Monday, May 16, 2022

Sp*rs 3-0 Arsenal: Down, but not out

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After all the build-up, to say last night was disappointing would be an understatement, but as much as possible I’m going to try and get through the aspects of the game as quickly as possible because I’m not that keen to re-live it all.

I thought we started quite brightly, playing with the same team that beat Leeds last week, Ben White only fit enough for a place on the bench and, as we were to discover, not fit enough for the context of this game. They got back into it, and I’m going to look at this ‘incident’ by incident.

The penalty

For me this is very soft. You know my rule of thumb when assessing penalties: ‘how would I feel if it happened up the other end?’, and if we’d been given one for that, I’d be sending the referee a nice gift basket to thank him for his generosity. The referee fell for Son’s acrobatics, kicking his leg in the air like some kind of electrocuted BMX rider going over a big jump, and the entreaties of the crowd who were very much in his eye-line. It was vaguely clumsy from Cedric but never worthy of a penalty in a big game like this.

Kane scored the penalty. He always scores his penalties against us.

Rob Holding’s red card

There is no doubt that Son is a very good player, but also one with an edge to him. He relishes the close contact because he’s very good at making it look as if he’s been hurt, while not being averse to dishing a bit out himself then looking like a boy scout. He’s got Teflon running through his veins, and I don’t know why that’s never mentioned. It’s a bit like Sadio Mane at Liverpool the stuff he gets away with. Despite the fact everyone can see it, the officials rarely do.

However, in the cold light of day and with the passion of the derby behind us, I don’t think Rob Holding can have any complaints this morning. His first booking wasn’t just for that foul, it was cumulative, and whether it was by instruction or he was feeling a bit wound up for this one, you could see it coming. Straight away he got into a physical battle with Son which isn’t smart unless you’re really good at that stuff, and it’s not Holding’s game. He’s a stopper, you don’t want him chasing and pressing players on halfway because if he’s turned he can’t get back. He knew that too, so he made fouls. Maybe he should have made more of the bit where Son threw his elbow back, because you know the other way around there would have been a VAR check for the ages, but this is part of it. You have to know how to apply the ‘dark arts’ in both directions.

As for the second yellow, in real time I thought it was harsh, another generous decision given to the home team, but replays showed it was an obvious second yellow. The way he raised his arm would have had Arsenal fans demanding justice if one of their defenders had done it to Bukayo Saka for example, and the thing is, he had no need to do it. The ball was sailing over his head towards the keeper, and he got lured in/caught up in a bit of reducer-justice in his own head.

In hindsight, Tomiyasu on the right from the start would have made more sense and I while I can understand the manager’s thinking to an extent, I think he’d have given us better protection and greater solidity on the side where Sp*rs are strongest. Yes, the left back options aren’t ideal, but be as strong as you can be in key positions then deal with the weaknesses as best you can. The truth is Cedric is average whichever side he plays on so starting him at left back wouldn’t have made a huge difference, and while Nuno Tavares is far from the complete player defensively, he can give you something up the other end as he showed when he came on late in the game.

Their second goal

We rejigged, pushing Xhaka to left back and Tomi to centre-half, but that lack of presence meant Eddie Nketiah was left to deal with Kane from a corner. He could have pushed out to play him offside, didn’t, and he scored the second.

This is where the Ben White issue became clear. I was preparing a half-time, ‘I think we should take Holding off’ Tweet before the red card, but at 2-0 it was a question of assessing the circumstances. We could have used him, but two goals down in a derby with 10 men makes the odds of getting something from the game slim, and with two more games to play, do you risk him? Arteta spoke afterwards about not wanting to do that in the context of the game, and I understand why.

Their third goal

It came very early in the second half, I feel like Gabriel might have been fouled but that he also might have been stronger. Son scored, and to be honest I feared it might completely get away from us. There were a couple of other chances, Ramsdale made a good save, Son put one over the bar, but we stayed relatively well organised and they simply sat off protecting their lead with every man behind the ball like a really expensive Stoke.

The rest

It’s very easy to have regrets about this game, how it played out and all the rest, but perhaps lost in all of the drama is the fact that even with 10 men we managed to create some good chances. What would it have been like 11 v 11? Water under the bridge now, there’s not much point thinking about that because we have other things to bemoan about how this one played out and our own culpability in the defeat.

Mikel Arteta’s post-game comments

A clearly unhappy Arteta spoke to Sky Sports after the game, and was asked about the big incidents. He said:

If I say what I think, I’m suspended six months so I cannot say. I’m allowed to give my interpretation of what happened in the game but I don’t know how to lie and I don’t like lying, so I prefer not to say what I think.

Go and get the referee to come in front of the camera and explain his decisions. They are his decisions. I make mine, these are his decisions. It’s a shame because such a beautiful game was destroyed today.

While I do think there is an element of him in the immediate aftermath of a North London derby feeling a bit hard done by, he’s also not a stupid man. He’ll have seen video of the various incidents and understood what happened. There was a lot of ‘Well actually, the referee got all the big decisions right!’ analysis from journalists and pundits afterwards, which I think misses the point a bit.

He might well have been pissed off, but these comments weren’t really about the decisions. They were about ensuring his team put this one behind them as quickly as possible, to consolidate them, to foster a siege mentality with what’s left of his injury ravaged squad, because this shit is still in our hands. We have two games left to play, win both and we’re there. Simple as that.

When he talked about being proud of his players, he won’t have been blind to the things we did wrong, but he’s protecting them publicly like good managers do and always have done down the years. You can’t lambaste them on live TV or in front of the press then expect to elicit the kind of performances you need from them just days later. These comments put him in the firing line, not the players, and that’s the way he should do it, even if others take umbrage with what he said. That’s the job.

He then made it clear:

Now we focus on Newcastle. That’s our focus. This game is history.

Painful history it might be, because losing the derby always stings, but we cannot dwell on it. We go to Newcastle on Monday night, the late injury to Gabriel means that we’re likely to be without him, without the suspended Holding and with Ben White whose fitness is questionable, so there’s plenty for the manager and his staff to contend with.

There was a cup final element to last night because of what it would have meant to win, which is why this one hurts the way it does this morning. However, this season isn’t over yet, so let’s pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and go again.

Right, that’s it for this morning. James and I will be recording an extra Arsecast Extra a bit later on. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @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.

Pod should be out before lunchtime. Until then, take it easy.

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