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Today’s match versus Burnley brings back reminiscences of the second match I ever attended at Highbury in the 1968-69 season.  My first match two week’s earlier on 1st February had resulted in a one all draw with Nottingham Forest and I was already sufficiently smitten that my mother had already given up the ghost of opposing me being present at my new spiritual home to see Arsenal v Burnley on 15th February 1969. I had no clue as to where Burnley was situated but I had already become the sort of obsessive to have memorised the names of all the stadia in Division One, as it was in those days. Turf Moor, had to me, conjured up some romantic Brontë-esque vision of a un-tamed, northern, brooding landscape of desolation and fog.  My Highbury was more akin to the setting of Jane Austen’s novel, Emma:  elegant, urbane and charming.  In fact, if you remove the word ‘romantic’ from my above preconception it wasn’t completely wide of the mark, as outlined so well by Bathgooner’s excellent match preview for today’s fixture!  That day, the ‘foreign’ members of the Arsenal team came from north of the border (and even Bob Wilson being Scottish seemed a bit of a stretch to me at the time) and I don’t recall much more about the game other than I was by now completely and utterly in love with every team member having witnessed my first Arsenal win of two goals to nil with both goals coming from a blue and white besocked Bobby Gould.

To be honest, I had to look up who the goalscorer was on the day although two things I do remember were that Burnley’s star player, Ralph Coates, seemed to me to be old enough to be my grandfather and that I also recall feeling rather perturbed about Arsenal’s blue and white socks being part of our kit in contrast to our beloved red and white.  Little did I realise that this would be a gentle precursor of future worse kit horrors to come.

So, fast forwarding to Burnley versus Arsenal 2021, would there be repeat of 2-0 to the Arsenal, as predicted by Martin Keown prior to the match as well as Bathgooner’s suggested punt on the ‘holic pound in his match report?  With five changes made from our defeat of Leicester, with rotation necessary due to four difficult games looming in the next nine days who would have predicted Chambers being slotted in at right back?  Xhaka’s presence on the first team sheet seems to be made in indelible ink, and has been under the previous three managers irrespective as to what the fixture list throws up, but more on him later.  Before the game started, I jotted down that Kevin Friend would be the VAR adjudicator – unfortunately, a sign of the times as VAR seems to play as big a role in the settling of matches these days as the sides playing.  Just as I was celebrating the first five minutes at not conceding an early goal as we have been wont to do, we went one better as Willian drove through the centre of midfield, sending a pass out wide to Aubameyang on the left who with a couple of step overs shot low into the left hand corner squeezing the ball under Pope, the Burnley keeper.  Early dominant possession and pressure from Arsenal had resulted in an unusually early goal for a change.  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that – for obvious reasons it would turn out!

Arsenal continued to dominate but their common ailment of profligacy in front of goal continued;  Aubameyang had two chances one of which was blocked with the other one finding the side netting before presenting Saka with a glorious opportunity that one would normally bet on him taking.  Unfortunately, the ball seemed to arrive on Saka’s weaker right foot and he was unable to take advantage.  Ominously, it felt like an opportunity lost as Arsenal failed to convert their clear dominance into goals.  Partey also shot over the bar after being lined up by Odegaard on 28 minutes.  With ten minutes to go in the first half, Arsenal were comfortably in charge and with Burnley showing little or no threat, the inevitable happened with Arsenal’s common predilection towards self destruction.  With Arsenal playing out from the back with Burnley pressing, Leno passed the ball out to Xhaka who often displays a penchant for playing risky balls across the box.  On this occasion, his attempted pass to David Luiz struck Chris Woods’ hip diverting the ball past Leno for an undeserved Burnley equaliser.  Judging by Chris Wood’s reaction, Burnley couldn’t believe their luck.  So, that was the end of any prediction or repeat of a two nil win to the Arsenal.  It was hard not to believe that we wouldn’t pay the price for the error and while it might be easy to point the finger of blame at Xhaka, Leno was also guilty of not clearing the ball and there seems to be too many Arsenal players capable of making regularly unforced and costly errors.  For Xhaka, you could read Cedric.  Or Luiz? Or?

