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“They say the darkest hour…is right before the dawn.” – Bob Dylan

The architecture of footballing success is a less definitive and structured endeavor than what the aftermath of success deludes us to believe. There is no one grand plan where everything comes together by their logical inevitability, but a series of steps executed with different degrees of convictions, often arriving at the right combination of things through trial-and-error, and eventually a somewhat fortunate confluence of factors working together to propel a team to levels higher.

That makes the granularity of the timescale by which a definitive progress can be measured an extremely important choice to make, one that is fraught with too many uncertainties. The (fascinating to the neutral, nerve-wracking to the fans, mirthful with schadenfreude to the enemies) footballing project called “Arsenal after Arsène” has now entered a pivotal stage where judging that timescale correctly will decide the future of the club for many years to come.

If we in the Arsenal community had thought after the FA Cup and Community Shield victories this season will surely be a steady upward curve of performance and results, culminating in a top four position at the end of the season and hopefully a trophy or two along the way, the last few weeks had already shattered that illusion. We were at 11th position in the league after 9 matches played, with a negative goal difference, consecutive home losses, and not scoring a goal from open play for 5 matches now.

So we approached our home game against the Wolverhampton Wanderers with exactly the kind of anxiety that we had hoped at the beginning of the season we left behind for good. Not just the ordinary anxiety about the match, but a feeling of deep uncertainty about the season and worst of all, a growing sense of doubt about the team and the manager.

Arteta set out the team in a 4-3-3 formation. Leno protected by a four-man defense of Hector, Luiz, Gabriel and Tierney. Partey’s injury and Elneny returning just days back from quarantine meant the old pairing of Xhaka-Ceballos in the engine room. There was an attacking and positive choice in Joe Willock as the midfield in the most advanced position. Willian and Saka providing the width for the captain. This is the most barren run of matches in all of Aubameyang’s career and it was now evident from his body language and movements that this has started to impact him psychologically.

We started the match at a pedestrian pace, backing off Wolves as they moved the ball crisply towards our goal and created a bit of pressure. In the third minute we moved down our left side with a competent counterattack involving Joe, Saka and Auba but the watchful Wolves defense handled the threat easily.

On the 6th minute David Luiz – trying to head in a Willian corner – collided head-to-head with Raul Jimenez and both landed on the floor unconscious. It looked to be a bad injury for both of them. Luiz eventually got up after prolonged treatment on his bloodied head, but Jimenez looked to be in a far serious trouble as he had to be stretchered off the field. We later learned that he had to undergo a surgery on fractured skull. Wishing Jimenez a fast recovery and return to the team. He was replaced by the youngster Fabio Silva, another addition to Nuno’s Portuguese project.

For some inexplicable reason the Arsenal medical team decided that despite such a collision and all the consequent risks of concussions it was wiser to keep Luiz on the pitch with a bandaged head through which blood was seeping out. Football continues to be reckless about head injuries and I think a quick and effective solution can be easily achieved by involving (a) a neutral medical body that attend every game and only they can make the decision about whether a player can continue or not after any trauma to the head and (b) allowing teams extra substitution to replace players after such injuries.

The game resumed after 10-odd minutes of delay and as often happens with this type of breaks fell into a lull where both teams were slow on the ball and in movements. We were noticeably the slower of the two. Luiz and Gabriel attempted long and aimless passes into the attacking third that drifted out harmlessly. Then Wolves picked up their speed of movement and passing and we fell apart.

Adama Traore ran rings around (an otherwise solid) Tierney with his speed and trickery, put in a delicious cross that Dendoncker was equal to but his header ricocheted off the bar. Our entire defense moved sluggishly – none more so than a bandaged and bleeding David Luiz – as Neto was the fastest to respond and his crisp goalbound shot bounced off Gabriel into the net.

Arsenal 0 – Wolves 1 (Neto 27’)

The goal did inspire an immediate response from the team as Tierney moved forward quickly but his cross was cleared by Coady. A minute later Willian put in an excellent cross in the box (a rare moment of quality from a highly experienced player who has massively underwhelmed thus far in Arsenal colors) that Gabriel attacked — using his strength very well to fend off multiple Wolves defenders – into the top left corner of Wolves goal. Rui Patricio had no chance. Finally a goal from open play!

Arsenal 1 (Gabriel 29’) – Wolves 1 (Neto 27’)

Instead of creating a spark of commitment and creativity as can be hoped for the equalizer put us back again into some kind of lethargic funk which was personified by our midfield duo Xhaka and Ceballos. This was a wretched performance by both of them, devoid of discipline, tactical understanding and any impetus whatsoever. Xhaka committed himself in a duel with Traore who quite easily got the better of him and put in a lovely through pass straight down the middle of the pitch that we had no one covering for. Our entire defensive line backed up and backed up, allowing a shot that changed direction deflecting off Bellerin; Leno was wrong-footed, but that alone doesn’t fully absolve him pushing it back in the middle of the box. Our defenders were again sluggish to respond to the danger as Podence was the first to attack the ball and then finishing neatly for their second goal.

