Reasonably solid and secure. Perhaps could have done more in the attacking third.
Ceballos – 4
Go and sit on the naughty step, Dani. Two errors that cost two goals is not good enough. No surprise that he was yanked immediately after the second blunder.
Saka – 8.5 (MoTM)
Running out of superlatives for this kid now. Without Saka last night, we do not progress to the next round.
Odegaard – 6
The loanee did OK and showed some nice touches and nice passes here and there, but he struggled to influence the game and does not seem to be on the same wavelength with Saka the way Smith Rowe is.
Smith Rowe – 6
Looked a bit lost and less involved than usual out on the left wing.
Aubameyang – 8.5
When Auba is finishing with this degree of confidence and skill he is world class. Two beautifully taken goals, plus an equally well taken third that was ruled out for a fractional offside. The man is definitely back and that could be huge for the remainder of our season.
Willian – 6
Did what he usually does (picks up the ball in a wide left position, occasionally runs down the line, but always turns back and passes backwards). However, he did pass the ball to Tierney for the Scotsman’s goal so that’s technically an assist even if really it was a goal down to individual effort from KT. Nevertheless, hopefully it will improve the Brazilian’s confidence.
Partey – 6.5
Got involved quickly and looked sharp.
Lacazette – 6.5
On in the 78th minute, he helped stretch the Benfica defence and chased them down consistently when they had possession.
Poor finishing let us down in the first leg of our Europa League ‘Round of 32’ tie against Benfica in Rome.
We had the chances to be comfortably home and hosed but didn’t take them. We gave away a soft penalty and then equalised through Bukayo Saka (with what could be an important ‘away’ goal) but in the end had to settle for a point.
If we are a bit more clinical tonight it should be relatively straightforward to qualify, but you always have to beware of the word ‘should’ when it comes to European football.
We should have beaten Benfica in the return leg at Highbury in the European Cup in 1991, but we lost 1-3. We should have won the UEFA Cup final against Galatasaray in Copenhagen in 2000 but we didn’t. In general, given the quality of the teams we had in the George Graham and Arsene Wenger years, we should have more European silverware in our trophy cabinet.
I’m not trying to be pessimistic about tonight: it’s just a reminder that succeeding in Euro footy has never been easy.
We’re playing our ‘home’ leg in Athens as the Covid strangeness rumbles on, but the absence of crowds makes the whole idea of ‘home’ or ‘away’ redundant. However, the one way it could come into play is if the tie goes to extra time, in which case any Benfica goal in the added half hour would still count double, as an ‘away’ goal.
I have never thought that was a particularly fair law. The team that plays at home in the second leg gets 90 minutes (in the first leg) to score an away goal; the team that plays away in the second leg gets a potential 120 minutes to score an away goal. Anyway, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Team news is that Holding is unavailable because of concussion protocols and our only other doubt is Thomas Partey, but Mikel Arteta was making generally positive noises yesterday about the possibility of his being able to play.
In yesterday’s Post I wrote that I hope El Patron reunites the Saka-Laca-Smith Rowe unit that has produced some of our best football this season. It would require Smith Rowe being played more centrally rather than being shunted out wide to make way for Martin Odegaard.
The Norwegian looks to have the potential to be a class act, but I would prefer to see ESR who, to this observer at least, has emerged as one of our most effective players since getting his chance in the win against Chelsea.
Benfica never really troubled our defence in the first leg but they need to score at least once tonight so I’m sure we will have more defending to do in this game. Let’s hope we stay focused at the back and avoid the self-inflicted wounds that we’re so familiar with.
Here’s the team I expect to start:
Bellerin – Luiz – Gabriel – Tierney
Xhaka – Partey
Saka – Odegaard – Smith Row
The team I would prefer to see start would include the same back five as above (Tierney looked knackered in the Manchester City game on Sunday but hopefully his match fitness is returning) and the same pair at the base of midfield, but my attacking line-up would be:
Saka – Smith Rowe – Aubameyang
Let’s hope whatever team we put out does the job and gets us into the Round of 16. At that point we’re only seven games away from a trophy and a berth in the Champions League next year…
A triangle with special – perhaps supernatural – powers has the potential to see us comfortably past our Portuguese opposition tomorrow night. But there’s a mystery.
The mystery is that our young manager will probably not use this magical, three-sided phenomenon that has the power to make opposition hopes disappear.
