When you come from 2-0 down to take a point from a North London derby, you have to take some positives, and the character and desire we showed to get ourselves back into the game is to be applauded this morning. Goals from Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang earned us a point, and in truth our second half performance probably should have resulted in a bit more, but when you do what we did in the first half you make it so difficult to take the maximum from a fixture of this difficulty.
That is the yin to the yang with this Arsenal side. We can see the quality at times, but we can also see the soft centre and the individual mistakes/moments of stupidity that cost us. Having set up with the front three we all wanted to see, Unai Emery’s decision to play three midfielders of a similar type did hamper us. Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi aren’t exactly the same, but the team lacked the player to really connect with Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe.
We started brightly enough, then gave away a really soft goal. Sokratis went for a header he had no need to go for and missed it; Luiz was bypassed a bit easily; but the Greek international compounded his earlier decision by showing all the awareness of a blinkered pony – he had no idea Eriksen was on his outside. So, when Lamela’s shot was saved by Leno, who should have done better with it, the Sp*rs man scored the easiest goal he’ll ever get as Sokratis looked around bewildered at the fact they might have a player alert and on his toes, ready for that mistake.
All of this, by the way, came from Lloris kicking the ball out from his own box. A long ball humped forward should be bread and butter stuff to any team but for us it seems to be a real weakness. A piece of basic, industrial football which is so often our undoing and something you’d have hoped we’d improve under Emery, but so far that’s not been the case.
Leno had to save again, from Kane (unconvincingly), and from Eriksen, tipping the ball around the post when he’d been given time and space to shoot. At the other end Aubameyang, our deadly central striker, was left to fire in crosses from the left hand side, one of which found Pepe at the back post but Rose made a decent block.
Then came their second goal. What can you say? It doesn’t merit a great deal of analysis other than it’s another piece of rank stupidity from Granit Xhaka, a player who never seems to learn. If you went sliding in to an opponent in your own box like that at U12 level you’d get a clip around the ear because even at that age you should know better, so for a seasoned professional it was an unforgivable error. Not least because we know from experience that Kane is going to score when you give him a penalty. We really need to stop giving them stupid penalties.
I don’t know what to say about Xhaka at this point. The qualities in his game just don’t offset these moments of outright brainlessness. On his Instagram, he said, “For the penalty I made a mistake – I’m of course angry about it but I will never give up!”
What does that even mean? It’s not about giving up. It’s about not being an idiot. It’s about showing a modicum of football intelligence at key moments in games. You think back to the Brighton game last season which went some way to condemning us to another season of Europa League football. It was Xhaka’s unnecessary clumsiness which conceded another penalty from which they scored, and which cost us 2 points on the day. There was more to the end of our season than that, but the Swiss international has had too many moments like that since he joined. Patience is at breaking point now. As for Emery saying he was proud of his performance, I just can’t. I know he’s not going to lambaste one of his players publicly but there’s a balance between that and the kind of praise that will make Xhaka think his error was trifling.
We needed something, and from one of our main men we got it just before half-time. A free kick had been cleared with appeals for handball, but before anything could get VARd, Sp*rs gave it away, Guendouzi found Pepe who played it to Lacazette in the box. His first touch was a delicious Amuse-bouche, his second a tasty appetiser, and his third, as he slammed the ball into the net with his left foot, was a succulent main course with a mouth-watering side of Tottenham tears. What a man. His performance yesterday, until he signalled he had to come off, was fantastic. The way he tries to influence games even when he’s disconnected and not getting any service is a measure of his character.
I expected a half-time change from the manager, but it didn’t happen. He sent the same team out, and early on Sp*rs had some dangerous moments. Son had a shot deflected around the post, and but for Luiz reading a pass through to Lamela after the South Korean had found way too much space in our midfield they might have scored again. Lloris saved from welll from Guendouzi, and from the resulting corner Lacazette’s flick found Kolasinac at the back post but he could only stab it wide. If he’d left it Aubameyang had a tap-in, but he had to go for it I guess.
Then a moment on which the game really could have changed. Kane played a one-two with Eriksen which left Sokratis in a whizzle, and his shot beat Leno but crashed back off the inside of the post. It was a strange moment, almost like everything Arsenal related in the stadium stopped for a second, but had that gone in our chances of getting anything from the game would have been much slimmer.
