2021 has been a difficult year. I’ve had so much go on on a personal level that I’m fully able to put things in perspective, to separate ‘real life’ and football. I’m also fully aware of the limitations of this team right now. Nevertheless, I can’t remember the last time I felt so emotionally affected by a game, so down at the final whistle. I think it was the 3-2 at Old Trafford in 2016 when I knew our title chances were gone, and that it was essentially curtains for Arsene Wenger.
Yesterday was similar. So much was wrong, even with all the context and mitigating factors you can point to – quite rightly in some cases. I’m going to go through this from the start.
I get we have injuries and absences, but that defence yesterday has to be the worst we’ve seen in years. I know Pablo Mari has been iffy, I said as much myself, but I just can’t get my head around the selection of Sead Kolasinac. He’s a player we rated so lowly last season we just gave him away on loan rather than have any back-up at all for the left-back position, and now he’s starting in a back three at Man City. Reportedly he spent all week trying to get Arsenal pay off his contract so he can join Fenerbahce on a free – why are we picking him?
How are we supposed to believe in a project which leaves us in a position where we have to pick Kolasinac, and even Mari. when we have a near £30m central defender impressing in France. A player whose age etc means he fits perfectly into this youth-based rebuild? Even if you think William Saliba is raw, he’s better than a bloke who wants to go be Mesut’s bodyguard in Turkey.
We all know we need a right-back, and one of the options was playing at centre-half, but at what point does a player’s haplessness end his chances of being selected? Cedric was abysmal yesterday, the kind of performance that should see him relegated to the reserves in ideal circumstances. Midfield was imbalanced, I’m guessing because of the plan we had which lasted around 8 minutes in total, but let’s not kid ourselves – City had the measure of us in that area all day long, and the manager got it wrong.
1-0: Terrible defending. No pressure to stop the cross, and quite how we manage to make Man City’s tiny attackers look so good in the air is almost admirable. I think Leno gets caught in two minds, neither of them any good, and for Calum Chambers to be beaten at the back post by Gundogan is schoolboy stuff. Some years ago, Chambers got roasted by Jefferson Montero when he was playing at right back for us against Swansea. It was a performance which left a scar on his reputation, but genuinely, he was worse yesterday. Much worse.
2-0: Let me be clear, my thoughts on this goal don’t excuse anything we did or didn’t do yesterday, and I think City would have won anyway, but this shouldn’t have stood. Chambers gets a dig in the face, and quite understandably goes down. I do not buy into the idea that a player should ‘man up’ or be stronger when he’s punched in the face. It wasn’t exactly a Mike Tyson haymaker, but in the era of VAR I think any player is right to think that should be punished. Even if others are a bit inconclusive, there’s one angle where you can see quite clearly it’s a punch. Not only the should not had stood, it’s a red card. When you consider what Kolasinac was booked for a few minutes later, it’s even more egregious. On this one, I have actual sympathy for the manager and the players because the officiating was just plain wrong.
That doesn’t excuse the defending which was, frankly, pathetic. City took a free kick in midfield, we stood watching instead of closing the ball down, Cedric did some interpretative dance, deflecting the ball beautifully into the path of the man who slotted it home from close range.
3-0: Down to 10 men at this point (more on that anon), Chambers makes it so easy for Grealish but in the middle neither Kolasinac or Rob Holding have any idea where Gabriel Jesus us because … he moves slightly. Holding is an ok defender with the game in front of him, but he’s like a reverse velociraptor in the box. Where they can’t see when people stay still, he is blind to the tiniest bits of movement in the box, quite a problem for a centre-half.
4-0: Nice football from Man City, but Cedric – as he was against Chelsea last week – is not in line, and plays them onside. Kolasinac literally hides behind a City player instead of trying to block the shot which curls inside the post. Maybe Leno might have done better, maybe, but he did enough to keep the score down later on to not get any criticism for this one.
5-0: A header from a cross that we failed to prevent and did nowhere near enough to compete for. I fully understand why we bought a centre-half this summer, particularly after what we saw yesterday, but how much Ben White helps us aerially remains to be seen.
The red card
I don’t really know why this is contentious, but for me it’s a nailed on red. That he got the ball is irrelevant (read the rules), but Granit Xhaka went flying in with two feet off the ground, and you simply cannot do that and hope to escape a sending off these days. If someone went in like that on one of our players, we’d want exactly the same punishment. Whether we’d get it or not is a different question, but that doesn’t change the reality of it.
If I’m trying to be absolute as fair as I can be, I’d say it’s the kind of red card that’s given to an away side much more easily than it is a home one. I’ve also seen it suggested that Xhaka’s reputation preceded him here, and maybe that is the case, but we all know Granit Xhaka and this isn’t the first time he’s done something like this. The counter-point to that is that nobody knows Granit Xhaka as well as Granit Xhaka, so it’s no excuse.
Just don’t jump in, stay on your feet. I know we want to see our players compete, but what he did yesterday was stupid. If you’re being really cynical you’d say it was a guy whose frustration – which is never far from the surface – got the better of him and he checked out in that moment. Playing City is hard enough with 11 men, and as one of the supposed ‘leaders’, Xhaka should have known better. He made an already difficult day even more so.
However, being down to 10 men doesn’t have to be a death sentence. We’ve experienced plenty of occasions where we’ve struggled to make the most of a man advantage, and while I recognise the obvious gulf in quality, it was all too easy for Man City because of just how passive we are in general. We must be the easiest team to play against in the entire league.
The pressure is well and truly on. You can’t be manager at a club like Arsenal – or any club for that matter – and start the season with three games, three defeats, no goals, and a goal difference of -9 and not feel the heat. I don’t think anything will change just yet, the club have been keen to stress the rebuild they appear to be embarking on will take time, and I don’t see them giving a manager £130m to spend then sacking him after three games of the new campaign (including two against the best two teams in the league).
However, September is crucial for him. He has to start producing results. We need to be aiming for 9 points from our three games next month, the last of which is the North London derby. Otherwise, what choice is there? As it stands, we’re already in the kind of territory that few managers ever recover from. Whether you still have faith in Arteta, or whether you think he should be gone now, I think everyone would agree that it is going to take something verging on remarkable for him to turn it around fully. It’s not to say we won’t win some games, but this project was predicated on him creating something identifiable in terms of how we play the game.
As I watched yesterday, after watching the previous games, after watching all of pre-season, I genuinely have no idea what it is that Arteta is trying to do. I know we have some players missing, but I don’t know that Thomas Partey, Ben White and maybe Gabriel are the transformative pieces of the puzzle that some are suggesting. They would make us better, because they’re better than what we had yesterday, but not to the extent that everything clicks with them in the team.
This defeat, this humbling, needs to be rock bottom (and I need to never hear Pep Guardiola talk about how good Arteta is after his side have beaten us easily again – just shut up). We need to see improvement in how we play, how we prepare, how we compete, and very obviously in terms of results. I honestly think Arteta might be one of the unluckiest managers I’ve ever seen, and I feel for him when it comes to certain issues, but when you couple that bad luck with inexperience, bad decisions, and a team which is lacking from front to back, it makes for a particularly unpleasant cocktail.
I don’t doubt his desire or his work ethic; I like that he has very clearly spoken about long-standing issues that have affected the team and the club as a whole; I enjoyed the idea that he might change a culture which has seen our standing diminish season after season; but right now it’s impossible not to doubt his ability as a manager who can deliver the kind of results that a club like Arsenal should be demanding.
September is going to be a hell of a month. First though, an Interlull for us to endure. Hurrah. James and I will be here tomorrow with an Arsecast Extra to talk it all out.
For now, have a good Sunday.