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Heroes, not Villains

Well, well, well! Where did that come from?

The starting XI brought some surprises with changes from both the XI that faced Palace and Ned’s predicted XI. KT3 hadn’t recovered from a knock sustained in the Palace game and was replaced by Tavares. Sambi replaced Ødegaard alongside Partey in midfield to provide more muscle than the Norwegian had displayed on Monday. The final change was a result of Lacazette’s energetic contribution against Palace winning him a starting place at the expense of Pépé. As a result, Aubameyang was expected to start on the left with Lacazette up the middle, Saka on the right and ESR as a ‘ten’ in a 4-2-3-1.

The first half started with a burst of aggression from Watkins who kicked out at Gabriel for shielding the ball as it ran through to Ramsdale and promptly received a yellow card. Whether this gratuitous violence was the source of the energy displayed by Arsenal, whether the team simply continued with the drive and focus with which they finished the Palace game or whether Arteta’s work at Colney during the week was the cause, this Arsenal team was unrecognisable from Monday’s display.

Every member of the team showed aggression and intelligence both with and without the ball, winning first and second balls all over the pitch, moving the ball quickly in transition and finding team-mates in space. Our high press was organised and effective and Villa were unable to create any coherent moves (recognise that?) with Buendia and their front pair completely starved of the ball. Villa’s players were clearly rattled by the early course of the game’s flow and whether it was as a result of Arsenal’s quality or Villa’s failings, Arsenal seemed able to pass their way through them with ease.

Aubameyang began in a central position rather than on the left with Lacazette playing as a mobile ‘ten’. Saka and Tomiyasu threatened down the right but even more frequently ESR and Tavares rampaged down the left while Lacazette, Sambi and Partey drove periodically through the centre.

In the first five minutes a sweet through ball from Partey found Saka on the edge of the Villa box. His cross to the far post found Aubameyang near the spot from which he had scored against Palace but on this occasion, he attempted an overhead kick which flew back across goal to Saka whose shot flew over. It was a clear declaration of intent. Seconds later, Tavares sprinted into the box but his shot was wide then White drove through midfield, like a vintage Beckenbauer, and laid the ball off but the attack came to nothing. When Aubameyang then blocked a Martinez clearance the Villa players threw a collective hissy fit that suggested instability rather than collective strength.

Shortly thereafter, Aubameyang had the ball in the net but it was disallowed as Lacazette was deemed to have fouled Konsa when he robbed him in the Villa box before squaring for Aubameyang to score. The Arsenal stayed on the front foot with dangerous low and high crosses repeatedly coming in particularly from the left from Tavares, one leading to a melee in front of Martinez and a blocked shot by ESR, another to a high shot by Tomiyasu from 20 yards. The interplay down the left between ESR and Tavares was marvellous and a constant threat which Cash was unable to cope with. The game became somewhat tetchy with strong challenges from both sides resulting in generally unrewarded appeals to an uninterested referee. 

Ramsdale had been little troubled but a clear feature of this game was his ability to make raking long passes to the feet of a teammate standing at the halfway line. He did it with outstanding accuracy several times. This was not, I might add as a result of a Villa press which was of little effect throughout this first half and Arsenal were able to pass their way out of defence throughout without hindrance.

As the first half reached its halfway point, a Saka free kick from the right was prodded by Partey against the bar from close range and a Tavares shot at the end of another nice move down the left involving interplay with ESR was deflected wide. Therefore, your correspondent began to wonder whether we would consummate our clear dominance or once again, as has happened so frequently, be left to rue missed opportunities.

ESR took the corner resulting from that deflected shot. Partey leapt like a salmon despite the attentions of McGinn and Mings and the ball bounced off his shoulder into the goal past the desperate fingertips of Martinez for his first goal for the Arsenal.

Partey, 23 minutes:    1 – 0    

Congratulations Thomas. Now keep up the momentum, lads. Don’t sit back!

Of course, we had to live with a referee who believed it was always open season on Arsenal players and after the goal Pawson waved away late challenges on Tavares and Lacazette though in the latter case he did give Mings his long since deserved yellow card. 

Inevitably, the goal roused Villa and within 5 minutes we appeared to be allowing them more space and time on the ball in midfield. But this was not the passive approach of Monday. Arsenal were like a coiled spring and several quick breakaways showed our continued threat and intent. Once again, we were quick to win the ball back and with quick interplays through midfield turned defence into attack. 