With the momentum lost, Arsenal struggled to make an impact early in the second half and were now looking bereft of any creativity.  In the 62nd minute, the lightweight Odegaard was replaced by Lacazette, and in the 66th minute a further change was made with Pepe replacing Willian. However, the real impact substitute would turn out to be Pieters, coming on in the 63rd minute for Burnley’s Taylor, who would be involved in the most significant and dramatic deciding factors of the game, two of them involving the hapless Pepe.  The first incident involved Pepe twisting and turning in the box with the ball bouncing up to hit Pieters’ arm on two occasions.  The first claim for a penalty looked dubious but the second was a clear case with Pieters extending his arm to deflect the ball away.  Even Peter Walton,  BT Sport’s former referee commentator and no friend of Arsenal, could not explain away VAR’s and Kevin Friend’s decision of ‘no penalty’.  Insult was almost added to injury when Pieters let fly from 30 yards resulting in a sensational tip over the bar by Leno.  Burnley had started to play.  With 10 minutes to go, Pepe managed to miss a ‘sitter’ resulting from a low cross from Tierney in the box; the sort of spurned chance designed to make his transfer fee seem ever more ludicrous.  Pepe was involved in the next controversial incident when his shot hit the omnipresent arm of Pieters yet again.  The referee was quick with his decision: a red card and a penalty but VAR was quick to reverse it.  No wonder I jotted down Kevin Friend’s name at the start of the match as VAR picked up yet another Man of the Match award!  It was probably a correct decision in this instance but I am in no mood to side with it!  After Spurs’ ludicrous escape of a penalty against Fulham earlier in the week, that’s two points gained for Spurs and two lost for Arsenal due to VAR lottery decisions which does not make for a happy weekend.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case, Arsenal did not show sufficient urgency until it was too late and there was to be no happy ending with Ceballos hitting the post after a game of pin ball in the box in the dying minutes.  As we have witnessed all too often with this side, Arsenal threw their opportunity for three points well and truly away and, on this occasion, there was no Bobby Gould with his blue and white socks to rescue them.

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Burnley, oh Burnley! That bucolic spot! Where warm Westerlies blow cumulus clouds across the Costa Hibernica to deposit nutrient rain on lush meadows beside the confluence of the Rivers Calder and Brun in a valley beneath Pendle Hill. There, itinerant Mesolithic Britons knapped flints and incoming Neolithic farmers built tumuli and stone circles. Seek not lush banks and braes today, stranger. A few millennia bring changes!

The agricultural village of Brun Lea grew around an early Anglo-Saxon religious foundation to become a prosperous market town and weaving centre. From the late eighteenth century Brun Lea underwent a trajectory epitomising Britain’s industrial revolution. Cotton mills (no doubt, dark and Satanic), iron foundries (certainly Satanic), machine shops and coal mines were developed. Canal and railway links eastwards and westwards facilitated growth. These concerns generated much local wealth in the nineteenth century (check out the Derbyshire origins of the Hill Wood fortune) including an ambitious new football club but also shocking deprivation. The town reached its zenith in terms of wealth, population and power-looms circa 1911. From WWI onwards, it shared the long economic decline of conurbations based on cotton, textiles and heavy industries. 

That’s all very well but what about the football, I hear you say! 

Burnley FC was founded four years before the Arsenal and has played at Turf Moor since 1883. The club was one of twelve founder members of the Football Association in 1888 but has had only two periods of top-flight success. Burnley has won the First Division twice, in 1920-21 and 1959-60, each closely related to runners-up spots (1919-20 & 1961-62). The latter period included a European Cup QF appearance in 1960-61 and an FA Cup Final appearance in 1961-62. From the late 50’s to the early 70’s, under legendary chairman Bob Lord, a local butcher, Burnley were hailed as one of the most progressive clubs in England for their youth policy, scouting system and purpose-built training ground. The names Jimmy Adamson and Jimmy McIlroy from their early 60’s side may ring bells for readers of a certain vintage. I remember a free-flowing side from the late 60’s with Willie Morgan, Ralph Coates and Andy Lochhead up front. In the 70’s the club’s fortunes declined and Burnley plummeted through all four tiers of the Football League, avoiding relegation to the Conference only on the final day of the 1986-87 season. The benefit of this peripatetic history is not merely an archive of nationwide curry shops sure to make C100’s mouth water but it provided the distinction of being one of only five sides to have won all four professional divisions of the Football League. 

