After last week’s helter-skelter 2-2 draw at Vicarage Road, I foolishly thought a home match against a newly promoted side with one win all season would be less stressful. But it wouldn’t be an Arsenal match without a bit of chaos. To adapt a quote from Game of Thrones – Chaos isn’t a pit, it is playing a match with a spine of David Luiz and Granit Xhaka. It’s a testament to just how mentally wounded many Arsenal fans are by Mustafi that some are still trying to convince ourselves Luiz isn’t a Sylvestre in sheep’s clothing (and hair).
It is almost impressive how the initial phase of the game unfolded. Somehow Unai Emery managed to make Arsenal, with the mullet of squad building strategies, truly dull. Gary Barlow narrating paint dry would have had more vigour than the attacking approach in the first period. Yet at the same time, the consistent theme of coronary-causing defending continued. It is almost admirable to be so boring but so open at the same time. It only took five minutes for John McGinn to fire an effort at Bernd Leno’s goal; after the Watford game it was like slipping on a warm jumper, except you’re in the Saharan heat not rainy London. After a 3-0 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League that was similarly palpitation-inducing, it was clear we were in for another 90 minutes of madness. Ironically the subsequent fifteen minutes saw Arsenal demonstrate a modicum of control (it’s a testament to the rest of the match that this is worth pointing out). There were a couple of positive moments of play, with Maitland-Niles and Pépé providing a bit of a spark going forward. The Ivorian has proved to be a bit of an enigma so far this season, and one moment showed exactly why. A lovely stop, show and go saw him breeze past Neil Taylor but his end-product again fell short, with the shot deflecting over. He had the feel of a player who needed a goal. His quick feet and incisive movement contrasted so heavily with his finishing which didn’t give the impression that he thought his shot would go in.
The fifteen minutes of ‘fun’ elapsed, and ‘normal’ service resumed. I mentioned last week that I thought every Arsenal goal could arguably be blamed on individual error. File McGinn’s opener in that category. Normally players wait until retirement or achieving legendary status before getting a statue. Guendouzi, Sokratis and Luiz decided to start posing early, as they allowed McGinn to connect with El Ghazi’s cross. To say the Scot ‘escaped their marking’ would imply some semblance of effort was made to keep him under lock and key. Appropriately glacial in their reaction, it was another titanic error from the Arsenal defence. I’m a little bit reticent to blame Maitland-Niles for not closing down his man as it appears to be another bizarre tactical thread of this season. As I mentioned in my analysis of the Watford game Emery appears to be perfectly happy to cede control of the flanks, so perhaps he was under instruction. Either way the Englishman did not have a good afternoon, which ended prematurely after he managed to complete the ‘five-a-side double’ of injuring himself and receiving his marching orders for the same tackle. After a torrid 41 minutes for Maitland-Niles I was screaming for his return, broken ankle or not, as Xhaka slotted in at right-back until half time. Not to be outdone by his team-mate, Sokratis decided now was the time to embarrass himself. I don’t really know how to describe what he did, but it reminded me of when a toddler throws a strop in the supermarket. I assume he was trying to get Wesley booked by nuzzling up to his knee, but he looked like a cross between a petulant three year-old and a Labrador with flees.
This feels like an appropriate time for a regular feature – ‘Where’s the midfield?’ (imagine that being said in a ‘Numberwang!’ style). In true cheesy 80s game show it involves a lot of terrible jokes, seem to be all over the place, and is ultimately more confusing than it looks on paper (That could refer to my analysis and the players themselves). I won’t copy and paste the same tactical issues from the Watford game, but the personnel and formation changes didn’t help. The spacing is still wrong. Another bizarrely impressive aspect of Emery’s midfield set-up is that it manages to be both too far from the defence and attack at the same time. It is both too narrow, but allows the opposition to wonder through the centre of pitch. The flaws of Granit Xhaka are well known and his skills increasingly unnoticed. An idiotic yellow card for a tug of Grealish’s shoulder is almost like a special move for the Swiss midfielder. It put him on even thinner ice than he creates for himself with his usual mix of incompetence and over-confidence. Guendouzi condensed his previous two performances into one match, and reversed the stereotype of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England: Second half good, first half not so good. Mimicking his more experienced midfield partner, he too thought he would pick up a booking before half-time needlessly. His erratic nature can be a blessing and a curse. When things go against him, he looks on the verge on tears; perhaps this is why so many fans feel a kinship with the French youngster. His inconsistent first half was masked by the poor performances of his midfield partners, to the extent that I think you could slot me in at DM next to Xhaka and the post-match reports would also hail me as the future of French football. Under-the-radar, Dani Ceballos has flattered to deceive in the past two games. Mentioned in my Watford analysis, it once more seemed as though he didn’t entirely understand what it was he was supposed to be doing. His ability to play both as a ‘10’ and an ‘8’ is extremely useful, but not when you try to do so within the same game. Positionally he was caught between two bus stops, never looking sure whether to join the forward press, close the wide areas, or pressure the opponents in the centre. So he ended up doing everything and nothing. Worst of all, his control of the ball was poor. Although he still showed flashes of what made Arsenal fans purr against Burnley, there were numerous occasions where he lost possession and allowed Villa to break. Particularly given the aforementioned issues with Arsenal’s defence of the flanks, this meant twice in the first half Villa had dangerous overlaps down Arsenal’s left. We are often guilty of hyping players up after one great performance, and I think that is the case with Ceballos. Undoubtedly a supremely talented and majestic footballer at times, he needs a clearer role in this team. As an ‘8’ in the midfield three, you harness the best of all his abilities: passing, tenacity, energy, and agility. Pushing him too far forward he feels lost. Separating him from others means he can’t do those neat one-touch passes, and robs him of the short connections that make him so effective.