A quick break by Saka found Tomiyasu running into the box but our Japanese full-back was tackled before he could get his shot away. On the half hour, ESR broke out of midfield, found Tavares on the left whose unselfish pass to Saka, free on the other side of the Villa box really should have been buried. His first-time shot was firmly struck but Martinez’s outstretched foot turned it wide.  That should have been a deserved 2-0! Tavares was next to test Martinez with a firm shot from 20 yards after a clever through ball from Sambi. As the half drew to a close, Sambi drove through midfield and passed to Lacazette in the box. He twisted and turned to get a sight of goal but was smothered at the cost of a corner to which Partey rose again but this time headed over.

In added time a rare foray from Villa saw Sambi concede a free kick near the right corner of our penalty area. Surely, after such dominance, we wouldn’t concede an equaliser in the dying seconds of this first half when we deserved to be OFS? (Californian wine drinkers will remember the fine beverage bearing that acronym.) For that free kick, Villa players engaged in an elaborate deception merely ending in a punt to Ramsdale who initiated the next Arsenal attack.

That attack appeared to end with Targett’s challenge on Lacazette as the Frenchman attempted to trap the ball in the box with his back to goal. Lacazette fell clutching his ankle but Pawson showed no interest and Villa brought the ball out. Play continued for several seconds until Pawson blew his whistle with the ball in midfield. Everyone assumed it was half-time. But no! Pawson had been called by VAR to the monitor and after a few more seconds, he pointed to the spot.

Could we get the 2-0 that our play in this half more than deserved? Martinez began his now familiar and frequently successful penalty kick gamesmanship. Aubameyang picked up the ball and looked entirely focused on his task as he placed it on the spot. He struck it firmly to his left but Martinez dived the right way and pushed the ball away only for it to fall to Aubameyang. He struck his shot into the ground thus looping it over Martinez’s desperate lunge. Deliberate? Luck? Who cared?

Aubameyang, 45+2:   2 – 0     

Martinez crouched distraught between his posts. He’s such an emotional chap!

There was just enough time for Villa to kick off while Dean Smith angrily got in the ear of the fourth official. However, that second goal was no more than we deserved. 

HT:  2 – 0

We had been magnificent in that half in comparison to recent outings. Our dominance was confirmed by the first half stats:

Arsenal:           14 attempts on goal, 5 on target, 21 touches in the opposition box

Villa:                0 attempts on goal, 0 on target, 3 touches in the opposition box

Whether as a result of our team selection, our shape, our work on the training ground, Villa’s hangover from their late collapse against Wolves or their inability to make their three-at-the-back system work, we had been quite simply magnificent. Surely Villa would improve in the second-half? They could hardly be less effective. Could we maintain our dominance? 

For the second half, Villa replaced Tuanzebe, a centre back, with Bailey, a fleet-of-foot forward and changed to 4-3-3 with a back four, pushing Watkins onto the left and Ings through the centre with the substitute on the right and Buendia playing as a ‘ten’. Frankly, in the first half we had hardly seen anything from Watkins, Ings or Buendia.

It was immediately clear that things had changed. A long ball found Watkins running through on the left and his low, hard shot towards the near post was turned for a corner by Ramsdale. Their first attempt on goal! In the first five minutes of the second half Villa probed and shot more often than in the whole 45 (+2!) minutes of the first half. Ings dived at Gabriel’s feet with his back to goal, claiming a penalty – nothing doing as Gabriel had merely stood his ground. 

Despite Villa’s new-found zeal, we kept our mettle. We had a couple of shots, one deflected wide, another from Saka flying well over before White blocked a dangerous shot from Ings and another Villan’s shot was deflected for a corner. Sambi marauded up the middle slipping in Saka whose shot was blocked. Then Sambi had a shot himself from a central position but off target.

Although we had been pushed back more often than in the first half we were far less passive than we had been against Palace. We were actively closing down ball carriers rather than simply watching and waiting as seemed to be the rule on Monday. 

ESR intercepted a Villa forward pass midway inside our half, prodding it to Sambi who quickly passed to Tavares on our left. He sent it quickly to Aubameyang on the half-way line who flicked it over two Villa defenders to ESR who was then racing towards goal (we’ve seen that flick before). Mings scuttled back to close ESR down as he entered the box and took aim but Mings’ intervention simply deflected the shot past Martinez at his near post for ESR’s 4th Premier League goal in his 50th PL appearance.

