I don’t tend to attack officials, but in a game of paper-thin lines, every decision counts. Today, things did not fall in favour of Unai Emery’s Arsenal. Two penalty decisions ruined an almost flawless execution of a peak-Mourinho-Chelsea game plan.
The first decision came when Xhaka gifted Spurs a freekick in a dangerous area. The well-delivered cross flew dangerously close to Harry Kane 8 yards out, Mustafi identified the threat late and leaned in with a nudge the ref saw. The penalty was awarded, but on closer inspection, it was clear that our defence had held its line really well, with Harry Kane clearly offside. Even worse, the linesman was behind the play half a yard. The penalty was never in doubt.
The next penalty fell our way, Mikhi released Auba who was bundled over, the decision was no doubt dubious, but the award felt fair if you’re of the ‘it evens itself out’ mindset. Auba took the kick, taking a straight line run-up, Lloris guessed right and palmed the ball away, Vertonghen then ran back and blocked the second wave attack, clearing off the line. Again, on closer inspection, it was clear that Jan had encroached dramatically into the area. There aren’t many things you need to pay attention to on the penalty, so it’s baffling this was missed. You get the feeling there are important rules and those that are deemed not so important.
You have the two sides of the VAR coin on full display here. If the refs have assistants in the cloud, both penalties aren’t given. Sure, you lose some of the excitement, but ultimately, do you really care if the result is just? If the season finishes and Arsenal miss out on Champions League by 1 point, is it fair? I would always prioritise a fair result over excitement. Also, interested to see how VAR affects the dark arts of Spurs next season.
The shame of the bad decisions is it ruined a mostly excellent tactical execution. Emery started with Ramsey and Lacazette. He left LT on the bench. We opted to give Spurs possession so we could strike on the counter. The plan worked really well, Arsenal broke up play in their own box, Xhaka released a quick long ball to the halfway line, Spurs made a mess of the ball, Aaron was released, he powered through, took the ball past Lloris and narrowly squeezed the ball into the empty net. World class composure. I always think of Theo when players break on their own like that. Banter years PTSD.
We had some great chances to further our lead. Lacazette blazed a cut back shockingly wide. Iwobi got the better of Trippier, making space to curl a shot at the top corner, Lloris with a cat-like jump to deny him.
The subs at halftime made sense, Lucas was brought on to bring more solidity. Emery took Ramsey off fairly early for Ozil and Lacazette was switched out for the pace of Auba.
Our sharpshooter from Gabon didn’t have a great time of it, he fluffed his lines in front of goal and took a particularly shite penalty considering his quality, but it is what it is.
1 point is no disaster away to a very good Spurs side, but there’s a good chance that slip will cost us in the run for top four. Particularly if the result doesn’t go our way when we welcome United next week.
Overall though, we had a strong game. We accepted that going toe-to-toe with Spurs wasn’t going to bring home the bacon, we set traps for them all day and we defended like we actually cared about the clean sheet. Our players pressed like demons, they camped outside our box and all took personal accountability for doing their bit. Nacho was excellent, Kos used his experience well and Sokratis was a thorn in the side of Harry Kane all day. I really love the Greek, he’s a proper warrior, you’d never give him a parking ticket, would you?
Ultimately, it’s hard to account for players like Mustafi and to a lesser extent, Xhaka. You just know the German cannot resist making dim decisions. He’s always in there with an unsneaky nudge or a rash slide tackle. He simply cannot resist it, he started early yesterday, he makes the refs hyperaware what he’s up to and then decisions go against him. There’s also no obvious excuse, he doesn’t lack pace, he’s not young, he must have been told about this by coaches.
Xhaka is a slightly different beast because most of his poor expressions on the pitch are because he lacks pace. He’s constantly a yard behind the play and the only way he can counter that is with niggly fouls. The challenge you have with the Swiss is his ability to move play forward is unchallenged in the league, that long ball to the halfway line gave us an opening (even if it didn’t make its intended target directly). The club has to be looking at this as we head into the summer.
Next week is huge. I think it’s fair to say that Arsenal certainly do have a squad good enough to sustain a top 4 challenge. We’re right in the mix and it’s now March, it’s not in doubt. There can be no complaints we don’t have the squad. We are more than capable of beating United at home, I am even more certain of that after we nearly pulled off a masterclass against Spurs. If Southampton can get at them, we can.
The squad cannot feel sorry for themselves after being robbed today. We have to come back fighting and take the game to United. They have a fast frontline and two players that are expert at finding them on the break. We need to be smart and counter that threat. We also need a really fucking big performance from our two strikers to make up for today.
A few additional shoutouts. Bernd Leno is really starting to look like a good keeper. I don’t think the team has adapted to playing out the back, so it’s hard to judge his impact there. However, his double save was world class. We finally have a keeper that is capable of stopping the unexpected. That’s so valuable to the defence.
Additionally, let’s give Iwobi some props. He had a very good performance, he created chances, nearly scored, defended well and made a nuisance of himself. I also thought it was another superb game from Mikhi who is starting to look like value for money. He’s ambitious with his passing, he’s working hard for the team and he’s proving a far more decisive of late.
It’s all about United. This is essentially our #Top4 cup final. We have to come away with three points. Especially after United just beat Southampton with a very late United-ish winner.
Right, see you in the comments xxx