The triangle to which I am referring involves three players: Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Alexandre Lacazette. When they are set up with Laca as the point, Saka as the right hand corner and ESR as the left we play our most devastating football.
Other players can contribute by adding tangents (notably Aubameyang and Bellerin) but it’s the triangle that holds the key.
It all started when injuries, illness, quarantining and suspensions forced El Patron to have a rethink about personnel and tactics for the league game against Chelsea in late December.
Lacazette’s lonely struggles up front were suddenly eased when he had a truly creative player behind (ESR) and a gifted young superstar (Saka) playing in his ideal position of wide right. The three clicked almost immediately and vastly improved performances followed.
Their mutual interplay allowed us to pierce the most recalcitrant of defences with fast, incisive movement and one-touch passing.
So much for the history, what about the mystery?
With the caveat that I’m sure Mikel Arteta and his backroom staff are trying to be careful with the playing time of an injury-troubled youngster like Smith Rowe, it has been surprising to see El Patron mess around with the successful formation he stumbled across: a bit like a gold prospector finding a great big nugget in a certain location one day, then deciding to search somewhere completely different the next.
Since the arrival on loan of Martin Odegaard young Emile has been shunted out to the wing. Odegaard has shown some nice skill and Arteta has spoken very positively about him: he clearly has potential. But he had a pretty ineffectual game against Manchester City. Smith Rowe, on the other hand, has been in excellent form and looked better than Odegaard when he came on as a sub against the light blue Mancs.
On form alone Smith Rowe should be keeping his place as an attacking central midfielder, quite apart from the fact that it does not make sense to prioritise a loan player who will likely be off in the summer over a very viable home grown option.
Then there’s Saka. He has been devastating when cutting inside from the right and playing give-and-go football with ESR, Lacazette and others. But in some recent games he has been moved to the left side. There may be understandable tactical reasons for this, but it still feels like a waste.
Finally, I get a sense that El Patron is now favouring Aubameyang as the central striker ahead of Lacazette. Auba can certainly score as we all know, but he is just not as good at link-up play as the Frenchman. When Auba starts, one side of our Power Triangle is missing.
All our most successful teams have had these magical patterns where a few key players are on the same wavelength and work wonders together: Cole-Pires-Henry and Rocastle-Thomas-Merson spring to mind. If you get a combo that works, stick with it.
I hope Arteta sees the sense of this, but I’m not holding my breath.
Is there a current player at Arsenal who divides opinion more evenly than Hector Bellerin?
You’ll always find dissenting voices among fans when it comes to an assessment of any player, but usually the majority lean one way or the other.
For example, for Xhaka, Laca and Luiz the needle hovers somewhere in the range between “meh” and “get rid.” With Willian it is firmly stuck on “get rid.” With Tierney and Saka it’s at the opposite end of the dial. Et cetera.
But when it comes to the little Spanish fashion icon who patrols the right flank of our defence, that poor old needle doesn’t know where to go. Apart, possibly, from into the ink jar and then into Hector’s skin for his latest stylish tattoo.
For a good two or three seasons I have read columns and seen comments from supporters saying that Bellerin has not turned into the player we all thought he would be: that his defending and positioning are suspect, that his attacking effectiveness is limited and that he has a tendency to switch off at key moments.
Equally I have seen many opinions from people who broadly support him and his abilities. They note how consistent he has been, how his speed is still a real asset (even if he has lost one or two mph since his long term injury) and how he manages to provide goal assists fairly regularly.
Perhaps he has looked bad at times in recent years because the whole team has been bad and has been going through some tough transitional times.
My own view is that, as mentioned, that long injury lay off had a very big impact on him and it took him a very long time to get back in the groove. But once he had a good run of games under him I felt he was a pretty solid first choice in his position and have generally remained a supporter: a Hector Protector, if you will.
But in recent games I have been watching him quite closely and I am starting to have some doubts. Am I slowly changing into a Hector Detractor? Not sure.
What has bugged me about his recent outings is that whether it’s Pepe or Saka in front of him there are too many times in a game when he does not seem to be on the same wavelength as his more advanced partner.
He still regularly makes those surging runs from the RB position deep into opposition territory, but often they come to nothing and the ball is lost or, more typically, Hector checks, looks around for a bit, then turns and plays the ball backwards, killing any momentum we might have been making.