Smith-Rowe, 56:                     3 – 0

This somewhat took the wind out of Villa’s sails though they didn’t revert to the depths of their first half performance. However, we looked to have rediscovered our organisation and dynamism. White blocked a good effort by Watkins at the edge of our box.  Targett gained Villa’s fourth yellow card for bringing down Saka as he broke out of the Arsenal half. Gabriel et al epitomised our newly rediscovered determination when he blocked a Bailey breakaway forcing him to delay and being quickly assisted in the task by Tavares, ESR and Sambi. Ramsdale and Gabriel then combined to block a driven shot by Buendia from within the 6-yard box.

There was lovely interplay between Aubameyang and Lacazette at the edge of the Villa box that might have ended spectacularly but Lacazette’s pass to an unmarked Saka on his right was cut out. Aubameyang then took a yellow for the team by preventing a breakaway  with a captain’s challenge and Lacazette then went off to warm applause to be replaced by Ødegaard.

Shots were exchanged at both ends. Ramsdale smothered a Bailey shot from 15 yards after the Villan had robbed a dilatory Sambi at the edge of the box – that talented lad will hopefully learn to be more careful. Then Aubameyang moving in from the left curled a lovely shot towards the far post but Martinez made a Hollywood dive to push it wide.

In the last quarter of the game, there seemed to be waves of Arsenal attackers breaking forwards interspersed with sporadic thrusts by Villa. Several times Arsenal forwards were tackled in the Villa box. Again Partey leapt like a salmon to meet a corner but headed over– he should work more on that shoulder move! On 72 minutes, Sambi made way for AMN.

White made an excellent clearing header, facing our goal in the 6-yard box, from a lofted ball from a centrally positioned free kick with Mings rushing in to finish it off. Meanwhile Ramsdale continued to make excellent long passes to team-mates’ feet and we continued to threaten. Saka was pulled down by Luiz as he sprinted through on the right and Ødegaard’s free-kick was on target at Martinez’s near post but was grasped by the keeper.

In the 82nd minute, Bailey ran with the ball unchallenged along the edge of our penalty area and Ramsey who was standing in his direction of travel stepped forward and took the ball off his team-mate’s feet, striking it into Ramsdale’s top left corner. Our keeper was rather annoyed at his defence’s failure to challenge and quite clearly told them so!

Ramsey (Villa) 82:      3 – 1

Confidence surged into Villa. Could they pull off a Wolves-style recovery in the last ten minutes? A long throw bounced across our goalmouth past our keeper, defenders and Watkins. Two decisive challenges by Gabriel stemmed the tide: first a strong face-on challenge on an onrushing McGinn at the edge of our box ended a dangerous drive then cleverly nicking the ball off Bailey as he ran with it towards our box.

Nonetheless Arsenal still threatened and an interchange between Saka and ESR led to another sumptuous low cross from the overlapping Tavares which just begged for an Arsenal toe as it traversed the 6-yard box. Tavares then honoured the departed Hector Bellerin with a foul throw in the 88th minute.

Arsenal seemed to have effectively dampened Villa’s late resurgence but Partey’s slip in the box allowed Ramsey another shot at goal from Ramsdale’s right which fortunately rolled past the far post.

In the 90th minute, Aubameyang limped off to be replaced by Martinelli. In the third of four added minutes, Villa were awarded a free kick when Bailey was brought down near the left corner of our box and resulted in a good effort that went just over the near post. The final whistle sounded shortly thereafter.

FT: 3 – 1 to the Arsenal

As predicted by Northbank Ned. At 16s as well! I hope you all acted on Ned’s tip.

What no-one could predict was the excellent first half performance that this team produced and the spirited defence of our lead to see the game out once Villa had revived. When will we see that again? Who knows? 

Hopefully, next week!

Heroes, to a man.

Friday evening football returns for the first time since the ill-starred opening day of the season at Brentford.

Yet, you will not expect me to start any preview by dwelling on anything so recent.

So cast your mind back to the October of 1904. 

That month, our Friday opponents, Aston Villa, were only our third top-flight visitors. Flush from our first Division One victory over Wolves, we saw off the illustrious Villains 1-0. Billy Garraty, like his descendant Jack Grealish, an England international, led Villa’s line. For those of you keeping score at home, Garraty was Grealish’s mother’s mother’s mother’s father.