So, the first half ended with Arsenal’s two deeper midfielders on bookings, a man down, a goal down, and being outshot by a team who’s chief creator has more tabloid stories about his binge-drinking than Premier League assists. No wonder a chorus of boos welcomed the players off the pitch.
I was tempted to boo myself when the second half begun and Saka had been substituted for Calum Chambers. Arsenal’s brightest attacking outlet replaced by a defender relegated in successive seasons didn’t exactly scream ‘come on guys, we can do this’. Obviously defensive solidity was needed to account for the red card, but such is the state of Arsenal’s defence that replacing a centre-back may have been just as effective. How wrong I was … again. Three consecutive stand-out performances, I’ve reached the point where I believe Chambers could be a viable solution to Arsenal’s two biggest weaknesses. Particularly towards the tail-end of last season, he performed very well as a defensive midfielder for Fulham. Although he isn’t great running back towards his own goal, this is far less of an issue in midfield than it is at fullback. He has a tidy touch, is good in the air, and has a much more combative tackle than any other option Emery has tried so far. In the centre of defence he proved how much he has matured on the opening day of the season, grinding out a 1-0 away at Newcastle. In fact I think Arsenal have only conceded one goal with him on the pitch – in this game – which you could say was a function of being one man short.
So the second half began much as you would have expected. Granit Xhaka should have received a second yellow, the midfield continues to look more and more theoretical than ‘real’, and the defence does a valiant attempt at reprising the Chaplin-esque slapstick comedies of the 1940s. This was when Guendouzi began to take hold of the game. Riding out an initial spell of pressure, he started to dictate the tempo much more. Rather than being supplicant to Xhaka, it felt like he ignored the prescribed tactics and begun to dominate Arsenal’s play. This was epitomised in his driving run into the area for the penalty. Nicolas Pépé duly dispatched, and it suddenly felt as though the tide was turning. But this is Arsenal. Soon, another wave of attack put the defence back under water. McGinn again showed his quality, before Grealish put in a nice cross for Wesley to prod past Leno. Ah, there’s that overly stuffy jumper again. The familiarity of incompetence is like an unwelcomed hug from your overly ‘handsy’ uncle. Three Arsenal players re-enacted their modelling for Villa’s first goal in another example of the serious issues with Arsenal’s defending of the channels. Were it not for Guendouzi, who appeared the be the only player at that point capable of constructing anything, I think a 2-1 loss would have been optimistic. The Frenchman continued to demand the ball from his teammates, and his long range effort was one of only seven shots Arsenal had prior to the 70th minute. At home. To Aston Villa.
The 71st minute was the real turning point. Xhaka was withdrawn to a chorus of jeers/ boos/ sighs of “thank Christ for that”, as the energetic duo of Willock and Torreira entered the field (Ceballos was also subbed, Arsenal didn’t just decide to throw on an extra man). The difference was instant. The energy and dynamism the two displayed in their 19 minutes was more than Xhaka has mustered over the entire season. Finally, Arsenal had a semi-coherent midfield structure. The press was actually evident, tackles were actually happening, and the attack and midfield actually appeared linked. This is born out in the stats, with the Gunners registering 9 shots after their introduction versus Villa’s 2, with an xG. of 1.03 to 0.19. The balance of the game completely shifted. Not only did Willock and Torreira manage to improve Arsenal’s attacking output, but their intensity nullified what Villa could produce on the counter.
It still took some comedy defending to draw Arsenal level again. Thankfully Mings was feeling less merciless, as he headed the ball in his box to Chambers who deftly toe-poked a bizarre lob into the back of the net. A driving run from Aubameyang resulted in a freekick on the edge of the box, and the Gabonese international did what he has done his entire Arsenal career – save his teammates’ blushes. 3-2 with ten minutes left to play, the players and fans alike understandably erupted having somehow managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat they had climbed into. However, it wouldn’t be an Arsenal performance without some last minute incompetence. One minute to go, and a potential handball call on Sokratis was waved away, and not reviewed/overturned by the VAR officials. Consensus generally appears to be it was a penalty. I’m trying very hard to separate my deep personal relief it was not given, from fact when reviewing it. What I will say is I can ‘understand’ why it wasn’t given on two counts. Firstly, I don’t think it is glaringly obvious: it appeared to me on first watch to have hit his lower shoulder. I suppose that is why the VAR crew decided not to overturn the on-field decision. Secondly, Jon Moss is an incompetent referee, who throughout the entire match failed to keep up with the pace of the play. Granted that last one is a bit tenuous, but after a string of errors through the course of the game, another one wouldn’t surprise me. Despite that, I understand entirely the frustration from Villa fans; I would be equally angry had something similar gone against my side. It feels like the VAR discussion is worthy of an entirely different article, and one that I don’t think I have the capability to write.
In the end, Arsenal walk away with a victory that doesn’t feel one. Yes, the manner of the chaotic comeback was exciting. It is the kind of event you really want to savour. Yet it feels slightly hollow, because it didn’t seem as though the three points were the result of any sort of plan. The comeback was thanks to individual performances, albeit instigated by the manager’s substitutions. But I find it hard to believe the grand strategy was to suddenly start pressing in the last 20 minutes. If it was, then Emery has produced a rope-a-dope that would floor Mohammed Ali. If it wasn’t, then Emery came very close to being out for the count.