It’s not often I make correct predictions, but this week, I nailed it. I said on The Arsenal Opinion podcast last Sunday that we were going to see two victories post-City and here we are.
We are better than Leicester City. They shit-housed us in the last game with a Vardy counter and some shocking VARing. It was different this weekend, that’s not to say the afternoon wasn’t a wave of emotions.
The starting 11, on first perusal, absolutely stunk. It looked like a death wish from a manager that really doesn’t give a fuck about fan sentiment. Willian, Elneny, Luiz, Xhaka, Mari, and Soares didn’t feel like a winning formula… most fans were grumbling in the group chats. Then, after 6 minutes, the I TOLD YOU SO chickens came home to roost. Willian and Xhaka lost the ball, Pablo Mari back-peddled against a surging Tielemans run, Mo Elneny failed to move across, the Leicester midfielder took full advantage and unleashed a brutal low shot past Bernd Leno.
Personally, I was furious. I am an emotional mess during most games, but this starting 11 felt personal. My group chat felt the same.
‘Arteta doesn’t get it’
‘This could be the end of him’
‘He’s addicted to shit players’
My word, was everyone wrong. Badly wrong.
The team didn’t drop their heads, players like Pepe and Willian led by example with excellent drive and efficiency. We controlled possession, we showed patience, and we chipped away at Leicester’s resolve.
Our first goal looked like an Andreas Georgeson inspired setpiece plan. David Luiz hung at the back post, he moved towards the penalty spot, Willian found his run perfectly, Luiz worked a perfect diving header across goal. Brilliant stuff.
Penalties haven’t been good to us of late. There’s always a reason for them to happen against us and always a reason for them to NOT be given our way. Pepe had a penalty rescinded early in the game after a VAR intervention… but he managed to even it out when the same tech piped up on an Ndidi handball in the box. Lacazette stepped up, sent Kasper the wrong way, and drilled home our second into the bottom left. He loved that. The relief was very clearly expressed with a clenched fist.
Our third goal would not have been possible 4 months ago. Nicolas Pepe ran at a retreating Leicester defence, he passed to Martin Odegaard, the Norwegian creator controlled the ball and passed in one silky movement, he found Willian who cut back for Pepe to finish off the goal with a tap-in. It was a very Arsenal goal. Odegaard made it with his speed of thought and his technique. Pepe was embraced by everyone, including the subs. He seems to be very popular. That’s a good thing considering the PR around his introverted character.
We saw the game out from there with minimal fuss. It wasn’t total control. There was a scare at the back post in the 96th minute, but overall, it was unfussy considering where Leicester are in the league.
So the hot takes?
We were ALL wrong about the stating 11 and I am very, very happy about that.
On reflection, with some of that 20/20 victory vision, the selection was defensible.
Cedric Soares has been excellent in 90% of his games, covering for Hector on the right was smart. I’ll say it quietly because vegan twitter is mean… but I think Cedric is better in that role. He’s faster, his defending is superb, and he’s more efficient in the final third.
Lacazette upfront totally made sense. Auba needs to be firing for the big crunch coming. The Frenchman has also been a star this year.
I might have given Dani C that game after his error, but if it needed to be Mo, that’s all we had. Thomas Partey should NOT have started out there.
Nicolas Pepe is in electric form. Willian is one of our top earners, he had an excellent run against Benfica, he was always going to start. There was no world in which Saka played. Both the above-mentioned players were absolutely excellent.
Arsenal rotated so hard it felt like a League Cup run out, yet we still absolutely dominated Leicester start to finish. The bet by the club is clear… they are laser-focused on winning the Europa League… and having the best possible 11 to down Jose Mourinho’s Spurs side.
Back to Leicester.
This is going to sound stupid, but goals change perception. That 90 was not new. We’ve done it in every game since Chelsea in December (bar City). The difference was we delivered a result to go with the performance. Again, the group chat is used as a reference for the madness of being an emotional fan… but the narrative in mine went from ‘BRENDAN HAS ARTETA’S NUMBER’ to ‘OH WOW ARTETA MASTERCLASS.’ What was the difference?
No red cards.
No hideous reffing.
Players stepping the f*ck up.
Arteta is bringing careers back from the dead. Our squad now feels bigger because good players are being… you know, good.
The Europa League played a huge role in that. Bukayo Saka’s contribution to that game was the assist for the Leicester game. These players need a focus. Top 4 isn’t on the cards, but now the squad is playing for starting positions in a cup run that could end in a trophy. That has the whole squad sharp. We beat a team pushing for top 2 with a bunch of squad players. That’s special.