Bill Gooing was our centre-forward that day. His prolific scoring in Division Two had been instrumental in our promotion and thus making London, not Birmingham, the southern frontier of the Football League’s top flight. However, his winning strike against Villa would be the only Division One goal of his 48 for Woolwich Arsenal, then a club record for career goals. 

Gooing would make just six further appearances. Finding himself second choice to newly arrived Charlie Satterthwaite, Gooing left for Southern League Northampton Town midway through the season. There he was briefly a teammate of one Herbert Chapman. He hung up his boots later that year, possibly because of injury, given he was only 31-years old.

By 1904-05, Villa was fading as the imperious force of Victorian football with five Division One titles and three FA Cups. Yet, regardless of its setback in Plumstead (avenged at Villa Park on Boxing Day), it was still formidable enough to finish fourth in the league and win a fourth FA Cup.

Since then, there has been the odd title and cup, most notably the European Cup in 1982. However, only three of its 15 major championships and trophies were won more recently than a century ago. Even counting five League Cups, a quarter of a century has passed since it last won silverware.

After relegation at the end of 2015-16, Villa returned to the top flight for 2019-20 following a takeover by Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens. Sawiris is an Egyptian billionaire who made his money in construction but is not in the Gulf wealth class. Edens, an American, made his in private equity but is a borderline billionaire with a fortune of less than $2 billion. 

Since then, Villa has shown ambition and aspiration without delivering on either, finishing successively 17th and 11th. 

The Opposition
It goes into this game in 13th, a place and a point behind us. They arrive off a demoralising 3-2 defeat by Wolves in the West Midlands derby, squandering a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes. 

In the close season, manager Dean Smith strengthened his squad by bringing in Emiliano Buendia from Norwich, Leon Bailey from Bayer Leverkusen, Danny Ings from Southampton and Ashley Young from Inter Milan, all paid for by selling Grealish to the Middle Eastlanders. 

That quartet joined the previous season’s trio of acquisitions, Ollie Watkins from Brentford, Bertrand Traore from Lyon and, of course, Emi Martinez, formerly of this parish.

Like us, Villa shops in the £30-something millions and under aisle.

Smith has fashioned his arrivistes into a 3-5-2, with young Ruud Gullit lookalike Tyrone Mings anchoring a back three in front of Emi. Matt Targett and Matty Cash play as the perpetual motion wing-backs the formation demands with Brazilian Douglas Luiz, the industrious John McGinn and Buendia or the 20-year-old Jacob Ramsey manning the supply lines to Ings and boyhood Arsenal fan Watkins upfront.

However, Smith needs to find a way to fit his creative players, Buendia, Leon Bailey and Bertrand Traore, into the side and address the failure of the Ings-Watkins strike partnership to click. 

After successive losses, Smith could revert to the 4-2-3-1 with which he took all six points off us last season or the 4-1-4-1 he also used. Watkins would play as the lone striker, a role that better suits him, in front of some combination of the fit-again Bailey, McGinn, playing a more advanced role as he does for Scotland, Buendia and Traore. Douglas Luiz would pivot the midfield ahead of a back four.

Villa will be a danger from set-pieces. Only the Mancs and the Bindippers have a better record in that regard this season. However, Villa’s away form in the league has been poor, except for a win at Old Trafford. They have lost at Watford, Chelsea and the neighbours. We must hope the dyspepsia from travelling southeast again prevails.

The Arsenal
We shall need more intensity and, yes, consistency (h/t, Dr F.) against Villa than we displayed on Monday evening. 

In his press conference ahead of the Villa game, Arteta said, If we play 4-3-3 the way we played the first 20 minutes [against Palace], we win the games, but if we start to play the way we played the following 20 minutes, it doesn’t work, because again, that is a transition game and we don’t have the players to do that when we play in that formation. 

Parsing that as best I can, he appears to be saying we lack the specialist DM or a defensive-minded CM needed to make his favoured 4-3-3 work — a lacuna frequently noted in this fine establishment. That player is not Partey, but plays alongside him. Xhaka is the closest we have, of which I will say no more.