Burnley’s other distinction in the record books was to hold, from 1920-21, the longest unbeaten run (30 games) in a single league season until it was bettered by a club dear to your heart in 2003-04. Another piece of Burnley trivia that might interest denizens of this ‘bar’ is their promotion of a unique tipple said to be uniquely available at Turf Moor. ‘Béné and Hot’ has been served at Turf Moor since it was brought back from Normandy by surviving members of the East Lancashire Regiment who had found it restorative in the trenches of WWI. Apparently over 30 bottles are sold at each home game making Burnley FC one of the world’s biggest sellers of Bénédictine! Who’da thunk it? Flat caps, whippets, black puddings and Bénédictine! As to player links, I know of only one Burnley alumnus who played for the Arsenal in the modern era. A very fine gentleman, loyal servant and committed Gooner he is too.

Today’s hosts are a very different side from the teams of Burnley’s halcyon years. Sean Dyche is, in some respects, their Arsene Wenger, achieving Premiership status in 2013-14, in his first full season in charge with a small squad, bouncing straight back in 2015-16 after relegation and keeping them in the Premiership ever since, apparently spending just £135 million since promotion. In 2018-19 he took Burnley into Europe for the first time in 51 years via a seventh-place finish. 

However, Dyche’s achievements on a limited budget are his only similarity to Arsene. In all other respects, he is a laryngitic disciple of the Odobonid with precisely the same temperament and football philosophy. Like Fat Sam’s Bolton, Burnley play right on the edge of or indeed, outside the Laws of the Game to foil their opposition and rely on long balls and ‘putting it in the mixer’. Pretty, they are not. Yet, they do have some talented players. Pope is a decent keeper, perhaps England’s best. Tarkowski is a big strong centre back, likely to move on in the summer. Mee, their captain, organises their defence well and always gives 100%. Westwood is a hard-working midfielder with an eye for a pass and Barnes and McNeill can cause defences problems on their day. In summary, Burnley epitomise direct, tough & gritty, no-nonsense, Northern English culture without frills, pretentions or grace.

Our record against Burnley was very respectable until our last meeting on 13 December 2020. During this season’s awful late autumn/early winter slump we managed to lose 0-1 to a late Aubameyang own goal after creating and spurning the vast majority of chances. Critically, we also had Xhaka sent off for a foolish and totally unnecessary altercation with Westwood. That was Burnley’s first win against us since a League Cup tie at Turf Moor in 2008 (only our second meeting in over 32 years due to their extended tour of English football’s nether reaches) and their first League victory over the Arsenal since 1974. Post-match, Dyche and his players who had clearly set out to achieve a goalless draw appeared astonished (and of course gleeful) to take all three points. Throughout our history, we have met Burnley 110 times before this match, winning 54, drawing 22 and losing 34. We have an even better Premiership record against Burnley since they first achieved that status: a run of 11 straight victories is bookended by a draw at Turf Moor in 2009 and a 2020 draw at their place plus that December defeat. It is time we regained our Indian sign over them.

What about the good guys? 

Mikel Arteta will choose his starting eleven with one eye on our forthcoming treadmill of fixtures and consideration of recently tired legs. However, this week he also has the rare luxury of a full week for R&R and time for tactical work on the training ground. I expect Burnley to concede possession and adopt the same low block tactic that earned them three points in December and I expect the boss to select his team accordingly. We will have loads of possession and will have to find a way to unlock Burnley’s well organised defence and to pull their defenders around with our mobility. The challenge Burnley offers requires all available creative players and the best finishers. ESR’s injury at Lesta will probably rule him out while the performances of Cédric, Pépé and Willian may put them into contention. Hence, I expect a starting eleven akin to:

Leno

Cédric – Luiz – Marì – Tierney

Partey – Xhaka

Saka – Ødegaard – Pépé

Aubameyang

The Holic Pound? I expect our players to strive to make amends for that shocker in December and to produce the application and determination to earn all three points. Burnley don’t score many goals themselves but will make us work very hard to hit the net so I don’t expect a high scoring game. A 2-0 for the Southern Softies seems a possible outcome but the odds are parsimonious at 13/2. If you’re optimistic that our boys have rediscovered the way to goal, 3-0 is available at 11/1 and 4-0 is available at a tempting 20/1. Has this Arsenal team turned the corner sufficiently to thrash a poor team properly? We shall see.

