The handbrake was definitely on. It seemed like we were too afraid to win. Too afraid of Man City. Too afraid.
Waiting two weeks and then sitting through that was enough to send me back to a deep slumber.
Of course, we are still way ahead of the low bar set by the previous accountant. Organizationally, we were well defined. We defended solidly. I really like Gabriel. David Luiz had a quite game on the right side and Tesco Tierney was challenged by Mahrez but handled him fairly well.
But we lacked any real creativity spark. Just the edge that the missing Ozil would have provided. It’s not clear that Willian contributed anything. Maybe that’s the job of the highest paid free agent. To remind us that Ozil can create. Because aside from a few forward passes from Zhaka and Ceballos we reverted to square and backwards passing. Even when we seemed to be about to counter-attack we quickly would withdraw into our conservative defensive shell. We were so respectful and fearful of them that we were incapable of putting them under sustained pressure. There were moments in the first half – both involving the wonderful Saka – but we lacked spark.
Two Pepe-like teams nullifying each other. Man City could have torn us apart if they had DeBruyne. Fortunately, they only had a half fit Aguerro. They started like a house on fire. But then once they took the lead they also started to play with the handbrake on. Sterling was tearing apart our defense. Bellerin was positionally having a hard time. We devolved into the team that ground it out in the F. A. Cup. The progress of the last month or so seemed to evaporate under pressure. Even if we did stay well organized. David Luiz slotted in quite well; made no mistakes. We continued to force the play out from our defense. There were a few occasions when it worked. But too often there were limited options for the person on the ball. Neither Xhaka or Ceballos could receive the ball. Hence, we had little creativity.
There was a predictable, slow, methodical and tedious nature to our possession. Possession for the sake of it; possession without purpose. We barely created anything for Aubameyang. Pepe rarely received the ball. And, well, then there’s Willian. I don’t get what he was doing today. He was so poor that it made Pepe look good. To be fair Pepe worked much harder than previous games. But Willian looked lost. Cigarette must have been pissed to have been extinguished. I guess Arteta was thinking that Willian would pose a different sort of challenge. A more mobile, skillful player that dropped off and linked up play. Unfortunately, instead he looked lost and was irrelevant.
I felt for Xhaka today. He worked so hard. Chasing their players all round the pitch. Ceballos played deeper and had limited touches. The few times each of them managed to play the ball forward, they cut through the City defense. I have to think Arteta will look back at this game and realize he set the team up wrong. Willian was a mistake. And, though we were clearly worried about the City counter-attack, we barely threatened their vulnerable defense. We showed them too much respect. We were not aggressive enough. Even in those last twenty minutes we did not push or create enough. Finding that right balance is the elusive next step for Arteta.
I believe in Arteta, but today was not his best day. He will learn and adjust. I like that he would have started Holding. I like Gabriel. Tesco-boy is a player for the ages. Saka is a star. Today, with little support, he created two chances and demonstrated composure and skill. He is the player Pepe would love to be. In a few years he will be the mainstay of the crappy England team.
We did not seem desperate to win today. We seemed desperate not to get hammered. Others will go to City and will win. I can see Wolves and Everton taking the game to City. We refused to do that. Arteta needed to be braver.
Party got a few minutes and a yellow card. Nowhere near enough time to make any type of judgement. But it’s not clear why, for this game, he was brought on. Maybe it was to allow Ceballos to move further up field. But even then, little was created. I can’t remember Ederson making a real save in the 2nd half and especially not in the last 20 minutes. As they say, you can’t score if you don’t shoot (or head or…)
So, that was a disappointing performance. Underwhelming. It’s not the end of the world yet (that happens on November 3rd). It just reminds us how far we have to go. Arteta has had just one transfer window. He focused, rightly, on our defensive frailties. Gabriel and, now, Party have helped address that. But, we need another window or two to replenish our creative side. We need to be able to find that balance that has been missing for so long. Under Wenger, in his 2nd decade, it was all attacking play with no defense. Under the Emery it was all nothing; no defense, no personality and no attacking play. Now we have a defensive platform. It’s not perfect – it won’t ever be with Bellerin and he’s lack of positional awareness. He allowed Fodan too much room today. But, going forward Bellerin was better today. But the strength we have on the left is not matched on the right. Pepe was better today so let’s see how he evolves.
But having to sit thorugh the dull international break to come back to that is deflating. Luckily the games will come thick and fast now. There will be plenty more twists and turns. But as long as we have Arteta then I believe we will evolve and develop. And hopefully we’ll learn to be braver. We’ll learn to have more confidence in ourselves. Today was a day when we could have nipped a point if we had more self-belief.
A word on VAR. Bollocks. Luckily our game was VAR-less. But it really is a complete and utter travesty. There is no reasonable universe in which the Henderson goal can be ruled out for off-side. It’s a joke. A bad one indeed. Some knob sitting in a room hundreds on miles away gets out a ruler to measure a hairs-breath separation of a few atoms and electrons and decides that the arm-pit hair of one players is beyond the extended penis of another player. Even if the body-part was two electrons closer to the goal, it was the arm – which I thought was not included as it has to be a part of the body that can be used to score a goal. Either way, VAR ruined the game. How they could not use it for dangerous play when Pickford clattered into Van Dyk is insulting. Where was the knob in the room then? This is the other problem with VAR. There is no accountability. No-one knows who this knob is. They don’t have to withstand the fans (I know – they will return), players, management, owners and the media. They work in silence accountable to who knows who. This system can’t work without transparency and accountability. It’s not the fault of the technology. It’s the fault of the referees and the EPL; they need to fix this. It was awful last year. And we know it needs time to get it right but this was embarrassing. Not in a million years would any fan (accept an Everton one) think that was off-side. What a fucking joke.