Arteta’s faith in his way of playing will not falter. Based on no evidence beyond sticking a finger in the air, I will speculate that Maitland-Niles will start in order to provide more defensive solidity alongside Partey. This would free up KT3 to attack more and Ødegaard to play as a true 8, not a false 6. The team’s shape would morph back and forth between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 in a game that is likely to be fought out in an overcrowded midfield. Our visitors will have five there whatever formation they play.

With Saka a racing certainty to be unavailable, having still not yet descended from whatever orbit McArthur booted him into on Monday night, and assuming the other unspecified knocks Arteta mentioned will be shaken off, this would be my expected line-up: 

Ramsdale

Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel, Tierney

Partey, Maitland-Niles

Pépé, Ødegaard, Smith Rowe

Aubameyang

Arteta may have other ideas, including starting Lacazette, moving Auba out wide, and dropping Ødegaard, whom he has taken off in the 60th-something minute in the past two games, or the inconsistent Pépé in a more recognisable 4-3-3. Alternatively, he could play a midfield of AMN, Partey and Lokonga to keep ESR in the front three. Who knows? Clearly, not me.

Something to ponder before kick-off: If Emi had stayed as our no 1, would Ramsdale now be at the club, and, if he was, who would be between the sticks for us today? 

The ‘holics pound
The bookies favour a low scoring home win. Form and history are on their side. We have struggled to score in the league this season, and October games between the two sides have mostly been low-scoring affairs. In only four of the 21 fixtures has one side scored more than twice. 

The classic 1-0 to the Arsenal is available at eights and 2-1 at nines—both skinny odds but on realistic outcomes. So, hoping for an evening when we click with flair, panache and energy, I will plump for 3-1 at 16s. 

After two draws, three points are essential—time for heroes, not Villains.

Enjoy the game, ‘holics near and far.

Due to a rather unlikely confluence of a few unfortunate emergencies, I have been delayed – even by my own standard of always being late — in writing this match review. And now that I have started, with your permission (and forgiveness for the delay) I think I would like to avoid reminiscing the match in its minute details, not least because though eventful in a certain way, the match was not memorable by any standards. All the key actions have already been chronologically recollected and microscopically dissected in many other places and I don’t think there is much I can offer in addition to those perfectly fine recapitulations.       

However, I would like to bring out what I noticed to be an overarching theme of our performances for you dear readers to comment upon. It just also happens to be a theme that can equally apply to the performance of the match officials. I don’t want to offer any excuse for the former, neither do I want to overlook the relevance of the latter. 

Inconsistencies. 

Our performance – in its most holistic sense, including individual performances, team cohesiveness, the ability to control the match positionally, tactically and temporally – had all the trademarks of recent years of Arsenal inconsistencies over the context of a season where every step taken forward inevitably is followed by some backward movements almost with an eerily hypnotic quality of being under the spell of some invisible force. But not only that. 

I think the inconsistencies even within the context of a single match, as demonstrated yesterday, are no less concerning. We started brightly, scored a well-deserved early goal to take the lead, and then failed to use that lead to take control of the match. It was a baffling failure because we had superior technical quality in the midfield with Partey, Ødegaard, ESR and Saka all technically gifted in retaining possession. We had two perfect outlets in Aubameyang and Pépé for well-coordinated counter attacks when Crystal Palace was pressing high up the pitch, and yet somehow, we looked confused and bereft of ideas. 

This particular problem of the midfield failing to impose their technical qualities on the match in a cohesive manner has occurred way too many times for it to be just an accident or a rare coincidence of individual failures across all 3-4 players. It is also not a matter of physical prowess – which the midfield is sometimes accused of – because we have had dominating performances in the middle of the field with diminutive players like Cazorla, Rosický, Jack, or going back earlier, Cesc pulling the strings. Energetic, inspired, highly motivated and physically relentless though Palace’s pressing was (and set up tactically astutely by Vieira who had obviously noticed our propensity to incoherence under pressure) much of our midfield malaise was due to lack of courage on the ball. 

Courage is probably too strong a word, confidence may apply better. How is it that the once most trusted midfield anchor of one of the most demanding and ruthless coaches of current times makes so many wrong decisions and takes so many wrong touches while playing for Arsenal? Would Thomas Partey have dared to put in that performance for Diego Simeone even in a pre-season friendly? I am not questioning Partey’s professionalism, simply wondering what exactly is different for him in terms of the set-up and environment for him not to push harder to be at his very best. Yesterday was not his very best. And he has repeatedly mixed his superlative qualities with alarming bits of laissez-faire attitude on the ball, the likes of which we used to find completely unacceptable even from players of much less technical ability, for example say, Alex Song.  

