A draw is better than a loss, right? A point in the table is better than none at all. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang finally scoring a goal again is a step in the right direction. But another man sent off, Gabriel this time, is the latest in a long line of, as Mikel Arteta put it, Arsenal “shooting themselves in the foot.” Kudos, I guess, to the squad for stepping up and protecting the point down a man, but it would really be great if Arsenal would avoid needing heroics altogether.
The attack felt slightly improved today. Nicolas Pépé worked himself into a good position for a shot twice in the first half and actually pulled the trigger on both chances. One was blocked and one was right at the keeper, but getting into those positions and generating those shots is an improvement. If you keep creating shots from those positions, the goals will follow at some point. But Arsenal still need to do it more frequently. The Gunners still don’t have “a way” that they try to attack — think Southampton relying on set pieces or Tottenham on the counter. There’s nothing where opposing teams say “watch out for the [attacking pattern]” or “we’ve got to stop [player]” and that’s an ongoing problem.
To nobody’s surprise, it was Southampton who struck first. Ché Adams picked up a semi-loose ball in the midfield, turned, and put Theo Walcott in behind who calmly chipped Bernd Leno. There were many, many things wrong with the play. For some reason, Adams was allowed to collect the ball at midfield with neither Dani Ceballos nor Mohamed Elneny close enough to prevent the turn. As a result, Gabriel came charging out to close him down but was late. Perhaps he would have been better served to hang back, but I think the Arsenal centerbacks have been coached to step up there. Rob Holding did something similar a few minutes later. When the CB steps up, what is supposed to happen is the outside back tucks in and the outside midfielder drops back. Whether it was Kieran Tierney or Bukayo Saka who was supposed to pick up Walcott’s run isn’t clear, but neither were tight enough to him. For what it’s worth, I also think that Leno misjudged Walcott’s speed and put himself in no-man’s land.
The Gunners finally broke their open-play scoring drought with individual brilliance as opposed to a tactical, system goal. Bukayo Saka beat three people, Eddie Nketiah added in a nice little flick, and Aubameyang topped it off with a classy finish. I’m definitely not complaining. I’ll take goals however Arsenal can get them. But “hero ball” has been the go-to for way too long.
Arsenal had worked their way back into the match. It looked as if it could go either way. Then Gabriel got two yellow cards in 4 minutes and that was that. Down a man, the Gunners had to fight to preserve the draw.
My two cents on Gabriel’s sending off. First, he’s got to be smarter. On a yellow card, you can’t do that. That said, my word Arsenal cannot catch a break in any phase, can they? If his first yellow was for the foul, it was his second foul of the match and first of that half, and there wasn’t really that much in it. If it was for delaying the restart, why didn’t Theo Walcott get one for sprinting to get in front of an Arsenal man trying to take one quickly AND moving to block it when they went to kick it a few minutes earlier?
On the second yellow, I will argue until the cows come home that the contact didn’t cause Walcott to go to ground, just as the contact on Ceballos in the penalty area in the first half didn’t cause him to go to ground, either. Then you look at Elneny grappling with a man for 10 yards across the pitch with no card given, and it makes you wonder if Paul Tierney wasn’t being just a bit impetuous with the second yellow. Either way, the inconsistency doesn’t exactly breed confidence in the referee, does it?
The recent narrative that “Arsenal are playing undisciplined” also matters, and I think it played into the call. It’s in the same vein as the apparent reputation of Hector Bellerin as a guy who does foul throws leading to more foul throws being called against him. I also think if that was, say Virgil Van Dijk or Aymeric Laporte or Toby Alderweireld, instead of Premier League rookie Gabriel, it’s a “final warning” situation instead of quickly going for the sending off.
Yeah, I know it’s kinda “my thing” to get spun up about the officiating. But the bottom line is probably more that Arsenal can’t seem to catch a break. I don’t have that big of problem with how it played out, I’m just lamenting that it very easily could have (and often does elsewhere) played out differently in Arsenal’s favor. And as I said, the demonstrated in-match inconsistency doesn’t help things.
It’s a microcosm of how things are going for Arsenal overall. Anything that can go wrong or go against them seems to be doing so. On a different day, the calls against Gabriel play out differently. On a different day, Rob Holding’s header at the death is slightly lower and snatches the points. A number of the problems on the pitch are of their own making, but they really can’t seem to catch a break.
Things would be going much better if, for example, players would execute relatively simple passes correctly. Several attacks lost their sting because guys misplayed their passes. With Arsenal up 1-0, they broke well but Ceballos’ ball to a wide open Aubameyang was hit too long and too wide, allowing Southampton time to recover. Towards the end of the match, right around midfield, Elneny hit a sub-ten yard pass behind Saka. The poor ball caused a turnover and break the other way that could have been the deciding factor. Those are basic, pretty easy things that professionals should be getting right, and yet here we are.
From the outside looking in, every match is a referendum on Mikel Arteta as a manager. What, exactly, is he supposed to do about players making poor decisions on the pitch and getting themselves sent off or about guys missing easy passes? That’s not to say he is blameless, but today’s “problems” were not things for which you can fairly criticize the manager. I’d also point out that the biggest thing I’d been calling for — dropping Willian — happened. For what it’s worth, I remain convinced that internally, Arsenal are nowhere near sacking him.
At the end of the day, a draw is better than a loss. A goal scored is better than being shutout. There are reasons to be cautiously optimistic, and if Arsenal can get out of their own way, they might be able to string together a few results.