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In the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s 1-1 draw with Burnley, I tweeted:
If you want to know why we’re finishing in mid-table this season, today’s match sums things up nicely.
– Inefficient in attack.
– Stupidity at the back.
– No luck.
About 10 minutes later, a clearly frustrated Mikel Arteta answered questions posed to him by BT Sport’s Des Kelly. His assessment was much the same.
“Obviously, it’s a really tough place and a difficult pitch but, overall, I have to say that if you don’t score the big chances that we have, if you give a goal to the opponent and you don’t get the decision when it’s a clear penalty, in the Premier League it’s pretty complicated.”
Our problems this season are consistent and as a result, we’re consistently inconsistent.
Given we need to put a run of wins together in our remaining 11 games it doesn’t bode very well for our chances of qualifying for Europe via the league. The situation is not lost on the boss, who said:
“It’s really complicated at the moment. It’s true that the feeling that I have with the way we are playing is that we can win any game, but as well, as you mentioned before, if you are giving something to the opponent, obviously the game is all the time on the line. This is where, in my opinion, we have the biggest margin of improvement. But anything can happen.”
I didn’t have a major problem with the team when it was announced. It was a surprise to see Calum Chambers at right-back – not an unpleasant one, I might add – and Willian got the nod above Pepe. I guess it was a toss-up between the two of them given how well they did last weekend. The Brazilian started on the left, Saka was on the right and Odegaard sat behind Aubameyang. With Partey and Xhaka in front of the defence, it was as strong a midfield lineup as you might have hoped for in the absence of Emile Smith Rowe, who was out with a muscular problem.
On a pitch that had been deliberately cultivated to work against us – dry, bobbly and probably covered in glass and dog shit – we started relatively well. We saw lots of the ball and focused on drawing Burnley onto us before patiently working our way through the lines. It worked a treat and inside six minutes we had the lead.
Rolled the ball by Leno, Partey committed striker Chris Wood to a challenge, exchanged passes with Xhaka and then threaded a pass to Willian that the Brazilian collected on the halfway line. He burst forward 30-yards before laying off to Aubameyang on the left edge of the penalty area. The striker cut inside with a couple of stepovers sending Lowton and Tarkowski the wrong way and with room to shoot, he drove low at Pope’s near post. The keeper got a hand on the ball but it squeezed inside the post all the same. He probably should have done better but our captain didn’t care as he celebrated his sixth goal in six games. It’ll go down as Willian’s third assist in three games too and he now has the joint-most of any Arsenal player this season in all competitions.
Willian has now recorded the joint-most assists of any Arsenal player this season in all competitions.
— Orbinho (@Orbinho) March 7, 2021
We were good value for our lead and had three good chances to extend our lead. Twice in the space of three minutes, we nearly took advantage of fortunate ricochets. First Aubameyang shot wide on 19 minutes collecting a Partey lofted pass after Lowton panicked in his box and then Saka hit wide with the outside of his left foot. It was a bad miss and he knew it, reacting by kicking the stanchion behind the goal. It really wasn’t the young man’s day and he grew increasingly frustrated after to the point when I got worried he might get sent off in the second half. When Partey fired over the bar from Odegaard’s cutback on the half-hour mark I was both impressed by the move and concerned by the failure to kill the game.
Sure enough, Burnley inched their way back into things. Not to the point where they deserved a goal but we decided to gift them one all the same.
38 minutes were on the clock when we worked the ball from Chambers on the right flank to Tierney on the left. The Scot played the ball back to Mari and at that point, we started to look a little uncomfortable. Leno probably should have hoofed the ball long but instead, he fed Xhaka who’d dropped deep to the edge of the box.
The Swiss’ undoing was the touch that took him back towards his own goal (he should have played first time) at which point a clear path for a pass to David Luiz was blocked by Wood. Naturally, he tried to find the Brazilian anyway and Burnley’s massive Kiwi simply stuck out a leg to divert the ball into an empty net. I threw a cushion at the TV and went big on some guttural expletives. This. Club.
Watching the replay, you can see Odegaard is worried when Leno gets the ball because he starts pointing at where he thinks the ball should be played. Spoiler alert – he wasn’t pointing at Xhaka.
