Morning all. A blog of two parts this morning, for obvious reasons. First:
Arsenal v West Ham – KO 8pm
The fact that Brentford v Man Utd was called off because of a Covid outbreak means a win for us tonight puts in the top four. It might be only temporary, but it’s still an opportunity. We faced this situation going into the games at Old Trafford and Goodison Park, and fell short on both occasions. Tonight, it would be both a shame and a worry if we made it an unwanted hat-trick.
Our home form is good. Only Man City have a better home record than us this season, and until their 7-0 win over Leeds last night, we’d garnered the same amount of points (19). They now have 22, we can make it 22 tonight with a win. Our away issues need to be solved, but given how well we’ve done at the Emirates, not taking this opportunity tonight would feel particularly bad.
In terms of the team, there’s one very obvious absentee, but apart from that everyone is fit and available it seems. I expect Alexandre Lacazette to start up top, and beyond that the only change I can think of is the return of Emile Smith Rowe, who made the bench for the Southampton game, but wasn’t quite fit enough to start. If he gets the nod tonight it would probably be at the expense of Gabriel Martinelli who has done really well since he came into the side. If the manager stuck with the Brazilian, I’d have no complaints, but I just wonder if he might be kept in reserve as we’re down a striker and might need an effective option off the bench later in the game.
We know West Ham will be tough, physical and dangerous from set-pieces, so there won’t be any surprises really. They beat Chelsea a couple of weeks ago so you cannot take anything for granted, even if they’ve had a couple of big injuries at the back. Nevertheless, we need to be fully focused on this and not the other stuff, and if we can do what we did in the second half at the weekend, it’s well within our capability to take all three points.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang stripped of the captaincy
Well, I wasn’t expecting that, I have to say, but clearly what’s happened over the last few days – which I think has to be something more than simply returning late – was sufficient for Mikel Arteta and the club to take very serious punitive action against the striker. He’s been stripped of the captaincy, which is bad itself, but left out of the squad indefinitely, raising serious questions over his future at the club.
The wording of the club’s statement was quite something, saying:
Following his latest disciplinary breach last week, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will no longer be our club captain, and will not be considered for selection for Wednesday’s match against West Ham United.
The word ‘latest’ there is very deliberate. And in the embargoed section of the press conference, Arteta said:
“The decision that we have taken as a club is very clear, it’s because we believe that he has failed to be committed at the level that we all expect and agreed. It’s as simple as that.”
I watched the manager’s press conference yesterday and my sense was that he felt let down, and this wasn’t something he was relishing so he could just flex his disciplinarian muscles. He was asked about his relationship with Aubameyang, and said it had been good throughout their time together, hence the reason this decision was so ‘painful‘.
He wouldn’t be drawn on whether Aubameyang had apologised, and in response to a question about if he’d have done the same if the player had scored 10 goals in his last 5 games said:
“Without a question of a doubt.”
If you’re cynical you might say it’s much easier to say that when you’re talking about a striker who hasn’t scored in 7 games, rather than one a prolific one, but I do think it’s telling. There has been nothing this season to suggest that Arteta has been anything other than 100% supportive of Aubameyang, so the suggestion that he’s just decided to take against him and throw him under a bus for no real reason than to come across as a Sergeant Major type doesn’t make any sense to me.
Until the game against Everton, he had started every single Premier League game. When asked about him, he waxed lyrical about the way he was playing and how hard he was working. When the goals dried up and he missed some chances you’d normally expect him to take, he talked about his quality. So, while I can absolutely see how some people might view this as Arteta having another issue with a player, I don’t think this is like previous situations. As for the player, there’s been nothing in his on-pitch behaviour, the way he celebrated goals with teammates etc, that suggested anything untoward.
For me, there was no sense that this was something Arteta was relishing in his press conference. I don’t think this is a situation he envisaged, it’s certainly not one he manufactured, and I’m sure he’d much rather it wasn’t something he had to deal with. We’re not exactly replete with world class options up front, and that’s something we’re going to have to deal with over the coming weeks.
Situations like this are always going to be divisive. What you think of the manager or the player will have an impact on your opinion. If you like the former and see this implementation of discipline as a good thing, something overdue, you’ll view it one way. If you prefer the player and aren’t sold on the manager, you’ll view it another. You might feel like this could have been handled more quietly behind the scenes, and I get that, but this is the way they decided to go and this is what we have to deal with.
As for what happens next, it’s hard to say. A couple of weeks ago we were worried about Aubameyang’s lack of goals, but it was nobody was expecting something like this to happen. Right now it feels raw, and it’s hard to see how these fences get mended, but time is a great healer. Still, there was no suggestion he’d be back any time soon. Given the AFCON players are due to leave on December 27th, we have 12 days, and two more Premier League games after West Ham, so chances are he won’t be involved against Leeds on Saturday or Norwich on December 26th, unless there’s speedy some reconciliation. Then he’s away for the best part of a month.
It might be a time when things calm down, and when the lines of communication are easier to open. It might also be a time when it becomes clear the current distance can’t be bridged. The other reality we have to face is that we have a £300,000 striker not playing, and there isn’t exactly an obvious destination for him in January if it was decided that his future lay elsewhere. It would also leave us terribly short in the forward line, reliant on two players – Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah – who are both likely to leave in the summer and until recently hadn’t played much at all. So, it would require a January signing. We know we need a striker anyway, it’s top of the shopping list come the summer, so maybe that signing is brought forward.
What’s really important though is that this isn’t allowed to fester. We cannot allow the rest of the season to be played under a cloud, when every game and every result becomes an ‘If we had Aubameyang’ situation. We got ourselves out of one of those too recently to do it all over again.
I’ve said this before, but as much as his goal drought was a worry, it wasn’t entirely down to him. His form was poor, but by the manager’s own admission he was working hard. We have bigger issues as a team in terms of creativity and making chances which played a part in that, so there can’t be that kind of revisionism which pins all the blame on him. He is at fault for his timekeeping, but scapegoating and making him entirely responsible for the team’s goal tally isn’t right.
That even goes for the captaincy. I’ve seen a lot of ‘He was never a good captain’ stuff, and look, I don’t think he was perfect by any means, but in the dark days of the post-Xhaka fall-out he was the obvious choice. He led the team to the FA Cup win in 2020 with doubles against Man City and Chelsea, and nobody was questioning his ‘leadership’ at that point. Obviously, when something like this happens everyone is Captain Hindsight, but I do think that’s a bit unfair. The same goes for his contract extension by the way, which again made sense at the time, especially as we were just 6 months into a global pandemic and nobody knew what anything was going to be like in terms of finances, the transfer market, player movement and all the rest.
In the end, I think it’s a shame things have gone this way. I know there’s a big discussion to be had about the captaincy, what happens next, the leadership group, the history of armband and all that, but it can wait for another day. Right now we could be looking at the end of Aubameyang’s Arsenal career and, as a player I like, I feel sad that this has happened. It’s frustrating that we’re dealing with yet another public issue with a star player, and ultimately how this whole situation is viewed will depend on what we do on the pitch in the weeks ahead. Let’s hope the wound can be healed a little with three points against West Ham tonight.
For more on the Aubameyang situation, as well as some previewing of tonight’s game, there’s a podcast over on Patreon right now.
For now, take it easy, and I’ll catch you later for Smith Rowe’s hat-trick against the Hammers.