Enjoy the match Holics, wherever and however you access it.

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The Arsenal travelled to Leicester today seeking a happier ending than our last three visits in the PL (we lost them all, in case your memory fails you) and also looking, I would hope, for a measure of revenge for a particularly annoying home defeat this season. Before the game Leicester were in the top four and umpteen points ahead of us, although to be honest that baffles me as I don’t think they are particularly good. Still, it would obviously be a difficult trip just after the Benfica win in midweek and before the game Mikel rang the changes leaving out Belly (sorry) and bringing in Cedric as well as Marì, Elneny, Pepe, Willian and Lacazette. A more cynical man might have concluded that we had decided either a) we were not going to reach the CL via the PL or b) Mikel agrees with me that Leicester aren’t very good and any XI will do. I am not that man and figured Mikel picked a side that would keep the game tight and not overly commit forward as well as taking into consideration the need to rest a couple.  

As it was, I was looking forward to the game, as always, and also hoping that players drafted in would be keen to make the case for a more regular spot. 

The game kicked off and after six minutes of absolute nothingness Willian and Xhaka combined to lose the ball on the left hand side of midfield and it came to Tielemans who ran unchallenged into our area and placed it past Leno into the far corner of our net. I honestly do not know what to say about that goal, I do not know why Marì didn’t go across – perhaps he saw Xhaka chasing back after Tielemans and thought he would catch him, perhaps he was looking for KT. Whatever the reason, we were one down against a Leicester side that like nothing better than to sit back with a lead.

Leicester 1 The Arsenal 0   6’

We nearly gave away another a minute later when Leno passed to Vardy who, on first watch, I thought looked so surprised at the free gift that he didn’t punish us. However, from that moment on the first half was more or less all The Arsenal, apart from a couple of long-range efforts from Barnes and Iheanacho. 

“Penalty!” I screamed in the 12th minute when Pepe was brought down by Ndidi. “Penalty!” said Tierney and pointed to the spot. Alas that nasty Mr VAR pointed out that the foul was actually just outside the box. After that we probed down both flanks with Pepe giving the young Leicester full-back a tough time. KT was also getting some dangerous balls in from the left but things weren’t really dropping for us in the area. Our best chance was when Willian pulled a shot wide after a nice ball in from Xhaka.

The next incident of note was when Tierney stopped the game after a possible head injury to Evans from a corner, The Arsenal players looked miffed as they had the ball on the edge of the opposition box at the time but I thought the referee was exactly right. 

We had continued to push for an equalizer and it finally came when Thomas was again forced to foul Pépé (he was finally booked) and we scored from our usual well-worked free kick routine. Luiz cleverly delayed his run, Willian spotted it and delivered the ball perfectly for Luiz to flick into the far corner despite an off-puttingly high boot beside his head. A well deserved equaliser and a well-deserved punishment for Leicester for their generally negative approach and frequent fouling of Pépé. 

Leicester 1 The Arsenal 1   39’

However, a more worrying development a few minutes later came when ESR pulled up with an injury (at the time of writing I do not know how serious it is but he didn’t look in any distress and fingers crossed it is not too bad). Ødegaard came on to replace him. 

However, a tonic was to follow in the waning moments of the half when, after an excellent surge by Willian, the ball came to Pépé whose shot was deflected away by Ndidi. “Penalty!!” I didn’t shout, as in all honesty I didn’t see it and neither did Paul Tierney. Fortunately, that nice Mr VAR pointed out that Ndidi had blocked it with his raised arm and penalty it certainly was. Lacazette slotted it home calmly and the good guys took a deserved lead into half-time.

Leicester 1 The Arsenal 2   45’ +2, pen.

The only change at half-time was the hooking of the unfortunate young Thomas for Albrighton. Probably, a wise move on Rogers part given he was on a yellow. Further problems came for Leicester when Barnes went down with what at first looked a fairly routine injury but may be worse as he was finally stretchered off after treatment. 