Arsenal 1 (Gabriel 29’) – Wolves 1 (Neto 27’, Podence 42’)

The goal conceded didn’t improve the tempo of our game. Only Willock and Saka in tandem with Tierney looked to be genuinely bothered to force the issue. And when we earned a free-kick outside the penalty box it was David Luiz who stepped up to take it. At some point of time in a mythical past Luiz had scored from a few long-distance free-kicks; he tried quite a few playing for us and each of those were abysmally poor. I winder at the wisdom of continuing to allow him to take free-kicks when we have Auba, Xhaka and Pépé (when he is playing) all of whom have scored goals from free-kicks for us and at least more often than not hit the target. Luiz’s extravagant attempt flew over. I hope this is the last time we see a David Luiz free-kick in Arsenal colors.

We tried a few moves, Auba got a tame shot away at the Patricio around 45th minute. And just a few minutes later our defense was again shredded to pieces as they moved the ball with precision and pace through an empty midfield and a right side where Bellerin was being provided little support by Willian and Luiz who was still visibly feeling the effect of the collision.

We did put the ball in their penalty box one more time before the half ended. Dani got an inadvertent elbow his face in the melee. If a penalty were given it would have probably been harsh on Wolves.

The first half ended with us trailing at home, again.

The team emerged from the tunnel for the second half with Luiz replaced by Holding. Sanity prevailed eventually, even though 40 minutes too late.

There was a bit more determination and intent in our game in the second half. But after that abysmal first half that was not very hard to do. Xhaka and Ceballos were still losing a lot of the 50-50 challenges. Every time an Arsenal attack threatened to form the slow and ponderous passing from the midfield would inevitably dampen the promise.  

Traore made another of his trademark runs that Gabriel barely managed to handle. The mightily built Spanish winger threw himself to the ground as if the ground beneath his feet suddenly gave away and earned a well-deserved (and unprotested) yellow card for such thespian excellence.

If the match report until now hasn’t mentioned Aubameyang much that is because our talismanic captain was neither given the service he needs nor was he making things for himself with pressing or intelligent movement between the lines. The one time he pressed hungrily he forced an error off Rui Patricio and took the ball off his feet. From a position like that Aubameyang in full flow was guaranteed to score. But this time he hesitated a bit longer between going towards his left or attempt a curler with his right foot. He chose the second option but his shot was tame and cleared by Coady who, unlike our senior most defender, read the situation perfectly and was alert to the danger.

We had a few more of these types of chances that we must show more composure and quality to finish if we are to turn around our wretched run of results. There was a free-kick from a promising position, the kind from which Auba had scored goals for us, and Willian wasted it by failing to test the keeper. Saka – along with Joe and Tierney our liveliest – put in an excellent chip in the box from byline and Holding tamely headed that over. Saka himself failed to make best use of a good delivery from Bellerin, a diving header was better suited to the heigh of the delivery than the attempted volley. There was another high quality cross from Bellerin that Auba attacked without any conviction and headed over. He has both time and space to attack the cross and put the ball in the net.

In between Reiss came in for Willian around 65th minute and with 10 minutes to go Lacazette replaced Xhaka. Nelson too missed a very presentable chance when he volleyed over hurriedly just a few meters away from the goal even though he had all the time in the world to bring the ball under control and shoot.

These chances or half-chances were too few and far between. We didn’t put in as much pressure as we should, we didn’t create enough opportunities, we didn’t attempt shots on target, the team never raised the intensity of the game to a level where a flurry of chances was created. Willock played well and demonstrated that when you support skill with tenacity and intensity you can crack the most resolute of defenses. Xhaka and Ceballos put in one of the worst midfield performances I have ever seen for Arsenal, both individually and collectively, both offensively and defensively. In modern football with such absence of quality in the middle of the pitch cannot be overcome by other parts of the game. The club has been too slow to recognize and react to this glaring hole in the middle of the pitch. Partey’s acquisition goes only halfway towards solving that problem and it is absolutely vital that we reinforce the midfield with players of much higher quality than what we have.

Wolves defended deep for the rest of the match, not overly troubled by any of our attacks. And the ease with which they saw out their lead was a stark reminder about how predictable our attack has become, lacking any edge or imagination.

The club leadership with be severely tested in the coming months. And this doesn’t just mean Arteta, though much of the accountability rests with him. Leadership includes the decision makers at the executive level who will have to push themselves beyond their comfort zone to strengthen the team and support Arteta in all possible ways. Leadership also includes the senior members of the team who have to come together, find solutions to the problems on the pitch, drive and inspire the highly talented group of younger players we have. Aubameyang, Luiz, Willian, Lacazette, Xhaka, Bellerin – this is also their time to step up and be counted as true leaders.

We are in a difficult situation, but not an irrecoverably difficult one. A club with Arsenal’s stature, wealth, support base must have to find a way out of it. We supporters should be patient, but we also should see signs that the leadership at all levels are as invested in the success of the club as much as we the supporters, we who make their lives successful. 

Captain to fire Gunners to victory (c) Getty Images

What Is and what might have been

When the Premier League fixture list for season 2020-21 was released on August 20th, it was immediately apparent that the early set of fixtures would represent a real challenge for Mikel Arteta and the Arsenal.  

Before this season’s opener, there was good reason to be confident that, going into Sunday’s game against Wolves at Emirates Stadium, the Arsenal would have 19 points, having won one and drawn one of the three games played against the other ‘top six’ teams and disposed comfortably of the easier meat making up the balance of fixtures.

