Lucky Arsenal. Very lucky Arsenal. We snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. And it would have been a well deserved defeat. Everything about our team today – aside form that last 10 minutes – was wrong. Our team now has the personality of our manager. The manager has no personality and nor does the team. This was a thoroughly undeserved victory that can’t paper over the clear deficiencies in our team nor, more concerning, our manager.
We started the game with the wrong selection – again. The wrong tactics – again. And, obviously, with the wrong manager. We were lackluster. Missing any drive, pace and urgency. Villa were exposing our lack of midfield cover. In other words, it felt like every other game.
The selection was strange – again. Sakka was in which must have pissed off Nelson. He, unlike our other forwards, looked good. Aubameyang missed a chance in the first few minutes set up by Sakka. And then proceeded to misplace every pass and miss hit every shot until the last 10 minutes.
Xhaka was his dependable useless self. He continues to slow down our team with his touches and sideways passing. He makes Guendouzi play worse. But overall the balance and mix of the team was dreadful. There is no passion in the team. And it makes is so hard to watch. Against teams like Villa we seem desperate to go down their level. Except that they were playing better football. We could not string any passes together. It’s as though it’s the first time some of our players have played together. There was no understanding between Aubameyang and Pepe. None between Pepe and Maitland-Niles. Ceballos hardly received the ball. Players ran into the space occupied by others. It’s as though the team has no idea how they should be playing the game.
Villa counterattacked and exposed our predictable lack of defensive cover. It was Watford all over again. It seems like we are incapable of learning anything. We hear how studious Emery is. How it watches game film till 2 in the morning. Clearly it’s not our games he’s watching because nothing changes in his tactics. Pairing Xhaka and Guendouzi brings out the worst in Guendouzi. Any pairing would bring out the worst in Xhaka. In that respect he’s gifted.
This is such a painful game to dissect. It was so unenjoyable for such long periods. Instead of feeling relief and excitement from undeservedly getting the three points, I can’t look past the dire performance of the team and the lack of balance in this team. For the majority of the game we were passive and exposed by an average Villa team. Even when we did score we found a way to hand back the lead within 90 seconds. How is that possible? Grealish skipped past Xhaka (of course) and then Sokratis without a challenge. For their first goal no-one closed down the person putting in the cross and then the entire defense stood still, Guendouzi ball watched and ignored his man and then we’re 0-1 down. And our reaction was non existent. More of the same sideways passing without David Luiz looking to play out to the sides. We created very little though Sakka did look good.
Maitland-Niles did not exactly have his a-game today. He was caught out (as was the camera man) with a through ball when he received his first yellow card. And then a full on tackle gave Fat John Moss the chance to brandish a second yellow even though Maitland-Niles clearly won the ball. Maybe he was sent off because of the absolute hash he made inside 5 minutes when he blasted over with his left foot. Or maybe Moss deemed his reckless cross-ball pass unsuitable for the fans. Either way, this was one of Maitland-Niles’s worst performances and luckily it was limited to less than 45 minutes.
So, at half-time we saw Chambers come on for Sakka. The young kid should feel good with his contribution even if he should not have started. Chambers was more solid and dependable at right back but we’re down to 10 men. The hope was the team would come out fired-up in the second half. Unfortunately, it was more of the same dire football. No cohesion, no link-up play and no momentum. It’s difficult to watch us these days. It’s so fleeting that we actually play football.
The one change we saw though was a change in Guendouzi’s attitude. He grabbed the midfield and took charge. Unlike the elder statesman alongside him, he was energized and direct. Arguably against the run of play he won us a penalty by charging into the box. Pepe got his first goal for us. Maybe we should bring him on for only penalties. But then we wilted immediately to give up the second goal. Xhaka by then already had a yellow card otherwise he would have fouled Grealish. His earlier yellow was absolutely childish and quintessentially Xhaka. It was unnecessary and lazy. That should be his epitaph. It’s remarkable to think he’s played 80 times for his country. Pulling Grealish back by the half way line when there was nothing going on was wasteful and give you an insight into the (lack of) football brain.
Remarkably it took Emery 70 minutes to make the obvious change. The change that everyone but our blind manager could see. He finally took Xhaka off the pitch along with Ceballos. With the introduction of Torreira and Willock we finally regained our energy levels and momentum. From them on it was a case of whether we could generate enough opportunities such that we’d actually take one. It turns out we took two! The first one was (again) created by Guendouzi. A great pass to the back post that Chambers met and then swept up the rebound. Contrast that with Maitland-Niles in the first half – thank you referee Mills. By now 10-man Arsenal had pushed Villa onto the back foot. But you knew there would be chances for Villa. But then, finally, up stepped Aubameyang to grab the three points. With Pepe and David Luiz standing over the ball and given his inability to get any shot on target today Aubameyang was the last person that should have taken the free kick. But that was a great strike. So 2 of our 3 goals came from dead-ball kicks. Therein lies a story. The other shots came from Guendouzi pushing the team forward. Their goalie, Heaton, barely had any saves to make and yet we score three goals.
What did we learn today? Not much. We knew Xhaka should not be playing. We knew that Emery should not be our manager. Both were reinforced by what we saw. How does Emery make the same tactical errors and selection mistakes game after game? Why does he persist with Xhaka? Why does he not see the change in energy levels when Xhaka was removed from the game? Torreira and Willock might have changed the game but the game was saved by Guendouzi. As mediocre as he was in the first half was as dynamic as he was in the second. You could see the anger and passion on his face. This is the 20 year-old shouting at the establish, senior players to up their game. So today we learned the following – Guendouzi is the White Viera.
We also saw an angry Kolasinac demonstrate that he could defend – at times. This was one of his better defensive performances. Going forward he was more conservative than normal.
Today was the first time I started to develop real doubt about Sokratis. Maybe I’ve been ignoring the warning signs of the last month or so. First off his acting is appalling. The rolling on the ground after his entanglement with Wesley was embarrassing. As was the ease with which Grealish went past him for the second goal. I can’t wait for Holding to come back into this team.
While too many players were sub-par today – Ceballos contributed little – our main concern has to be our manager. He does not seem to have a clear vision of how this team should be playing. He then waits too long to make changes. And then does not seem to learn any lessons from those changes.
Our next EPL match – at Old Trafford – will surely result in changes in team selection. He must bring in Chambers. He must drop Xhaka. But I fear Emery will be his normal, boring, bland and predictable self. Today was a chance escape from disaster. Coming back and winning, with only 10 men for more than ½ a game – should be a time for celebration and enjoyment. It does not feel like it. It merely feels like we’re delaying the onset of disaster. It would be how the travelers on the Titanic felt when they skipped that first small iceberg. Until Emery demonstrates he can evolve and learn we are destined to monumentally fuck-up. We are teetering on the edge of a precipice. This manager has to show some personality. He can’t manage this team like a bank manager. He has to instill some passion and energy. Based on todays performance that feels like wishful thinking.
So, for now, I’ll be looking to Edu to be keeping a close eye on that manager over at Nice FC.