In this mostly youthful team, players like Partey, Aubameyang, Xhaka, Lacazette, and even Pépé have the responsibility of leading by actions as much as leading by words. Partey, the captain (despite his early goal) and Pépé (despite his assist and contribution to the second goal) failed to lead by example yesterday, and not for the first time. Which was in stark contrast to Lacazette who brought a degree of potency and urgency back to the frontline play that should be the bare minimum standard for the majority of the entire ninety minutes, if not all of it.

Going back to the lack of confidence on the ball, I don’t think it is a coincidence that sometimes the entire team seems to have no idea that a thing called progressive passing exists, or they are allowed to invent new situational possibilities just by the strength of their individual abilities. This is not a team that lacks technical qualities anymore but many of them lack maturity. Moreover, the overall set-up and football philosophy should be such that they find in themselves the ease and freedom to express their qualities without losing positional discipline. Watching Martin, Saka and ESR, the word inhibited came to my mind. 

Also, whatever happened to our swashbuckling left back who used to go past players and provide cutbacks from the byline? Is he just going through a bad patch or did the system yesterday inhibit him too? I don’t remember ever seeing Kieran Tierney in Arsenal colors playing so many back passes from an advanced position. It was almost a homage to Xhaka. 

If we are to play minutely prepared, uber-choreographed football and not the “I give you a template, guidance and the freedom to enjoy yourself, and you solve precise tactical problems in the match” philosophy of Arsène Wenger then the choreographer needs to be more proactive when the dancers (not marionettes) are looking at each other for cues. I think we all expected these teething pains of Mikel’s managerial career where he struggles to balance his well-known attention to tactical details with the demands of allowing the team to play within the guardrails of a template, and even though much of Arsenal fan-base is patient enough to see his evolution work itself out towards success there has to be a more measurable indication of cumulative progress beyond the one-off euphoria of 45 minutes of demolition of the old enemy. 

Carrying on with the theme of inconsistency: a nine year old returning hurriedly from his school – and skipping his after-school program to be able to watch his favorite team play live – watched in disbelief and horror as an opposition player tried to volley Bukayo Saka’s (no foreigner this player, one of England’s most promising talents and a world class player in the making) standing leg into the stadium to see only a yellow card and asked me “Why is that not a red? Oh, that was Mike Dean!” Though he has been keeping me company watching Arsenal matches for a while now it is only in last three years the passion and the love have started to crystallize into an identity. And even he could notice the obvious on his TV screen from the other side of the ocean. Whichever way the media or the Premier League hierarchy want to spin refereeing inconsistencies, scandalous decisions like yesterday’s simply erode people’s trust in them.  

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Happy days!!

This week the Gunners will welcome Crystal Palace in a game that provides an opportunity for us to say hello to an all-time great, the one and only Patrick Vieira. Hopefully, he will be able to feel the love from the faithful before we go on to completely ruin his day. For myself, it’s been 16 years now since he last played competitively for us and I still miss watching him play. What a player he was. I thought MA summed Paddy up very well when asked if he’d like to have played against peak Vieira more often.  “No!”, he laughed. “Because he was very dominant, physically gifted, technically he had the right temper, he was brave, he could score goals, he could do a bit of everything. He was a remarkable player.” I think I will just let the last sentence stand as a statement on Patrick Vieira and say no more.

As for The Arsenal, we are entering a run of four games, three at home, which present us with a good opportunity to ascend the table, get the support excited, and show that the team are capable of more than they have shown in the league for the past two seasons. A chance too for our new look back five featuring future England No 1 Aaron, Tomi and call me Benjamin to continue the gelling process. Some suggestions in the media that talk of Aaron taking over from Pickford is premature and perhaps that is so, but ask yourself this – do I want to buy Pickford? Exactly. 

However, as pointed out in the drinks recently, caution may be warranted as our home performances against Palace and Villa last season were poor, yielding a solitary point. Can we do better than the drab 0-0 draw with Palace in January? Well, the first thing to consider is that only three of the starting XI that day are likely to start on Monday; a mere 9 months later!

The second thing is that those three are Saka, Smith-Rowe, and Aubameyang, who we will need to score the goals we signally failed to get that day. Let us pray. 