Nineteen points would have placed the Gunners third, not good enough for some, but substantially better than the 13 that have the Arsenal sitting in mid-league, alongside the red team from Manchester and one place above their neighbours in blue. Consequently the Arsenal twitter/twattersphere is in meltdown and carefully considered and informed commentary like “We are shite” and “Arteta isn’t up to it” (a polite paraphrase) is commonplace and richly mixed amongst more measured viewpoints.

Unlucky thirteen? Not really. 

Absent the incorrect decision to rule out Lacazette’s goal against Leicester that changed the pathway of that game, Arsenal’s current position is a fair reflection of performances against the calibre of opponents played so far. Much improved defensive strength has been outweighed by an inability to convert gilt-edged chances, several from inside twelve yards and even some from within three.  

The situation hasn’t been helped by several of the easier meats failing to recognise their true position in the hierarchy and proving much tougher to chew on than anticipated. How very dareAston Villa follow up their 7-2 thrashing of Liverpool by outplaying the Arsenal? Who would have thought that Leeds would manage a draw at Elland Road even against a ten-man Arsenal team when they’d only managed to score three goals at Anfield? 😀😀

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

The festive season is approaching and longer suffering Holics may well anticipate that I’m now going to ring the bells and plunge into a profusion of pathetic pantomime punnery inspired by the visit of the beast with the polished incisor smile and hairy back passage to north London where the red riding hoods are all Arsenal branded. 

Don’t be worried, I’m not going there. I’ve been there too many times before, and I’ve done all of that (to death)!

A glance at the run of games through to the end of the Christmas festivities reveals that the scale of the challenge ahead is undiminished and confirms that there are few/no easy games in the Premier League. All of these games are winnable, but Arsenal’s success in scoring goals will need to be improved dramatically for that to happen.

There is no better time or better place than Sunday night at Emirates stadium to begin to develop the sharpness in front of goal that is an essential prerequisite to a first PL win in three games. This is a game that offers potential to foster confidence and ignite the flame of success for a winning run toward the bells that will toll this worn old year out and ring in 2021. 

The Wanderers from Wolverhampton

With arguably an easier set of fixtures so far, Wolves have secured one more point, fourteen, and sit one place higher in the League than the Arsenal. They will be very grateful to former Gunner Walcott for the last of those points gained away at Southampton. With an easy chance to make the score-line 2-0 in the Saints favour and kill the game off, Theo screwed his shot wide and Wolves scrambled a 1-1 draw. Had Theo scored, Saints would have been sitting third on 19 points. By such narrow margins are games won, drawn and lost.

Wolves list their set-up as 3-4-3 but their game is built on a robust, resolute five-man defence. They play a physical game at a consistently good technical level. Their ability to turn stolid defence into rapid breakaway attacks via a fast paced, physically strong midfield is a core feature of the success they’ve achieved since promotion.

Much like Mikel Arteta, their coach Nuno Espirito Santo has been criticised for what is perceived to be an overly cautious approach to team selection and tactics. With increasingly large swathes of the Wolves fan base frustrated by a rigid, defence-minded approach, Santo reverted to a back four and played 4-4-2 against Southampton. Wolves struggled, looked porous at the back and it won’t be surprising to see them revert to their more compact defensive set-up tomorrow.

Jimenez and Traore are Wolves danger men but neither is having a great season. Traore is in the midst of a transfer standoff, which is limiting his game time. Like Aubameyang, Jimenez has temporarily lost his golden touch and just as the Arsenal do, Wolves head into this game having managed only 9 goals in the league. 

The Arsenal – Having enjoyed an extended Norway break

Following their 3-0 Europa League win at Molde, Arsenal’s return flight from Norway was delayed. While this was inconvenient, and doubtless unhelpful for their preparations for Sunday, the impact is likely to be minimal as the cast of characters on the field will change significantly.

Assuming Thomas Partey is fit, Mo Elneny has exited quarantine and David Luiz has recovered from his head injury, I expect Arsenal to line up in 4-2-3-1 and field:

Leno

Bellerin            Luiz           Gabriel        Tierney

     Elneny           Partey

   Nelson               Ceballos                 Saka

       Aubameyang

At the back Gabriel has the speed and aerial power to manage the threat of Jimenez and he and Luiz are both capable of unsettling Wolves’ defence by angling long forward passes to our wings. If Traore starts, Saka will provide some cover for Tierney’s efforts to contain him. 

In midfield, Elneny and Partey need to demonstrate again the ball winning mastery and drive they showcased in the win at Old Trafford. In this, Ceballos’ willingness to interchange when these two surge forward will be important.

Neither Lacazette nor Nketiah have shown the firepower sharpness to merit a start in this game. Aubameyang’s goal drought is certain to end soon. The chances of that happening tomorrow will be enhanced greatly by starting him in the centre. 

As Leicester did, Wolves will let the Arsenal have a lot of the ball. They will be happy to secure a point while hoping fervently to sucker punch the Gunners in the style of Vardy to secure victory.  The Arsenal have struggled to unlock packed defences and failed miserably to convert when they’ve succeeded. Saka, Nelson and Tierney’s ability to run with the ball and to get behind Wolves’ defence and then feed Auba will be critical to remedying this. 