The half had started with Leicester moving to Plan B of pressing hard and trying to play some football. Why wait until you’re losing? 

In fact, that pressing was to prove Leicester’s undoing a couple of minutes later when Pépé broke forward at speed on our right and slipped the ball to Ødegaard in the centre. He passed it across to Willian arriving at the far stick and his simple ball into the middle was tapped home by Pepe. A fine goal and a pleasure to see us do it away from home in a tricky game.

Leicester 1 The Arsenal 3   52’

After the thitd goal Leicester huffed and puffed and we had chances on the break. A few sloppy passes aside (yes Ødegaard, I am looking at you), we tackled and blocked well in the main and then moved the ball forward well when the chance came though the execution was not at the level of the third goal. Elneny was substituted around the 65th minute to give Thomas a run, I assume, and Auba came on for Laca for the last 10 minutes, nearly scored too after a nice jink into the box from the left. Unfortunately, his trademark shot into the far corner was just the other side of the post.

The game ended with us doing the right things – defending stoutly, wasting time to annoy the Leicester players and denying them even a consolation with good shot-blocking in the closing minutes of the game.

Overall, it was an excellent performance after giving a ridiculous goal away early on. Willian, Pépé, Xhaka and KT all played well as did Lacazette working hard up front. No one played badly, just my opinion of course and I look forward to hearing your own. The only possible blip is the injury to ESR and we await reports with fingers crossed. 

A good day and good game my fellow Gooners, hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did!!

Given the unanimous popularity of the somewhat tangential Valentine musings in the Leeds match report, I thought it is all the more desirable to start this preview with reminiscing about another Valentine’s day victory, in 2016, this time maybe with a higher degree of relevance.

Danny Welbeck, playing his first match since April 2015, came on as a substitute for Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 83rd minute with the game evenly poised at 1-1. As the table stood, Leicester was leading with 54 points, some other London team was second at 51 points and we were at 49 points with only 12 games left to play in the league. Leicester had earlier gone ahead with a Vardy penalty but lost a player to a red card, Schmeichel pulling out a string of extraordinary saves to keep us at bay until Giroud brilliantly headed down a Bellerin free-kick for Theo to equalize.  Then came the 95th minute, possibly the last kick of the ball as we got a free-kick in our right side of the Leicester half. Mesut Özil, pulling strings all match as he used to do in those days, sent in a wonderful dipping cross in the box for Danny to jump up and head firmly down into the goal past Schmeichel’s desperate dive. And then he ran ecstatically into the corner to be mobbed by the supporters and his teammates. It was a moment of such pure euphoria and celebration that remains in the footballing memory forever.

I myself had thought that after that match we would win the league that season. We had a relatively clean bill of health – though the captain himself, one Mikel Arteta, was unfortunately spending much of his last season with us plagued by injuries, and I think in this match we also lost Koscielny to injury – with Alexis and Özil ably supported by Ramsey, Giroud, Theo and now Danny I had felt we could now go on a run now and build on our successes in the previous two seasons FA Cups that finally had ended the much discussed “trophy drought” for Arsène. At the end of this match we were only two points behind Leicester, on the same number of points with the neighbors – who, frankly speaking, we all knew would start to implode soon as they dutifully did – and with 12 matches to go. From that position we continued to lose ground to the Foxes as they ended the season on 81 points, 10 more than Arsenal who finished second. I still feel we had underachieved that season and given our pedigree and overall quality in the squad and given that all of City/United/Chelsea were in transitions we missed out. We were the only team in that season to have beaten the champions both home and away, and for much of the season we had played some wonderful football.

Since that league win Leicester have remained a force to reckon with in the premier league though they haven’t won any other trophies after that. And their European adventures have all suffered unceremonious ends. Including this season’s Europa league round of 32 where Czech football’s second best team – historically speaking, behind the much more successful Sparta Praga, the old stomping ground of one of my favorite Arsenal players ever, super Tomáš Rosický – Slavia Praga dumped them out 2-0 at their home of King Power stadium last Thursday.