Nicolas Pepe was literally unplayable today. He floated inside, he ran at players, he used his body really well… he was decisive. This is a player that looked so meek in November you’d have struggled to give him away. Clearly, he’s been working very hard in training and he obviously has a desire to make it here. It was a top-class performance.
Willian can’t help that he’s a Chelsea legend. He can’t do anything about that deal. But if he wants to be good, that is going to work for all of us. He really was top drawer. 3 assists in 4 days, that’s the same as you-know-who managed in the whole of last season. I thought his movement was good, the speed of his passing was much better, and he worked really, really hard.
I wasn’t sure about Pablo Mari. He was a bit embarrassing for the first goal, backing off like he had a bear running at him… but he certainly grew with the game. There was a moment late on when he was running with Jamie Vardy, his timing on the intervention was utter perfection. I would like to see more boldness with his passing, a bit more presence, but most people seem to be raving to me about him, so I’ll back off.
Granit. Xhaka. Take. A. Bow. Honestly, I feel gross writing this… but damn, he was fucking excellent. He’s been so good in 2021. The error early on was erased by a superb performance. He was hacked down 4 times, made 2 tackles, 1 interception, 6 ball recoveries, and he dropped an 87% pass completion rate off 71 attempts. He was fantastic, there were a couple of saucy moments, a kind of Cruyff turn, and a wonderful flick under pressure. He was GOOD.
I was a bit worried about ESR. He was one of two players that left the pitch with an injury before 50 minutes had played out, Barnes being the other. The fixtures are brutal. The Premier League should not have teams that play Euro games rolling first thing on a Sunday. Fingers crossed both players are ok.
The replacement for ESR was Odegaard, I thought he was absolutely electric. He’d been fairly quiet the last two games, yesterday, he burst out the traps. He pressed, he moved the ball very efficiently, and he had that little bit of special sauce we’ve lacked. He dinked a chip to Soares that was simply stunning. He assisted the assistor for the Pepe goal. He’s just the full package. I like that Madrid are leaking ‘JUST KIDDING, WE LOVE HIM’ articles to drive up his price. For me, Odegaard is our priority signing this summer.
You know things are shaping up nicely, because the only negative the ghouls had after the game was focused on who didn’t play. Namely, Gabriel Martinelli. I really don’t think it’s necessary to whine on about young players. He will get minutes. The club loves him, but he has to wait his turn like the rest of them. Some fans seem to hold dual imperatives in their head 1) WE MUST WIN ALL THE POINTS 2) YOUNG KIDS MUST BE BLOODED. It’s hard to do both. Gabi is fragile, loose, and inconsistent right now. We know that kids make it when they are ready, ESR the case study for that. Gabriel will make it, but I think Arteta deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one because every decision he made worked yesterday.
So where are we on the ‘SINCE CHRISTMAS’ trophy?
We’re in the top 4, baby!
2nd best defence.
3rd most goals.
That my friends is progress.
A lot of people think the Premier League table is all that matters. Sure, in a normal season, at a normal club. Arsenal are not normal and we are not in a normal year. Our organisation has been neglected and abused for 10 years. We hired a rookie coach because we’re broke and the view was that he was one of the best talents for his age and we could tap his City standards and grow with him. Mistakes and bad runs were priced into the experience. The terrible run happened, it was shocking, but the club moved on from it because they believed in Arteta’s approach. That means we can’t just look at the league for green shoots. We have to isolate moments in time and search for clues in different places. Christmas is when things clicked. So that table above gives good context as to whether things are truly moving to a new level. The eye test will tell you the football is better. Match reports like this tell you we’re seeing improvement beyond just the starting 11.
Even if you are #ArtetaOut, it’s a stretch to justify firing him because as it stands, he’s 7 points off Chelsea, with Liverpool, Everton, and Spurs even closer. Klopp, the 2nd best manager in the world, is 6 points off Arsenal in our worst ever season. Jose, £15m a year, with THAT Spurs squad everyone said suited him, 2 points off. Carlo 3 points. We’re in a year where David Moyes is besting them all!
Our next 5 games are Burnley, Olympiacos x2, Spurs and West Ham. 5 wins in those games and we’re cooking on gas. Arteta needs a run. Europa is absolutely key to the league. Rotation is too. Let’s see where it goes.
BUT… before all that, listen to my podcast. I’m chatting with the excellent Johnny and Matt. We discuss the smelly line-up, the big performances, and the expectations for the rest of the season.
ALSO, if you are a father, check out season two of Johnny’s How’s Your Father podcast. He’s hilarious, his guests are elite, and you should always support a fellow Gooner in a creative industry.