An early goal for the home team, as should have been the case in the Leicester game, would increase the entertainment value of this game and increase the likelihood of something other than a 1-0 outcome.

The Holic Pound

The last time these two teams met, the Arsenal were very good value for a 2-0 win at Molineux. I think on this occasion the margin of victory will increase by one goal and we’ll see an uplifting, confidence building 3-0 home win for the good guys with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang returning to form and netting twice. What’s not to like about that? Wherever you’re watching, Holics, enjoy the game.

The road to Redemption?

An Arsenal squad that has, this season, both raised our hopes and dashed them horribly, made their way to the frozen north aiming to cement qualification for the Europa League knock-out rounds. In the PL we have averaged just over 9 shots per game yielding a mere 9 goals in 9 games whereas in this competition, despite still not looking like a well-oiled machine, we have averaged almost 18 shots per game garnering a healthier tally of 9 goals in 3 games. A recent series of disappointing performances and results, leavened only by wins against Manure and tonight’s hosts, left me wondering if we were capable of rising to tonight’s challenge. Could we maintain our 100% record in this competition to enable us to rest key players in the last two group games or would the PL creative malaise infect this competition as well? Could a healthy sprinkling of aspirant youth help us recover from our lethargy?

Mikel must have been reading OM’s fine preview, selecting 10 of his 11, choosing to start Nketiah rather than ESR:

Rúnarsson, 

Cédric, Mustafi, Luiz, Maitland-Niles, 

Willock, Xhaka, 

Lacazette,

Nelson, Pépé, Nketiah.

Subs: Macey, Hein, Bellerin, Tierney, Ceballos, Holding, Smith Rowe, Balogun, Azeez, Cottrell

There was pre-match speculation as to whether Lacazette would reprise his recent deep-lying forward/advanced midfield role or play up front in a pair with Nketiah in a fluid 4-4-2? Starting with four attackers (5 if you include Willock) should ensure that we get more players into and around the box. The bench had that sprinkling of youthful talent hopefully to be given a decent run out if we could make the game safe early on rather than to be thrown on to salvage the game.

Before the kick off there was one minute’s silence in memory of the late Diego Maradona. Mikel Arteta looked somewhat nervously on as Molde kicked off. As many suggested, Lacazette played deeper than the more advanced Nketiah, flanked by Pépé and Nelson. In the opening minutes, Arsenal started on the front foot, pressed high and a neat chip from AMN forced the Molde keeper to tip it over the bar. The game then settled down to 10 minutes of toothless alternate cut and thrust. Then a nice burst forward by Nelson led to an Arsenal corner culminating in a wild effort from Pépé that sailed high over the bar. Seconds later, a neat one-two with Lacazette at the edge of the box gave Nelson a shot from 6 yards but the keeper got a foot to his effort. Immediately thereafter, a wicked Molde cross from our right eluded Luiz at the front post, zipped across the six-yard box past Rúnarsson at his near post and was met by a Molde player sliding in at the far post. Fortunately, that player’s impending collision with the post caused him to screw the shot along the goal line to be gratefully poked clear by Rúnarsson still poised at the near post. Lucky Arsenal! 

Then a clever dribble into the box and low cross from Pépé induced a flick from Nketiah that failed to beat the keeper. Pépé subsequently fired a shot straight at the keeper. A Pépé cross from a corner was then headed well wide by Luiz. As the first quarter ended Pépé drove aggressively at the defence, drifted in but curled his shot past the far post. Nketiah then broke through the middle but was tackled as he ran into the box. Then a long, angled ball from Nelson on the left just failed to find Lacazette running into the box on the right. 

Minutes later a Cédric cross was grasped by the keeper as two Arsenal forwards leapt for it in the six-yard box.

The bounce of the ball on the artificial turf and its slippery surface were causing us a few problems and early on, several players lost their footing. However, this was a competent display from Arsenal and but for the Molde opportunity on our goal line, we had managed their attacks well and created several opportunities.

Molde then won a corner after AMN blocked a shot from a dangerous cross from the left. A clash of heads in the box poleaxed Luiz who looked shaken but resumed play after treatment.

An encouraging aspect of the first 30 minutes was the number of mobile forward options that our midfielders had ahead of them and the pace with which we moved the ball. After another Pépé dart forward, Nketiah curled a shot from the edge of the box but it flew tamely into the keeper’s hands. Molde then put a ball in from our left that curled across our six-yard box and was just missed by a Molde forward.

Lacazette then collected the ball in the box, fed Nelson who dribbled through a crowd of defenders before falling only to have a free kick awarded against him. As the last five minutes of the first half approached, our energy level and drive seemed to drop giving Molde much more time on the ball. In possession we reverted to the ‘arc of death’ on the edge of the opposition box, moving the ball sideways then all the way back to Rúnarsson. But it was only a flash back!

Nelson who was combining well with AMN, then curved the ball over the bar from the edge of the box. A break from Molde resulted in a cross-shot from our left clearing our bar. Then Xhaka blocked a shot from the edge of our box which otherwise might have beaten Rúnarsson. Immediately afterwards, a superb Nelson ball to the far post was headed clear from Nketiah as he was poised to connect. The resultant corner was touched over an Arsenal head for another corner leading to another corner from a blocked Cédric shot. This was cleared into our half and Rúnarsson promply had Gooners’ hearts in mouths as he ran out of his box to clear and missed it completely. Fortunately, AMN covered the gaffe. Shades of Flappyhandski!