Speaking of the Czech, we ourselves too of course came very close to suffer an ignominious exit last Thursday in a style of such absurd follies that easily brings to mind the comic ineptitudes of people populating the literary universe of Jaroslav Hašek. And let us be honest, this is also a style we have not only trademarked in recent years but worked tirelessly on it to improve upon its sheer unpredictable brilliance. Over the two legs we won against a competent but very limited Benfica team 4-3 where we scored four sumptuous goals and conceded from a questionable penalty, a free-kick at the end of the penalty box given away due to a tired looking challenge, and an absolute howler of a mistake.

Now back in the premier league, we really cannot afford to give away such chances against Leicester — our opponents for the Sunday lunchtime clash – who have been remarkably efficient in their football this league season and currently stand as the runners-up to the by now runaway league leaders Manchester City. In this strangest of seasons Manchester City have made their squad depth — with two world class players almost in every position – count, and Leicester, despite not possessing that sort of quality across the entire team, have maintained a high degree of consistency by playing a brand of efficient football effectively. Defensively compact and well organized by their veteran goalkeeper, their attacking efficiency comes from the complementary qualities of Maddison, Barnes and Vardy, Vardy continuing to successfully deploy all the tricks of his trade, even the ones that one would have thought by now VAR should have been able to root out of English football. However, the highly talented and skillful Maddison remains the creative heartbeat of that team and I have no problem accepting my hope that the injury that kept him out of the Europa league match keeps him sidelined for our game too.

Focusing back on us, I think we do have the right players now and have arrived at a certain degree of dynamism in our creative attempts to give Leicester defense a real test. We had already met them twice this season, winning away 2-0 at the Carabao Cup in late September, and then losing 1-0 at home in League in that string of wretched results where we were not creating enough chances, not taking the few that were coming our way, and not being defensively solid enough (though much better compared to the shapeless glob that Mikel inherited) to not present the occasional chances to the opposition.

Our attacking play since then has improved significantly, with the two Hale End graduates Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe being the driving force behind that transformation. Their energy, quality and desire have inspired in their teammates a sense of urgency and purposefulness that saw us starting to play better, create more chances, and recently our talismanic captain returning back from a prolonged slump — much of which was, as we learn, due to personal circumstances that everyone can sympathize for – to start scoring again, getting goals now has started to be less problematic. Aubameyang now has 13 goals from his 26 appearances this season and let us hope he is planning on catching up quickly to keep up with his own prolific numbers in Arsenal colors.

Given that there is a one-week rest before the next match, given Auba’s renewed confidence after the heroics at “home away from home” Athens, I think Arteta will start him on the weekend. The temptation to start Saka will be very high indeed given the quality of his performances even when he is visibly not physically at his best, but I feel that he looked sluggish on Thursday and yes even though that didn’t stop him from making such match winning contributions, giving him a breather will serve us better in the rest of the season. I would like to see Nicolas Pépé – who had finally started to put together a few consistent performances on both ends of the pitch, and not rely only on unpredictable moments of brilliance – given a chance to express his frustrations at being left out in a constructive manner on the pitch. Lacazette too hasn’t been playing much lately and he had combined well with Aubameyang and Pépé at the tail end of the last season and that front three – though missing the superlative quality of Saka on the ball – have a good combination of qualities and mutual understanding to trouble defenses, especially when ably supported from an attacking midfield position. ESR has lately been asked to play on the wings following the arrival of Ødegaard. He has played well enough on the flanks, but I think he is at his best centrally as he can then use his superb positional awareness and the mastery of the half-spaces to great effect. Martin may also feel the physical intensity of Leicester’s game a little hard to handle coming immediately after his string of energetic performances in the last couple of weeks.

Xhaka had reverted back to his ponderous worst in the Benfica match, he might be well served with a rest too, and Dani should be given some chance to cool down after a few nightmarish moments on Thursday. The Partey-Elneny combination complemented each other very effectively in our away win at Manchester United and their fresh legs will help as well.

Cedric should definitely start ahead of Bellerin who too looked jaded on Thursday. I don’t think Bellerin has been as bad as some have portrayed him to be, but he has not really fulfilled his promise of the earlier years. There has been matches where he has played well enough, but he hasn’t really put in a Bacary Sagna-like consistent run of performances on both ends of the pitch. I was originally very skeptical about Cedric’s role in the team but in the recent past given a chance on the right fullback position he played well enough, and has a very good cross from the right. His more typical right back playing style too combines better with Pépé compared with Hector; the latter pair has yet to find a good tactical understanding, both preferring to attack the box more than go on the outside.

