I’m not sure I have the gumption to go through this entire game, so let me try and break it down into key moments for this morning’s blog.
The Villa goal
If poor concentration cost us at the end of that excellent first half against Wolves, at least we thought the half-time whistle was coming. Obviously that doesn’t excuse it, but it goes some way to explain it. There are no such get-outs for that kind of nonsense at the start of the game when the players should be switched on and ready.
The focus is on Cedric for what was a careless, under-hit pass back to Gabriel, and I’m not here to defend him in any way, shape, or form. However, I think it’s also fair to point out that in the middle Rob Holding only has one thing to do, and that’s get close enough to Ollie Watkins to make it difficult for him to take a shot, and he doesn’t.
Cedric’s pass is bad, but so too is Holding’s defending.
He’s ball-watching, and it’s just as much a lapse in concentration as the bad pass in my book. I know it’s only a few feet, but that’s all you need at this level to make a difference, as the Villa striker, and the ball nestling in the back of our net, demonstrated quite clearly.
It’s the kind of defending less popular players would be crucified over, so let’s not ignore it – especially as it’s such a basic error.
Lacazette going through the middle, with Pepe one side and Lacazette the other. It was reminiscent of last week when he could have fed Gabriel Martinelli but took a shot. This time he delayed and his pass was cut out. Those are situations we simply have to make more of. The Frenchman is good for a first time pass, those little link-ups around the box can be very effective in a quasi-Giroud way, but when there’s time to make the right decision, I feel he’s found wanting a bit too often. It’s moments like that why I’m happy to call time on him in the summer and for the club to source a younger, better replacement.
Xhaka produced an excellent free kick, Martinez made an excellent save.
That he is the clear victim of planned, rotational fouling is a credit to his talent and ability. Teams don’t care about players who can’t do anything. With regards the incident when he was going beyond the last man, I’m looking at it with my Arsenal hat on. I’d be cheesed off if one of our defenders was sent off for that.
However, if that defender, having been booked, went through the back of the opposition striker just a few minutes later – as Konsa did on Lacazette – and didn’t get a second yellow, I’d feel we got away with one. I saw a lot of discussion post-game about how we don’t hammer home the fouls by complaining to the referee, but this happened under his nose, the striker did his best by making it very obvious a foul had happened, and it was ignored. I mean, what more can you really do?
The second half
I actually thought we played some decent football at times. It’s not that we peppered their goal with shots, but we had 70% of the second half possession, and did have 9 attempts on goal.
I also think we could have had a penalty. In real time I thought Lacazette had fouled Martinez, but when you watch the replays it’s far more the other way around. Which isn’t to blame that decision on our defeat, there was obviously a lot more to it, but I can understand why Mikel Arteta went straight to the referee after the final whistle blew. He wasn’t forthcoming on what was said, but I have a fair suspicion that moment was part of it.
One of the areas in which Arteta’s relative inexperience manifests itself is substitutions. I can understand why that is to an extent. In any job you learn as do it, and being a football manager is no different – even if there’s not a lot of forgiveness when you get it wrong because the stakes are so high.
Aubameyang for Lacazette: I had no issue with this change, but I thought we might get more from the captain who really didn’t get into the game at all. I know there are some external issues for him right now, but he was basically anonymous bar one header, and that was a worry.
Odegaard for Cedric: Again, no problem for me. We’re chasing a game, the like for like swap is the Norwegian for Smith Rowe, but we added another attacking player. It meant Saka going to left back, but he showed he can produce from there with a good cross that Aubameyang headed tamely wide in his only moment of note. He and Pepe also dovetailed pretty well, and the Ivorian was a real threat down that left hand side.
As a side note: I’d be tempted now by Saka at left-back in Tierney’s absence, because while Cedric has been ok, he’s just an inferior option to Saka. I know that means shifting around that front three, but Pepe’s recent form makes it less of a worry now.
Willian for Partey: Wrong. Bad. In more ways than one. I can’t prove this, but I strongly suspect that Willian was going to come on for Smith Rowe. Then Partey went down injured, and rather than rethink, we just put on the player who was ready, rather than take another minute or two to put on the right player – which for me would have been Dani Ceballos given that a key midfielder was going off.
The introduction of Willian did nothing for us, and I’ll come to him in a moment, but I do think we need to acknowledge that the departure of Partey was an issue too. As for the Brazilian, I no longer see the point in bemoaning the haplessness of the player. He was actively bad, carelessly gave the ball away in a dangerous position which caused us danger, and was essentially as ineffective as you’d expect based on what he’s done this season.
We know that he doesn’t produce anything as a starter. We now have sufficient evidence that he produces nothing as a substitute. He gives this team nothing, so if there’s criticism to be leveled, it should be at a manager who continues to give him playing time despite the fact we can all see he’s actually an impediment to the team producing anything worthwhile. If we were chasing a game and we put on a striker who never scores, we’d be critical of that, so what’s the difference in a so-called winger who never creates anything?
If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that the introduction of young, hungry, motivated players has helped. If Arteta’s initial thought had been to introduce Gabriel Martinelli rather than Willian, I think there’d be a more understanding from fans, even if we didn’t manage to find a goal. Not least because Martinelli gives you a greater chance of that than a player whose presence on the pitch almost feels like an insult based on what he’s produced this season.
Arteta’s job isn’t to make decisions that will earn him goodwill from fans, but it is to make decisions which give his team the best chance of gaining Premier League points, and it’s impossible to justify or defend the introduction of a player who makes the team worse every time he’s on the pitch.
Again, I don’t think Willian halted our momentum on his own. Losing Partey was part of it too, but that substitution didn’t work and I can only hope there’s a point where Arteta realises he has to use other players from the bench. Whatever faith he has in Willian is misplaced, it’s hurting the team and it’s hurting him too because everyone else can see the problem.
It’s the story of the season. A careless moment punished to the maximum. We weren’t massively out-played. Villa had chances, for sure, and I think it’s worth pointing out Mat Ryan had a decent debut. The distance he propels the ball away from goal when he makes his saves was quite notable.
However, it’s another example of how you have to master fine margins to escape from the mid-table pack. We’re simply not capable of doing that on a consistent basis, and it’s a big reason we are where we are. It’s frustrating, of course, and something we have to improve on if we want to get back to where we feel we belong as a club.
I do think this is just who we are at the moment though, and this is the job at hand. The rebuilding and reshaping of the squad that has to happen must be designed to address these issues.
Until it does, we can expect more days and results like this.