HT 0-0

We had started the first half well, looking more coherent and creative and taking more shots than we’ve done recently. However, we had struggled a bit with the surface and our energy seemed to drop briefly after 30 minutes but we raised it again to force a series of corners as the half closed. In the first half we had 51% possession, 9 shots vs 7, 3 on target vs 1, 6 corners vs 5, 246 passes vs 241 and 87% pass accuracy vs 84%. Not much in it. We definitely had the edge but they messed up the best chance of the half though they hadn’t created much else.

Holding replaced Luiz for the second half probably due to that late clash of heads. Two minutes into the half, Cédric curled a ball towards Nelson on the edge of the Molde penalty box but a defender nipped in before he could connect. On 48 minutes, Pépé took a pass from Cédric, cut inside and bent it towards the top corner of the goal, beating the keeper. Sadly, it hit the bar. A trademark Pépé effort. More please!

Seconds later, a cross from Willock on the left reached Pépé at the far side of the box. He took a touch and curled the ball past the Molde keeper and inside the far post. Beautiful goal! The path to Redemption?

0-1 Pépé, 48

Pépé was smiling again and followed his goal up with a dribble out of our half beating several players but he was tackled just as he was about to pass the ball to Nelson inside the opposition half. Nketiah then had a poacher’s goal chalked off for offside after a fine shot from AMN at the edge of the box. Pépé’s goal certainly lifted us and we began to move the ball sweetly and stream forward whenever we regained possession. Willock then darted up the right flank and fired a low ball along the edge of the six-yard box for Nelson to run into the centre of the box and fire it through the keeper into the goal.

0-2 Nelson, 55

A four man break out led to a beautiful Pépé cross to the edge of the six-yard box that Nketiah unfortunately headed over. That should definitely have been three! Holding then gave us a fright as he let ball and man past him in our box but the ball was smothered by Rúnarsson. On 60 minutes, Molde made two substitutions. We then had to defend a free kick from our left which we did without any problems. Xhaka was then replaced by Ceballos.

Pépé quickly latched onto a high ball that his defender had missed, drove towards the box and stroked a lovely low ball towards Nketiah which he tried to back heel into the far corner but he failed to connect properly. Pépé was clearly enjoying this game. Holding then intercepted a Molde pass on the left, ran forward, beat a couple of Molde players and played a lovely line ball for Nketiah who drove towards goal but his shot from the edge of the box was blocked. 

As the last quarter loomed we looked comfortable at the back and when we regained possession our defenders linked well with our midfielders who built forwards down either flank with the full backs or through the centre with Lacazette. Lacazette took a shot from the edge of the box from a gentle touch-back by Nketiah that drew an excellent save. Holding then put an effort past the near post from the corner. Willock then had a strong run to the half way line only to be fouled as he was about to pass forward. That was one of the few times our moves were disrupted by a foul – quite an unusual experience these days!

On 74 minutes, Tierney and ESR replaced Willock and Lacazette. Tierney took up his usual LB position and AMN moved to the right of midfield. A good curling shot by Bolly running into the box from our right beat Rúnarrson but fortunately also cleared the bar. On 80 minutes, Molde replaced their captain and another fella. At the same time Balogun replaced Nketiah.

On 82 minutes, a sweet ball from Ceballos found Tierney running up the left wing. Tierney passed it to ESR running into the left of the penalty area. ESR swiftly squared the ball to Balogun who turned and stroked it nicely into the box. That’s Balogun’s first first-team goal for the Arsenal. Sign that contract, laddie! ESR had displayed excellent vision for his assist.

0-3 Balogun, 83

On 89 minutes, Holding’s square pass to no-one on the edge of our box almost put us in trouble but otherwise we were dealing competently with the Molde attack and on regaining the ball stroked it swiftly forward through midfield with confidence. As the game ticked towards its end, Balogun was unlucky to be caught marginally offside on a ball over the top by Cédric. The energy, mobility and enthusiasm of ESR and Balogun up front enlivened the last few minutes of added time.

FT 0-3 Arsenal

Apparently, this is the first time that we have won our first four matches in a Europa League group. We looked a more fluent operation than we have for some time in the PL. This was probably at least in part because Molde committed hardly any fouls to break up our play and our players were able to run with the ball and run into space without being chopped. The curse of Sam Allardyce apparently hasn’t reached the frozen north. The second half in particular was most enjoyable viewing.

This was a pretty competent performance all round. Rúnarsson did have a dodgy moment with his fluffed clearance, got lucky with his save from Molde’s best chance and had very little else to do. Cédric brought the ball forward well, linked well with Pépé and made several excellent passes and crosses. The three centre backs we used contributed to a generally solid defensive performance though Holding had a couple of ‘daft moments’. AMN had an excellent game and linked well with Nelson when he went forward. Willocks shone again in midfield, provided an effective link between defence and attack and deserved his two lovely assists. Xhaka produced a very competent performance both with and without the ball which Ceballos didn’t surpass when replacing him. Pépé and Nelson were our most dangerous attackers, giving their markers a torrid time and deserved their goals. Lacazette worked hard between midfield and attack, provided several good through balls and was unlucky not to score though I remain unconvinced by him in this role. Nketiah put in a good shift and was unlucky not to get on the scoresheet but really should have taken one of his chances. Surprisingly KT3 is still able to run while the 10 minute cameos from ESR and Balogun have given us a tantalising glimpse of a possible future. Could they match DB10 and TH14? No pressure, lads. We’ll hopefully see more of their skills in the final two group games.