Holding remains in post-concussion recovery – and thankfully nothing more alarming following his head injury – and I myself worry about a temperamental Luiz against Vardy and his little sneaky ways. I like the composure and calmness of Mari but can he and Gabriel make it work both being primary left-footed? Gabriel too had an unusually off day against Benfica and maybe having a seasoned cool head in Mari next to him would protect Luiz from his own maverick temptations.

It is hard to predict Mikel’s starting eleven – except for the fact that we will see Willian at some point of time etc. etc. :–) —  but this would be my preferred line-up:

Leno

Cedric – Luiz – Mari – Tierney

Partey – Elneny

Pépé – ESR – Aubameyang

Lacazette

However, I won’t be surprised if Arteta sends this team out:

Leno

Cedric – Luiz – Gabriel – Tierney

Partey – Xhaka

Saka – ESR – Willian

Aubameyang

I think we will score at least a couple of goals but won’t keep a clean sheet either. So, a 2-1 win for the mighty Arsenal with Aubameyang riding the crest of his goalscoring waves with another double. 

Come on Arsenal!

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

It was a crazy day of sport all round. 17 wickets fell in a Test match and I missed every one of them because I was in Zoom meetings. So, in a game critical to our season,  we settled down to a tea time kick off in Athens only to see us take control, toss it away, toss it away some more, fight back immediately and then, in a moment of exquisite skill, three minutes from the end, win the tie and go through. Only Arsenal can do this to your cardiovascular system. For those partial to manicures, only Arsenal can lay waste to all the good work done on those fingernails and leave you with raggedy bits and a taste of nail polish in your mouth. For those partial to a drink, only Arsenal can take that bottle of the good stuff you were hoping was going to take a fortnight to drink and leave a scant few inches at the end of the game. Only Arsenal.

In this last 32 fixture in the knock out section of the Europa League we at were at home. In Athens. More weirdness. The tie stood at 1-1 after the previous week we had managed to hand Benfica a draw via a penalty kick after dominating the match and missing 107 presentable chances, most of them by our magnificent Captain having a strange off day. The manager picked what, Thomas Partey aside, was pretty much his strongest team. Young legs were hurting; risks were being taken with fitness but needs must. The season was on the line – we had to deliver. 

Leno, Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney, Ceballos, Xhaka, Ǿdegaard, Smith Rowe, Saka, Aubameyang.

Strategically Benfica went with 3 at the back with wing backs and a high press. Our team looked like a 4-2-3-1.

We scored three great goals and threw away two sloppy ones. Our first goal, after 20 minutes was a joy. Saka received the ball on the half turn just outside the area and played a superb ball, inch perfect between two defenders, into Auba’s path. Just onside, Auba clinically chipped their keeper. A goal Bergkamp and Henry would have been proud to have combined for. Auba’s back, everyone!

Chances followed at both ends but we were playing well, secure in the knowledge that they needed two because of our away goals. Then cock up number one. Dani Ceballos was somehow deep on the edge of his own area, between the centre backs. A Benfica player danced at him but, with cover behind, Dani hung out a lazy leg (do they coach that at Colney?), caught the man and conceded a very cheap free kick. Gonçalvez stepped up, produced a fabulous, unsaveable free kick into the top corner. 1-1 at half time (agg 2-2) and anybody’s game. We had tossed away the advantage at the end of the half, having dominated the game. Wolves all over again!

We began the second half well. Again Auba was laid in, this time by Ǿdegaard, again he finished clinically, but this time the offside call was just against him.

Then cock up number 2. Both centre backs went up for an Arsenal corner, which was rather wasted by a high loopy ball from Ǿdegaard which was caught easily by their keeper. He immediately punted it downfield, John Beck style. Back defending was Dani Ceballos. With all the time in the world to return the ball forwards, he decided on a back flick to Leno. It was poorly conceived and disastrously executed. The ball just slid off his head to Rafi Silva who had a simple task to round Leno and walk the ball into the net. Suddenly we were behind 2-1 (3-2) and needing to score two more to avoid defeat. Ceballos was immediately hooked for Partey and, somewhat bafflingly, Willian came on for Emile Smith Rowe.