At this point, I should say that I have no problem with us playing out from the back. However, to do it effectively you need to be bloody good technically and be excellent at risk management. If either one of those lets you down, you’re in trouble. Not for the first time in his Arsenal career, Xhaka failed on both fronts. Afterwards, he looked to defuse the situation:
“I hold my hands up for their goal and I’m sorry for the mistake. That’s football and right now I feel just as frustrated as all of you.”
Arteta didn’t blame the midfielder, who you’ll remember was also sent off against Burnley in December. While admitting his team needs to cut out the costly mistakes, he also stressed he’ll always support players for trying to implement his football philosophy.
“If someone makes a mistake because they’re playing the way we want to play, I will always support them. If someone is hiding and doesn’t want to play and then makes a mistake, I’m not going to have that.”
So, 1-1 at the break but having overcome stupid brainfarts against Leicester and Benfica in the previous two games, I, like many of you, still felt the game was there to be taken in the second half.
Saka had a couple of shots blocked in the early stages before Arteta switched things up sending on Lacazette to play the number 10 role in place of Odegaard. I thought it was a strange decision and it didn’t really swing the momentum in our favour. Nicolas Pepe for Willian on 70 minutes did see the game open up and chances started to fall to both sides.
When I mentioned at the start that we’re getting “no luck” I had the first of the two Erik Pieters’ handball incidents in mind. Several Arsenal players were already appealing for a handball by the Dutch substitute when Pepe tried to nick the ball past the defender a second time. His arm clearly touched the ball and when VAR decided to review, it seemed certain we’d be awarded a penalty. Kevin Friend in Stockley Park decided otherwise and a statement from the PGMOL was quickly relayed by BT Sport commentator Darren Fletcher: “Proximity was an issue.”
Even ex-referee Peter Walton, the man who defended David Luiz’s red card at Wolves, remarked, “I’m just a bit surprised that wasn’t given as a penalty kick.” If he’s agreeing with you, you know you’ve been completely done over.
Do I want to see penalties given for that? Not really. I was angry when Calum Chambers was penalised for something similar at West Brom a couple of years ago. However, I do want to see some fucking consistency in the way the handball rule is implemented. Under this season’s rules, it should have been a spot-kick.
“I think it’s obvious and clear, I think there is no debate about that,” said Arteta. “If that is not a penalty, then would someone explain what a penalty is in this league.”
That was just the start of the Pieters-related drama as the game reached a manic crescendo. On 78 minutes the left-back tried his luck with a dipping volley that forced Leno into a fine save. After Vydra headed wide the resulting free-kick, the German came to the rescue a second time, denying Wood with his feet. We were on the ropes but responded by pushing forward.
I was still coming to terms with Pepe’s air kick from a Tierney cross when Saka picked out the Ivorian a second time. This time, the winger made perfect contact with the ball but his right-foot volley was deflected onto the bar by Pieters. Referee Andre Marriner thought he’d used his hands and immediately pointed to the penalty spot and flashed a red card. I know it happened very quickly but my first reaction was that it would be overturned. On review, VAR rescinded both decisions. Pieters had used his shoulder to pull off a remarkable piece of defending. Of course, just because it was the right decision didn’t make it any less frustrating.
There was still time for two further chances deep into four minutes of stoppage time. Aubameyang had a shot blocked by Ben Mee and with time nearly up an almighty scramble in the home side’s box resulted in Ceballos crashing a shot against the post. Unreal. A couple of inches to the left and this morning’s blog would read like it was written by Mary Poppins. The whistle went seconds later and our players fell to their knees.
As Orbinho pointed out, were it not for individual errors in our last four Premier League away games (Wolves, Villa, Leicester, Burnley) we might easily have taken twelve points. Instead, we have four. Those eight dropped points alone would have us in fifth place. Instead, we’re still in 10th. This is us. This is what we do at the moment.
Arteta now has a couple of days to rouse the troops before we face Olympiacos in Athens on Thursday and Sp*rs at the Emirates on Sunday. A stressful week lies ahead.