Job done. Now we have to sort out the PL performances.

This is what we do when we score, in case you’d forgotten.

Remember, Remember the 5th of November? A few short weeks ago on that very day we welcomed Molde FK to The Arsenal on the back of an enjoyable victory at Man United. You might even say a roseate glow gleamed across the golden Goonerverse as we sailed serenely through seas of sunken Solskjaers. How I miss those days. Now, on the back of some woeful finishing, we haven’t scored since and choppy waters threaten to engulf us in another season of mediocrity. A short jaunt across the water to take the spoils in Norway may be just the order in the circumstances. On that halcyon bonfire night when we last bothered the scorer, we knocked in four with OG chipping in two plus one apiece from Pepe and Joe Willock to round off what was in the end a comfortable enough 4-1 win after conceding a slapdash goal for the Norwegians opener. What to make of the return leg?

Molde FK

Though Molde FK may possibly be a different matter at home and will no doubt strive vikingly to provide a wholehearted test on a chilly November night in Norway there is no reason I can see that the game should not be won. Well, no reason other than the aforementioned inability to stick the ball in the net of course. Most of you will have seen the first leg, and my commiserations if you didn’t as it was a veritable bonanza of goals in these net-straitened times, and so will know that Molde are what they are – not a bad side, but not at a PL Level. They will be without their first choice striker, Ohi Omoijuanfo, who is apparently unwell – Leke James will attempt to plug the gap. Apart from that I think we can expect a similar line-up and approach to the first match.

The Arsenal

A twenty strong squad has travelled to Norway with the usual mix of youngsters and first team squad members to the fore. I believe our starting XI will fairly similar too though Runarsson may start this time – I hope so to be honest as the more games we can give him the readier he may be if shove comes to injury for Leno again. I expect we will continue with a four-man defence as I do not see Mikel abandoning the switch after one game and will suggest this XI accordingly. I believe Cedric must be fit and ready to start by now, if not then questions really must be asked as to why we gave him a contract. I also assume AMN will fill-in as left back given that Kola is hors de combat, Saka nursing a knock and KT due a rest. The new father of a bouncing baby girl David Luiz (congrats David) will I think form the CB partnership with Mus. I don’t to be honest know if Calum has travelled but it would be nice to see him get a few minutes at some point if he is indeed in-country. There are three youngsters ready to join the party, Folarin Balogun who has already played a few minutes in this competition plus two midfielders Ben Cottrell and Miguel Azeez. With Elneny and Partey both out and Xhaka and Dani having a tough game at Leeds we may well see a youngster as we are certainly short in midfield. In the circumstances AMN is a little unlucky really that a left-back shortage should have arisen at exactly the same time. It seems likeliest though that Joe Willock will partner one of Dani or Xhaka. Joe was excellent in the last tie against Molde, his performance enough I think to earn him a starting spot at Leeds after our Villa woes and Thomas Partey’s injury. Encouragement perhaps for other members of the Europa gang – perform well and you can get a chance in the PL. Apart from the obviously absent Elneny and Kola it is reported that Saka, Willian and Partey have also been left at home to nurse any knocks, tweaks, twinges, pulls or strains. The good news to leaven those losses is that Saka is expected fit for the weekend, which is a welcome smidgen of good fortune. With Willian and Saka out and Joe W required elsewhere I have some real hope that ESR will start for the first time in a wee while.

Up front, Pepe is available to start after making a fulsome apology as below

“ Yesterday I have let my team down at a crucial time of the game and there are no excuses for my behavior” and going on to say “I am deeply sorry and would like to apologise to the fans, my team-mates, my coach and everybody at the club”

Well said sir, that’s enough for me and other than making a mental note of the name of the second-rate ham from Leeds the matter is now forgotten. The other starting forwards are a little trickier – in general I would think Laca starts with Nelson out wide. However, that means no place for Eddie, who also had a good first leg against Molde. I hope MA will not solve the problem by starting Eddie wide as having seen him play out wide twice now I think the middle to be place for him. Mikel may well choose to shoehorn both Eddie and Laca into the side; regardless, I would make a tentative stab at the starting XI below

Runarsson

Soares, Mus, Luiz, AMN

Joe W, Xhaka

Pepe, ESR, Nelson

Lacazette

The Holic Pound

I do not see how we can fail to score again! Unduly optimistic given some of our league performances this season but we have scored nine in three games so far in the Europa and so the Holic Pound is pinned firmly on 2-0 to The Arsenal. Available at around 9 or 10-1 it represents fair value for a game in which I expect it to be fairly tight until around the hour mark after which I think our class should start to show. Early redemption for Pepe perhaps as well, he should certainly be motivated for this game. Unless of course Mikel decides further punishment in order I would expect Pepe to be looking for a goal to brighten his days. Let’s hope he gets one or even two to brighten our days too.

