Oh boy. This is one of those blogs where there’s so much going on I’m going to have to break it down into various sections. Let’s start with:
The team was pretty much as expected, although starts for Kieran Tierney and Alex Lacazette made it a bit stronger than I had predicted. A nod from Unai Emery as to the importance of this fixture and three points.
What a start. Two goals inside the first 10 minutes. First Sokratis reacted quickly when the ball broke after a corner, I thought his finish was quite smart actually. Hitting it down and into the ground to skid it through a sea of legs and into the net to make it 1-0. Two minutes later we had a second when another corner was flicked on, the Palace defence were non-existent, and David Luiz was there to hook the ball home. 2-0. You really can’t ask for better than that.
Even if the goals came from set-pieces rather than open play, they should have provided us with the perfect platform to go on and win the game. Lacazette almost made it three but Hennessy made a good save. Palace didn’t look up to much in the opening half an hour really but, as we so often do, we gave them a lifeline, with a little help from VAR.
Wilfried Zaha went down under a challenge from Calum Chambers. Watching on TV I thought ‘Oh oh’, so was pleasantly surprised when Martin Atkinson booked the Palace man for simulation. But wait. Decision overturned. Yellow card rescinded. Penalty given. We know Milivojevic doesn’t miss them, and it was 2-1.
I read on Twitter yesterday that Leno has faced 11 penalties since joining Arsenal and has yet to save one. I’m not sure if this was an implicit criticism of the German, or simply stating the facts, but either way it’s an extraordinary statistic when you consider he only made his debut for us on September 20th 2018. People used to criticise Petr Cech for not saving penalties too, but clearly the big issue is that we are a team that concedes a remarkable number of them. Maybe we should try, you know, not doing that and seeing if that helps, rather than look at our goalkeepers to try and bail us out. I mean, it would be nice if he saved one or two, but prevention is better than cure and all that.
For what it’s worth, by my own penalty standards – would I go mad if we weren’t awarded a spot kick for the same foul? – it was nailed on. Zaha was just too quick for Chambers, it was a penalty.
2-1 at the break, and you’d hope that Arsenal would display some control and come out in the second period looking to assert themselves. I can’t say ‘again’ there, because there wasn’t much between the two sides in the first half on a statistical level (passes etc), but we’re at home, we have players like Pepe, Lacazette, and Aubameyang who should be able to hurt Palace. As a brief aside, how isolated was Auba yesterday? He got no service, took just two shots (both from outside the area), received 0 passes in the box, and had far fewer touches of the ball than any other starter (just 23, the next lowest was Lacazette with 45, so it shows you how peripheral he is when shunted out wide). And to be clear, that’s a waste of one of the best strikers in Europe.
Back to the game, and when an Arsenal move broke down in their half, Palace moved the ball down the left hand side through Zaha then McArthur. I don’t think Xhaka did enough to stop the cross, it went over a stranded Luiz at the back post and Ayew was there to make it 2-2. That’s the second time in the Premier League this season we’ve blown a 2-0 lead against the kind of team would ordinarily expect Arsenal to beat, especially at home, but the fact we conceded comes as no surprise. Emery said just last week we had improved defensively. We haven’t. We’re as shaky and flaky as we’ve always been under the Spaniard, that goal was more evidence of it.
It prompted him into a change, which leads to the next part of this post-game epic:
Whatever level of the game you play at, being substituted is not a nice feeling. I think most of us can connect with that on a human level. Then think about how that feeling would be exacerbated by the sound of your own fans cheering when your number goes up. Granit Xhaka, the professional footballer and the captain of Arsenal, should have done his best to ignore that, and get off the pitch as quickly as possible to make way for the change. With the game at 2-2 and Arsenal in need of three points, that’s what he should have done.
Instead, Granit Xhaka the man, reacted poorly. It must have hurt to hear those jeers, but when he trudged off the pitch slowly, those turned to boos and cat-calls. It was very unpleasant to hear whether you’re a fan of Xhaka or not. He then gestured to the crowd – almost like an villain in a gladiatorial ring, threw the armband down, shouted ‘f*ck off’ at the fans, continued to traipse off the pitch, cupped his ear again to the fans heckling him, took his shirt off and went straight down the tunnel rather than take his place on the bench as custom dictates.
It was an extraordinary moment and one which will have far reaching consequences for him, no doubt about it. If you could understand him being upset at the reaction to his substitution, there’s no way to excuse his behaviour on the way off. He’s an emotional guy, and his emotions got the better of him there because this was an act of self-destruction from a senior player who should know better. It also undermines Emery’s decision to make him captain, this is not the way a so-called leader behaves.
However, and I say this as someone who would happier to see Lucas Torreira start in midfield rather than the Swiss international, I feel this situation has to be looked at through the prism of Unai Emery. For me, what happened with Xhaka is something that has been building this season, and I don’t think his manager has helped him. Let me be very clear: I’m not excusing what he did one bit, but in many ways I think he has become something of a lightning rod for implicit criticism of the manager.