The Boys to Entertain Us

Selecting the side is I think, barring late injuries, a fairly simple task and so let me get that out of the way with our game face XI front and centre (and left and right too) ….

Ramsdale

Tomiyasu White Gabriel Tierney

Partey Lokonga

Saka Odegaard Smith-Rowe

Aubameyang

Although we drew 0-0 as mentioned with Palace in January, actually the last time we played Palace was a 3-1 win at their homely little ground in May, two late goals enough to take the points. That broke a run of 4 draws and a defeat and will in an ideal world give us the confidence to stick another three in their net. Certainly, the goal difference could do with a little good news. As far as I know, at time of writing, everyone is back and healthy after the damned interlull, and of today’s anticipated 11 I think only Tomi would be a concern as he had quite the little trek during the last week or so – first to Saudi Arabia, then Japan, and then back to the UK. I can tell you first-hand the jet lag is a pain with the 8 or 9-hour time-difference but hopefully he will be ready to go. Equally, I hope that he will have been fully briefed on the cheaty Zaha’s cheatiness. For the rest of the team, I suppose it’s possible that MA may consider moving Martin back to partner Thomas and finding room for Gabi or Pepe to add more goal threat, but I suspect that will have to wait until later in the game and only if we are chasing a goal. However, our major concern going into the game remains Auba’s form and our ability to bring him into the game, if we can get that right then all should be well. 

The Opposition

Crystal Palace are currently in their now customary mid-table position having managed four draws (Leicester, Brentford, Brighton and Wham) two defeats (Chelsea, Liverpool – both 3-0) and one highly amusing win over the spuds in their seven games to date. Patrick has them playing more attack-minded football, and he has also kept a settled back five (wonder where he got that idea from), behind the usual mediocre / journeyman midfield and, this season, a wider variety of forwards. The good news is that the defence is settled but isn’t particularly good and looks exploitable down both flanks. In attack Zaha, as usual, is a threat if he has one of his five good games a season and we will probably see Ayew and one out of Benteke, Olise or Edouard starting as well. Edouard looked good when he came on against the spuds but has been dragged off a couple of times since – could he be a flat-track bully against little teams?  In all honesty, as usual, I don’t much care which starting XI they put out as it will just be various shades of mediocrity and the only question is whether we can rise above it. 

The Holic Pound

Well, we’ve scavenged from Seagulls, what to do with Eagles? Eviscerate would be best. However, I think I’ll settle for a 3-0 win at 14/1. After all, Palace have lost 3-0 twice already this season so why not do it again. If we can remain as solid defensively as we have been in the last four league games then I think a clean sheet should be achievable. There is also a chance that Palace’s more adventurous approach under Vieira’s management will allow us the space to find Auba’s runs and give our captain the chance to knock-in a couple of confidence boosters. As it’s a 4AM kick-off for me I won’t be knocking back any pre-game confidence boosters, but I hope my fellow Holics, wherever you may be, will have the time and leisure for the pre-game beverage of your choice, enjoy all and Come on You Gunners!! 

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Most of us expected a tough game away at Brighton this evening and we were not disappointed as the rugged team in blue had the better of a bruising encounter.

The team selected by Arteta was a popular one, containing only the enforced switch of Sambi coming in for the injured Xhaka. To be fair, we started very well. Barely had the clapping to mark the sad death of Roger Hunt subsided when Saka was racing between two defenders and through on goal. His shot was somewhat tame and easily saved. Although, for all the pressure they were able to sustain, it took Brighton until the 80th minute before they managed a shot on target of their own.

Our front four moved well for the first ten minutes. The away fans were in great voice, clearly audible through my TV. Tottenham Get Battered got a good airing today as the supporters provided the entertainment that was missing from the football.

After about ten minutes we just tailed off. Brighton took charge of the match and fashioned a series of chances, none of which was particularly good, but cumulatively could well have built enough pressure to see us go behind. Maupay was a yard behind a dangerous ball across our box; White got across his man to head a dangerous ball over his own bar, the same player made another good block on his return to his erstwhile home ground, Maupay missed a volley from about 8 yards out and the giant Dan Burn missed probably the best chance of the lot when he headed over, unchallenged, from a similar range.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, Ramsdale had a dangerous moment in more ways than one. Being kind, we might suggest the pouring rain did not help him out, but he spilled a cross instead of catching it with his usual assurance. Replays showed the shoulder barge from Duffy was brutal. Ramsdale was face down, flat out and I was fully expecting concussion protocols to be followed. However, our keeper stood up and seemed okay. Dunk had missed the chance from the loose ball. I hope it would have been disallowed if he had scored it but who knows what VAR will do?