Now my columns in the past have contained the suggestion that when Willian comes on, he stinks the place out, slows the game down and is generally useless. I’d just like to say that this is the result of post submission editing by the blog’s editors and that Willian is a fine fellow (it’s difficult to talk when your tongue is so firmly lodged in your cheek isn’t it?). Because Willian was – OK. He did a couple of give and go’s on the left and on 68 minutes got to the by line and cut the ball back to Tierney, just inside the box. KT3 beat two men and then absolutely blasted a shot to the far corner with that sweet left foot, surely the most effective left peg since Poldi departed. Rather than wild celebrations he then politely suggested to his team mates in broad Glaswegian that there was a game to win here and could they pull their bloody fingers out? 2-2 on the night and still over 20 minutes to get that vital third goal. 

With 15 minutes to go, Laca came on for Bellerin. Saka dropped into right back, but to be honest he wasn’t doing a lot of backing, but a lot of winging. Benfica at this point dropped back into their low block, six at the back and looked to hold onto what they had. It almost worked. Pass, pass, pass. Tackle, tackle, tackle. Then, with just three minutes to go, and the level in the bottle dropping alarmingly, Saka picked up the ball on the right side of the penalty area. He made one of his trademark runs across the area and then with his left foot produced the most perfect cross in front of the defenders to the back post where Auba had ghosted in. He buried it. There was an agonising moment while VAR offside was checked (it was close) but the goal was given and somehow, somehow, we were in front 4-3 on aggregate. 

There was time to bring on Calum Chambers and Elneny for a gallop, four minutes of extra time and for Benfica to hit the post (albeit from a clearly offside position) but we had plucked defeat from the jaws of victory and then decided that no, we’d quite like to win, please. An agonising match for fans to watch on TV. But the catharsis of that final goal will live long in the memories.

Let’s start with the positives. We’ve been saying this here for two years now, but in Saka we have a true generational gem. He is elite level and has come of age. He makes major contributions in virtually every game he plays and he plays all over the park. We must look after him and not overplay him, but boy am I glad Arteta picked him last night. Auba had a great game. He made fantastic runs, and clinically finished virtually everything presented to him, bar the odd offside flag. Kieran Tierney is a true leader amongst men. He surely is an Arsenal Captain and legend in the making, continuing our great tradition of left backs all the way back to Bob McNab and beyond.

So what didn’t go so well? We were very slow moving the ball forward against an organised Benfica team. That mainly came from the midfield, Xhaka and Ceballos. We need Partey to go on a run of fitness and games and to link defence and attack. This could also come from the centre backs and Gabriel had a poor game I thought, never really looking in control. Dani Ceballos had a game he will wake up screaming in the night about in his dotage. To be fair he was man enough to immediately apologise to everyone on social media afterwards. These inconsistencies are why we are where we are in the table and almost lost last night. Over the two legs we gave a pretty ordinary Benfica team a penalty, a sloppy free kick that led to a goal and a world class snafu that almost lost us the game.

After the game Arteta gave a press conference as usual. You can see the whole transcript on Arsenal.com. But I wanted to pick out this quote about Willian.

With Willian especially, I think he changed the game, he gave us much more composure, much more creativity, he produced a goal for Tierney.

Now I wish to make it clear that I am a 100% supporter of Arteta who is moving us in the right direction and developing a really good team. But there are only two possible explanations for that quote. The first is that he wanted to big up a player who has had a very tough season and recently suffered social media attacks from so called “fans”. In which case, it’s a bit cringey, but fair enough. The second is that he believes it. Which is a problem because it is 100% horseshit! Willian did OK, but no more. Far from “producing a goal for Tierney” which makes it sound like a killer ball followed by a tap in, 98% of the credit for the goal goes to KT3 for beating two men and then hitting a low accurate piledriver of a shot into the corner.

At the time of writing the draw for the next round has not been made – no doubt the opponents will be posted in the drinks. So, can we win this thing? Who knows? This is a team who can beat anyone and can lose to anyone. Still – keeps life interesting anyway!

Thank God we won!

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