Emery made him captain when he knew it wasn’t going to be a popular choice. He starts him in every league game despite his form being poor and the mounting evidence that we need to do something different in midfield. He also considers him expendable before the hour mark, and in the circumstances, with Arsenal having blown a two goal lead at home less than a week after losing to Sheffield United, he must have known he’d lit something of a tinderbox.
On top of that, there’s something symbolic about taking off your captain. Putting on an attacker for a midfielder makes sense if you’re trying to win a game, but when you haul off the same captain you’ve defended time and time again from criticism, to throw on an 18 year old winger, there’s a lot to read into that. Again, it’s not to excuse what Xhaka did. His position as captain of the club is now completely untenable, but he didn’t award himself that armband and he doesn’t pick himself every week either.
This is a mess of Emery’s making. It took him ages to make the captaincy appointment in the first place. He ignored the obvious feel-good candidate in Aubameyang, and then hid behind this players vote thing as a way to wash his own hands of responsibility. It was meek, indecisive management of what should have been a straightforward situation, and it 100% had an impact on what happened yesterday.
What’s next for Xhaka? It’s hard to know, but the bigger picture is he’s a popular guy in the dressing room. I was told many of the players are upset and distraught for him and about the whole thing, and we have a major problem on our hands because this was a moment that will live long in the memories and, for me at least, goes beyond what he did yesterday. It was a manifestation of frustration towards him, no doubt, but also the manager whose decisions have led to this bubbling cauldron of toxicity.
Saka came on, we had more of the ball, but we created little. Lacazette had a near post shot which went wide, but we were struggling from open play. Set pieces seemed our best bet to get a goal, and in the 83rd minute we had one when Sokratis whacked home what should have been his second of the game. The crowd celebrated, the players celebrated, the ball was back in the centre-circle for the kick off, but there he was again … that VAR man waiting in the sky, he’d like to come and meet us, and he made Sokratis cry.
For some reason, the goal was chalked off. They said it was because of a foul by Calum Chambers, but I’ve watched it again and again and again and I can’t see it. It’s an appalling decision on a sporting level and it cost us three points. Perhaps three points we didn’t deserve, but deserve isn’t always a marker of whether you should win a game or not.
VAR is shit. Let’s face it. Whether it goes for you or goes against you, it’s still shit. It is sucking the life out of the best moments of football games, for no good reason. It’s also far, far worse for the match going fan in the stadium than it is for us at home watching on TV. At least there we have some idea of what’s going on as the commentators piece to together and we see some replays, but the time it takes to make decisions remains interminable. The people that pay their money to go to games deserve to better, and when any technology is implemented, they should be the first consideration when impact studies are made.
It seems as if those supporters are considered a kind of tricky minority by the people who run VAR. Sure, fans are the lifeblood of the game blah blah blah but if we make it ok for the millions watching around the world, it’ll be ok. It won’t. They are chipping away at the very core of the fan experience. They should remember that every fan watching on TV would happily swap places with someone inside the ground if they could, and unless they have a serious consultation about this the damage may prove irreparable.
Also, why aren’t the referees themselves using the technology? Apparently that Sokratis ‘goal’ was ruled illegal by a bloke who has never refereed a Premier League game. Why couldn’t Martin Atkinson have run over to the sideline, watched the incident and made his own mind up? It couldn’t take more time than it already did. The whole thing is a shambles and that decision was an absolute disgrace.
Amid all the controversies though, we need to take stock of what we did on the pitch yesterday and how we played. We dropped two points at home from a winning position; our only real threat came from set-pieces; we played poorly yet again in general; once more we could not build on the platform we gave ourselves in the game; and the malaise that we’re in under Emery continues.
When you add in the Xhaka thing which sees Emery’s choice for captain backfire like many had predicted – although I don’t think anyone quite saw this coming – it was a rotten day for the manager. Do you trust him or his abilities to make things better? I certainly don’t. As the Mesut Ozil song rang around the stadium, the powers that be should have been paying close attention.
Josh Kroenke was at the game, while Stan was in town to watch the LA Rams. Fan sentiment is a powerful thing, and I just don’t see how there’s any way back for Emery now. In the same way as it’s practically impossible for a player who has lost the crowd to win them over again, the same applies to the manager.
This is not what we appointed Emery for. Sometimes you get a decision wrong, many football clubs have to try again and again to find the right man, but don’t exacerbate a wrong decision by prolonging the obvious when you know it’s not working. Some might think it’s harsh, but we’re barely three months into the new season and the mood is so poisonous it’s hard to marry that with the goodwill generated by the summer and what we did in the transfer market. To have got here from there that quickly tells you the end is nigh.
Arsenal need someone to put out the flames, and Emery is no fireman.
James and I will be recording what’s sure to be a pretty lengthy Arsecast Extra later this morning. As ever if you have questions or topics for discussion, send to @gunnerblog 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.
We’ll have the podcast available before lunchtime, until then.