Auba did hit the post with a header from a Saka cross, but it was a fleeting moment of danger created by the young England international chasing a ball upfield from Tomiyasu and creating a bit of havoc.

Our new Japanese right-back had a torrid half, definitely his toughest test in red (or yellow) so far. He also chucked in a foul throw, just because, well, you know, someone should, right? However, that annoyance aside, to get out of the game without making any costly errors and, indeed, even with a clean sheet, will stand him in good stead going forward. I get the sense that the whole backline will learn from today.

We had a better last five minutes of the half, but we were all desperate for the whistle. However, before we reached that sweet stay of execution, the hopeless Jon Moss (who seemed to have decided that tripping opponents up was not something he was going to penalise today) managed to make me chuckle by doing the most Jon Moss thing he could think of. In the last seconds of injury time, he spent 20 seconds not allowing Tomiyasu to take a throw-in until he had moved back 5 yards on the half-way line. When he was happy that the position was correct, he let Tomi take the throw, before immediately blowing his whistle for half-time. Well played, Jon.

Aside from that, my other first-half highlight was when the Sky commentary dropped out and I got to watch a couple of minutes of football with full crowd noise but no commentary. Years ago, that was a red button option. I have no idea why they cancelled that choice and we are forced to listen to unwanted commentary. For two or three minutes there was a reminder of how nice it would be if paying extortionate subscription fees actually secured the service we want. 

We came out for the second half and it was more of the same really. Auba went through one on one but a defender got back before a late, late flag went up anyway. They should have called it earlier and I’m glad Auba was not caught more badly.

Brighton played robustly. They kept the ball on the floor a lot more than, say, Stoke or Burnley but they were very physical. That is a good test for our young side, and for all we lacked creativity and cohesion, our lads worked hard for each other.

Graham Potter appeared to have spent most of the summer focusing his energies on growing out some increasingly impressive facial hair, however, at some point he must have taken a break from that to pull his finger out and sign Marc Cucurella. The new lad had an excellent game and Alan Smith on Sky gave him a MOTM award that I doubt many would argue with. Although, from our side at least, that may be because we are all busy trying to forget this match as swiftly as possible. The Spaniard showed more guile than most on the pitch today.

We had a slight upturn in our performance on about 75 minutes but, in truth, we went from pretty bad to okay. Woohoo!

Partey, whose shooting today was so bad I was more amused than upset, played a killer ball to ESR. Our best player on the day, the young man ran it into the area and got a shot away which the keeper saved comfortably. I quite fancied a smash and grab 1-0 to The Arsenal but it was not to be.

Brighton began to have a couple of efforts on target but Ramsdale saved them without concern. He did however, produce one absolutely brilliant moment to keep us in it, springing forward to intercept a ball that was on its way to Maupay and into our net. It was a moment of top quality.

Both sides had nothing penalty appeals. Saka went off for AMN with a worrying injury and the game ended honours even.

A few impressions:

Partey had an underwhelming match but produced a couple of passes of real quality and got out of a couple of tight spaces with lovely touches. He needs a run of games to find his best level with consistency.

Sambi looks a good player. We struggled as a team today but I like what I see every time he plays. Our defence worked hard but had a tough game. The commitment was high from them all. Tierney needs to keep improving. Bellerin was an excellent player who stagnated and then went backwards. Tierney is a top player and we all love him, but he is not the finished article and he is nowhere near his ceiling. I want to see him push on as this defensive unit gels together.

Saka and ESR were both good, especially the latter. Odegaard and Auba quiet. We have the youngest team in the league, and I expect we will see a few more games like this. Young players will not play like they did last week consistently. I thought the attitude and spirit was encouraging today. I am bloody glad that we got a point, which I don’t think is anything to be sniffed at. We got another clean sheet and adhered to the truism that if you can’t win, don’t lose.

If we win most of our home games and don’t lose most of our away games, then we will be where we want to be at the end of the season.

Some will see this as a glass half- empty situation, others glass half-full. I am a glass half-full kinda bloke, but, wherever you stand on this, everyone is invited for drinks in the bar. First round is on me…

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