The best of luck to Gooners everywhere and I hope we all enjoy the game!!

Credit: MICHAEL REGAN / Contributor

After a fortnight of international football where most Arsenal players needed to travel around the world while a pandemic is raging, the team regrouped only a few days back to prepare for what was expected to be a particularly difficult away trip against the newly promoted Leeds, managed by the managers’ manager, Marcelo Bielsa. The Argentinian enjoys a nearly universal respect among the football management fraternity for his tactical acumen and the ability to build teams that irrespective of their playing personnel play in a trademark fluid style with relentless intensity, first brought to world’s attention as he built a formidable Chilean national team which was the basis for their subsequent success in Copa America.  

We were coming into this match on the back of a less than mediocre run of forms in the Premier League. The rare (and well-deserved) away win at Manchester United – courtesy a penalty by Aubameyang, our captain too has been in an uncharacteristically poor run of form in front of the goal, only two PL goals in this campaign including the – may have made us all not as alarmed as we would otherwise have been by our two consecutive home defeats: 0-1 to Leicester and an embarrassing 0-3 to Aston Villa. If we include the other away trip to Manchester City which we had lost 0-1 we had three points from our last four premier league matches, 5 goals conceded, 1 goal scored and that too from a penalty.  It is no longer just a blip but a noticeable stagnation, especially so in the attacking department where we had looked predictable and pedestrian. 

However, there have been other reasons for optimism. Our newly acquired midfield stalwart Thomas Partey looked exactly the player we had hoped for, and more. And next to the new Ghanaian, the returning (from loan) Egyptian Mohamed Elneny finally looked to have found a system and a manager who can best optimize his specific skillsets and positive energy. 

But Partey was yet to recover from the injury he had suffered against Villa before the break, and Elneny unfortunately is in self-quarantine for a fortnight more after being positively diagnosed with Covid-19. Thankfully there are no such interlull before March. Hence a forced and unfortunate change was expected in the engine room of the team. 

Aubameyang-Lacazette-Willian have been Mikel’s go-to choice for the forward line before the break, and given the paucity of goals and shots that department too was expected to be revamped.

The line-up looked aggressive and assertive, with a clear 4-3-3 and our captain returning to a central position where his movements, instincts and finishing abilities were surely expected to give us an edge we have been missing. 

Leno

Bellerin-Holding-Gabriel-Tierney

Xhaka-Ceballos-Willock

Pépé-Aubameyang-Willian 

Willock earned his first start of the PL this season on the basis of a series of effervescent and energetic performances in the Europa. Xhaka and Ceballos resumed their old partnership from towards the second half of the last season where they provided a basis of solidity and consistency on which we had built a clever counter-attacking game. 

The omission of Saka was most definitely due to his prolonged involvement with the England senior squad. Keeping Saka company on the bench were our Icelandic goalkeeper, Mustafi and  Maitland-Niles as defensive options, Lacazette, Nketiah and Nelson as firepower up the field. 

We started brightly enough. Willian – hopefully rejuvenated after a memorable meal of the golden Tomahawk at Nusr-Et Dubai – moved through the gears effortlessly (reminding us all that we were supposed to have brought in a world class performer) and charging into the Leeds penalty box but his cutback was cleared out. Around 6th minute Pépé ran at speed with the ball past the defenders but the ball was expertly taken off his feet before he could set it up for a curler. A few minutes later a bright move saw Dani moving up the pitch and from outside the box powered through a shot that hit the side-netting. Leeds didn’t look particularly perturbed by this flurry of activities in front of their goal. Around 12th minute they put together a typically rapid and fluent counter-attacking move which drew a good save from Leno. 

At this early stage the possession was evenly split, but Leeds looked to have more variations and ideas than us. Watching an Arsenal team play without any neat triangle of passes around opposition or a defense-splitting pass from an advanced midfield position is something that I have not yet become used to, despite our frighteningly rapid slide down the attractive football ladder in the last couple of years. And hopefully Mikel Arteta will soon find a way – and the requisite players – to remind us of why Arsenal for the last two decades has been synonymous with inventive, attacking football. 

Around 15th minute Ceballos was hacked down which earned Leeds a yellow card. Pépé delivered a decent enough free-kick in the box which was cleared for a corner. Pépé took the corner, Auba found himself offside. 

Willian was dropping in deep and adding an extra body in the midfield. I think the idea was for that to be a signal for Joe to join in Auba centrally while Tierney takes over an effective left-winger role in attack. While Tierney was doing his part, Joe looked tactically lost in his positioning and movement. Evidently this is a system not all of these players have had much time to work with and/or has past experience of. 

Pépé switched flank momentarily and around 21st minute drove past defenders near the left by-line and miscued a cross (or was that an intentional shot? Surely not…) that hit the cross-bar. We were building a bit of attacking momentum. Around 24th minute Bellerin set up Auba with a crisp pass. Auba had two options: either to shoot from a tight angle or try to set up Pépé who ghosted a run behind the central defense. Aubameyang did what was expected of him but his shot instead of rippling the opposition net flew harmlessly wide. The commentators didn’t think much of that chance but watching Auba all these years that is exactly the kind of “in the penalty box but not quite there to score” chances that he excels at. In my book it was a miss.     