So what’s the answer? Is he good enough or not? It’s possible that the emergence of Kieran Tierney as a real dynamic force in the left back position has made Bellerin look worse by comparison. We can see with our own eyes how effective KT is, yet his stats are not so different from Hector’s: Bellerin has made 27 appearances in all competitions this season (25 as a starter) and has one goal and three assists to his name; Tierney has 20 starts with one goal and two assists.
I’m not suggesting the two players are comparable – KT clearly offers a greater offensive threat and would have far more assists if our attackers had been more clinical in front of goal. But Tierney is a special player. Our best left back in recent years was Ashley Cole and he played in a team where the right back was Lauren. Ralph was a brilliant defender, but he was not in Cole’s class as an attacking fullback. It didn’t matter.
Is that where we are with Bellerin? We just have to accept that we’re lucky to have a potentially world class LB and that Hector is a perfectly good role player in the RB position?
Or should we be looking to upgrade? On one level, you can pretty much always upgrade in any position in theory. But in the summer, with limited resources and cash, would you rather we spend big bucks on a significant upgrade at RB or on a new striker, or a new midfielder?
Anyway, I have ended this Post just as conflicted about Hector as I was when I started writing it.
Help me out here… how should we really rate Hector Bellerin? And what should we do with him?
So here we go again, another loss against City in the EPL. The first 15 minutes were rather embarrassing, conceding an early and silly goal, hardly touching the ball and running like headless chickens. After that, City was not very dangerous but always in control and we hardly created a chance. The gap between City and AFC is rather big and it does not seem to get narrower. City exposed our limits but also this game showed that we could, at times, also compete with the best of the best so I suppose there are some positives to take from the game as well, including:
Saka is just too good
We managed to keep City at bay for quite a while after we conceded the goal.
I thought the line-up was odd and the omission of ESR and Laca really stood out for me for this game.
So another loss and almost the end of our hope to qualify for Europe via the league this year. We have to put in a good shift in the Europa League now. Here are the ratings:
Leno – 6 – Not a bad outing and a good save.
Bellerin – 4 – Another yellow and another average performance
Holding – 5.5 – Not great on the goal but then a steady performance before being substituted by Luiz who brought nothing to the party.
Mari – 6 – Rather solid
Tierney – 4.5 – Torrid first 15 mins and then struggled also going forward.
Xhaka – 6 – Rather solid
El Neny – 5.5 – Rather solid but lacked quality passing or dribbling
Pepe – 4.5 – Not helped by Bellerin and not doing enough overall. A game to forget.
Odegaard – 5 – A mistake to play him in this game. Looked lost, at best.
Saka – 8 – Our shining star
Auba – 4.5 – Even less involved than Pepe…not a good outing
Arteta – 4. Poor team selection and not getting results against big team. I don’t think he will be able to continue on this run of form comes Jan 2022. We need results and improvement, now – also in the EPL!
So let us aim to finish in the top 10, ideally above Tottenham.
What I most love about match days is that I always wake up with an advanced case of “football fan over-optimism syndrome.”
So even today, as we prepare to welcome the supremely in-form champions-to-be Manchester City, I kind of fancy our chances.
On paper there’s no point in us even turning up, but luckily we play on grass and, football being football, anything is possible.
The tender small shoots of my optimism are not built solely on delusion and hope (those two travelling companions of every supporter’s psyche). I have a few scraps of evidence to support my position:
For some reason we tend to play quite well against the better teams. Not always, but sometimes. Our abysmal run of form earlier in the season was ended when we thrashed Chelsea, who at the time were flying. Last season we beat Manchester City and Chelsea on our way to lifting the FA Cup. We’ve taken four points from two games against Manchester United in the league.
We have been playing some really nice football in recent games. The first half against Leeds; a fair bit of the Benfica match where we were let down by our finishing; the Southampton win. Even the games we’ve lost (Wolves and Villa) were characterised by us playing well but shooting ourselves in the foot.
We now have some truly creative players capable of hurting any opposition. Saka first and foremost, but also Smith Rowe and Odegaard.
Kieran Tierney is back and, let’s face it, he’d be happy to take on City all on his own.