As it was, it prompted Emery into a change, putting on Ceballos for Torreira, and it made a difference straight away. The Spaniard gave us a midfielder playing further forward, and from that moment on we put huge amounts of pressure on – so much so that even the introduction of the hapless Mkhitaryan for the excellent Lacazette didn’t hamper us. Ceballos also allowed Guendouzi’s influence to grow, and one of the big positives from yesterday was the way the young Frenchman played.
It felt like a coming of age performance, as he took responsibility and control in the middle of the park. He was everywhere, looking to make things happen, and it was fitting that a moment of real quality from him got us the goal that earned us a point. The precision of his pass for Aubameyang was superb, understanding the movement and penalty box instincts of the striker, and the finish was just so clever. Lloris didn’t have a sniff, and it was apt reward for Guendouzi’s effort that he made a big contribution to us getting something from the game.
We did have the ball in the net again, but Kolasinac was carelessly offside in the build-up, and the goal was disallowed. There were a couple of chances for Pepe, who shot wide on both occasions, and despite our dominance we found ourselves hanging on a bit as the game went into injury time. The game just got completely ragged and went a bit end to end. There was the inevitable Harry Kane dive to try and win another penalty, but the referee had none of it, and two dangerous moments from Sissoko who, at this point, I’m convinced misses against us deliberately. No player can be that consistently useless in positions like that, can they? I mean, even Gervinho scored sometimes.
In the end then, we ensured we didn’t lose the game, and that is important – but you’re left with a sense of ‘What if?’, as in ‘What if we stop making mistakes or what if we select a team without the player who consistently costs us points?’. Afterwards, Emery said:
There are more positives than negatives in 90 minutes. I am going to be optimistic and also I am very proud of the work, of our players. We will take those mistakes and improve.
A not unreasonable position for the manager to take, in fairness, because his team did show a lot of heart and character to come back, dominate the game for a good 30 minutes in the second half, and any time you overturn a 2-0 goal deficit in a game like this it feels positive. I thought Ceballos was fantastic when he came on; I’ve mentioned Guendouzi already who was a really big plus; and we have two strikers who can score goals.
I realise that turning that positive into a little negative might be seen as navel gazing a bit, but ultimately that’s what got us something. The quality of those two players was key, rather than an overarching Arsenal performance, if that makes sense. I guess it’s a bit inevitable that when you have two players as good as they are you can build a bit of a reliance on them, and each goal was a showcase of their individual talents. Auba’s penalty box instincts, and Lacazette’s ability to make space in tight areas before an emphatic finish – as we saw in the Burnley game.
I’m still unsure of what kind of football we’re trying to play though. The introduction of Ceballos illustrated to me, at least, that we need a player to connect our midfield with our front three, and if Emery is looking at ‘mistakes’, he might consider that an error of selection and address that in future games. We can also talk all day about cutting out individual mistakes, but at some point it becomes the responsibility of the coach when he continues to pick players who make them. I don’t think Xhaka is a bad bloke or anything, but how many times can he do something like he did yesterday and not find his position in the team under threat? He doesn’t pick himself though, so the responsibility is on Emery to find a workable solution.
In the end, it’s hard not to feel a bit unhappy because we showed that we had the measure of this Sp*rs side when the balance in our midfield was better. It’s a shame we didn’t have Ceballos and a fully fit Lacazette on, but then maybe we don’t score that second goal unless Auba is in the middle. That is a conundrum for the manager too, because it’s obvious the striker is better in there and wasted a bit out wide, but when your other option is Mkhitaryan you can understand why he went for it. Something for Emery to think about during the Interlull anyway.
The first month of the season is now over. We have seven points from four games, which is all right basically. We have a goal difference of 0 which shows we still have defensive problems and aren’t quite there yet from an attacking point of view. We now have two weeks off, and need to get going when things kick off again. The last two fixtures have been tough, and while there have been some positives – particularly from yesterday – there is a need to find some real momentum.
A point from a derby is never enough but, in the circumstances yesterday, acceptable. You can’t really expect to win games like this if you gift the opposition goals, and we gave them two presents yesterday. The comeback was good, but at the heart of this one was our long-standing ability to make life difficult for ourselves – something which shows no sign of improvement.
James is away this week, but there will be an Arsecast Extra. I’ll be joined by Tayo Popoola, so if you have questions or topics for discussion, send to @DjTayo and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
That’ll be up mid-morning, or thereabouts. Until then, have a good one.