After the first 20-odd minutes Leeds started to exert more influence on the game. It was noticeable how little we were trying to play out from the back in this game — well aware of the collective high-press of Leeds and the slow turning radius of Holding and Xhaka – but Leno kicking it up field. Neither Auba nor Pépé are quite the target man so our goal-kicks will often find their way back to Leeds players. One such well-orchestrated Leeds move drew another good save by Leno around 30th minute. In the next 10-odd minutes Leeds saw most of the ball and created couple of good chances but in both cases shot over the bar. As the half-time approached Pépé found just enough space to cut in from the right to bend in a left-foot curler that went just wide. Neither him nor Willian were having particularly memorable game, but at least there were some attempts to make something happen from Pépé. 

At the interval Willian was replaced by Reiss Nelson who too – like his mate Joe – has been impressive in his appearances (if not as impressive as Willock) this season despite a few niggling injuries that kept him away in a few matches. We started energetically with Reiss and Pépé switching flanks as well as moving inside to create positional uncertainties for Leeds to be able to defend space. While trying to influence the game from one-such inside-drawn position Pépé committed an absolutely irresponsible offense that earned him a red card. It was his first red card in senior football. 

Pépé was being hounded by a Leeds defender both on and off the ball with some niggly kicks and pushes. This was as per the course in modern football though some teams apply this tactic more than others. After a while Pépé reacted by head-butting – well, technically speaking it was indeed a head-butting but was not a dangerous play; let us just say he fell for one of the oldest tricks in the footballers’ manuals in getting opposition players carded – and deservedly received the marching order albeit after a consultation with the VAR. I think Pépé the player has a very high ceiling and sooner than later things will work better for him, and I hope this was a significant learning experience towards that direction. 

It was now only 52 minutes on the clock and we were down to ten men. That definitely forced a tactical change for Mikel who brought in Saka to provide both more technical security in defense while allowing for incisive counter-attack down the left: Tierney-Saka-Auba have traditionally been the best attacking avenue for Arteta. Saka replaced Willock around 56th minute. It was a learning experience for Joe as well, who couldn’t quite impose himself in the game the way we had all hoped he would. Playing against a midfield that rotates positions so cleverly and presses so relentlessly he will need to find a better tactical awareness about what is happening all around in the pitch to complement his technical abilities. 

Immediately afterwards Saka-Tierney-Aubameyang put together a crisp passing counter-attacking move that ended up with a tame shot from our captain. But Leeds was now dominating possession much more and overloading both flanks. Leno produced a superlative save around 63rd minute, punching away a fierce shot headed towards his top right corner. We managed another promising counter-attack when Saka’s cross was headed clear. On 75th minute Xhaka stepped up to take a free-kick from outside the penalty box and his effort didn’t dip and bend enough to trouble the keeper. In between Leeds continue to pour forward, and hit the post once, but other than that didn’t trouble our defense too much as Gabriel, Holding and Xhaka dropping deep stood firm. There were stretches of the game when we were playing two defensive lines of 5-and-3 with just a few meters between them, only Auba somewhat listlessly floating around and hoping for a counter-attack. 

Maybe I was just imagining it but it felt like the team is more comfortable defending deep and in numbers and then launching rapid counter-attacks than when they need to take the initiative and force the issue. After going down to ten men and having to reshape the formation and the positioning, the team played with a greater tactical assurance. 

We did put together a couple of more sharp counter-attacks and on another day either of those could have ended with a goal. First, the Saka-Auba combination down the left led to Auba’s shot hitting the arms of a Leeds defender who was already on the floor. The VAR decided not a penalty. But isn’t the letter of the law now that any handball in the penalty box is a penalty? Maybe there is a fine print in the complex and everchanging legalities of handball rules that I have missed. 

And then the best move of the match came on 80th minute when Bellerin made a wonderful through-pass bypassing all of Leeds midfield to set Saka up 1-on-1 with the Leeds keeper. Instead of taking a first time shot on either side of the keeper or loft it over his head Saka tried to move around the keeper to find him with an empty net but the keeper recovered swiftly and made an excellent save. It was a movement of pure brilliance, all the more memorable as our current Arsenal incarnation has been so bereft of moments like that. 

A few minutes later Leno made yet another good save. Around 86th minute Bamford’s header after beating Leno found the post. As the game approached the 90th minute five extra minutes were added. Within that injury time Saka suffered a knock and was replaced by Maitland-Niles. Leeds again hit the bar around 94th minute, but the game then ended as they were getting ready to take another corner. 

A clean sheet, and an away draw at Leeds with playing nearly half of the match with ten men is not the worst result. We do have Bernd Leno to thank, and also his best friend the goalpost. But while the result was acceptable the first half performance with eleven players on the field was not entirely so. The team is missing both cohesiveness and inspiration in attack, though the defense has come in leaps and bounds since the troubled days last year (around this time last season our defense had more or less disintegrated). We all have our theories about how best to revive our attacking verve, but at this time of his tenure and at such a crucial juncture of Arsenal’s season, our young manager needs all our support and maybe also a bit of patience. I myself am convinced that he will turn this around, will do so sooner than later, but he and the entire team are now under a bit of pressure – as they should be — to start moving up the league table.

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