If I was to do a similar list of reasons why the light blue Mancs will probably win today it would, of course, be much longer and would include things like “David Luiz’s tendency to give away penalties” and “our ability to conjure a clown-show moment from the most promising of situations.”
Yesterday I wrote about my fear that we would probably pick up yet another red card at some point in this game (because of the speed of City’s movement and the habit some of our players have of bringing down players who get past them). But after a good night’s sleep I am, as previously stated, feeling more positive so I shall banish such negative thoughts.
Predicting the starting line-up feels both easy and hard. Easy because, in one sense, Arteta seems to have found something close to a first eleven. Hard because most of those players competed for 90 minutes on Thursday night with international travel thrown in, so you’d think there would be rotation today.
But do you really want to rotate your most reliable players against the best team in the country? I’m probably wrong, but I’m going to go with the idea that El Patron will send out a mostly unchanged side for the third game running and hope to rest some before the end when we’re a few goals ahead (haha).
Injury wise, Thomas Partey is said to be ‘progressing well’ from a thigh problem and was being assessed before today’s game. His presence would be a huge boost but I think it’s unlikely he’ll be ready and we will not want to take risks with him.
Here’s my guess at the line-up:
Bellerin – Luiz – Gabriel – Tierney
Xhaka – Elneny
Saka – Odegaard – Smith Rowe
I have Elneny in instead of Ceballos, which would be a bit unlucky for Dani, but Mo gives us more athleticism and is more defensively minded.
I would not be at all surprised to see Lacazette start, with Auba on the left and Smith Rowe on the bench, but if you read this blog regularly you will by now know my feelings about ESR and I will be disappointed if the Croydon De Bruyne doesn’t start.
Keep our concentration, work our socks off, create some chances and who knows what could happen. The one good thing about teams that are on a seemingly irresistible run (like City) is that they always end up meeting resistance in unexpected places. Let the Emirates today be that place.
I am fairly confident we will pick up a red card during tomorrow’s game against in-form Manchester City.
It could be a spectacular straight red as David Luiz performs a scissors kick around Gundogan’s neck in the six yard box, or a low-key second yellow for Granit Xhaka, twice caught out in midfield and deliberately pulling back his opponent to make up for his lack of speed. Or some other catastrophic blunder.
Sorry to start with such a negative prediction, but ironically I reached it by considering our chances against the champions-to-be and surprising myself be not feeling completely daunted.
Yes, they’re unbeaten since November 19th and, yes, they have won 14 of their last 16 in the league (the other two were draws) and, yes, their goal difference is a full 15 – FIFTEEN! – ahead of the second placed team and, yes, they’re playing beautiful football but… we have Kieran Tierney!
Seriously though, I started to think through the sort of attacking players we can now put out – the likes of Saka, Odegaard, Smith Rowe, Aubameyang, Martinelli, Pepe and I realised that tomorrow’s game is not automatically a write-off, even though most supporters seem to think so.
We can cause them problems. We have players who can make pretty patterns and create openings and I fully expect us to score.
But then I pondered the problems they will pose us. Apart from the general high level of quality and technical ability in their squad, it’s the speed and skill of their attacking line-up that has proved so deadly.
And that lethal strike force will probably be up against the following back line: Bellerin – Luiz – Gabriel – Tierney. Obviously three of those were starters on Thursday night and Tierney got about half an hour as a sub, but I suspect that Mikel Arteta will send them out again against the pale blue Mancs.
It’s not a great leap from thinking “Man City’s attackers play a lightning fast, one-touch, pass-and-move game” to thinking “David Luiz… Granit Xhaka… oh dear.”
If Holding starts instead of Luiz, the problem remains the same. As the City players try to weave round us into the box it will be all too easy for Luiz, or Holding, or a back-tracking Xhaka to stick out a boot and bring them down. With VAR there’s no escape, particularly as the system seems to have it in for Arsenal.
Gabriel is a much faster defender but he, too, has shown the capacity for a sudden misjudgement leading to expulsion. And Hector Bellerin has a habit of getting caught out of position and having to chase back to make amends, sometimes feeling forced to commit a foul.
Playing City with 11 men will be hard enough. With 10 men it will be almost impossible.
Am I too pessimistic? Or have I identified a fundamental weakness in our squad – something I have previously referred to as a “self destructiveness gene” in our DNA? Nine red cards so far under El Patron and counting. Will it be 10 by tomorrow evening?