Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Arsenal were arguably the better team. One bad mistake cost them a goal. Controversial officiating decisions didn’t go their way. And here I was thinking Groundhog Day was earlier this week.
The word “deserved” gets used too frequently when evaluating football matches, but I’m going to do it anyway. Arsenal “deserved” a point today — meaning I think they played well enough to have gotten at least a draw from the contest. That’s not to say the Gunners played perfectly; they definitely didn’t. Cedric’s giveaway was inexcusable, and it cost Arsenal a goal. Players were loose with the ball and passes didn’t come off. They made their fair share of wrong decisions — Alexandre Lacazette not picking out either Nicolas Pepe or Bukayo Saka on that break in the first half sticks out like a sore thumb.
Call me crazy, but I think Aston Villa were underwhelming today. Some of that might have been score effects from going up a goal inside two minutes, but I was left feeling mostly unimpressed with them. They are well coached and play disciplined defensively. They tackle quite well. Jack Grealish is a good player, but I think Arsenal’s midfield got the better of him today and I could have done without his, and Villa’s, targeted fouling of Bukayo Saka.
But for a team that people have been riding the hype train on, my reaction is “that was it?” They’re a high-floor, low-ceiling club. For a side that barely staved-off relegation last year, that’s quite good and I’m sure their supporters are thrilled, but I don’t think there is any world in which they finish above 6th at best, and it’s much more likely 7th or 8th. They’re like Wolves last season and the season before; they are good at what they do but limited. For what it’s worth, I think Arsenal have a much higher ceiling but also a lower floor.
It makes the loss feel worse. Arsenal had their chances but just couldn’t find a goal. On another day, maybe they do find the back of the net.
On another day, maybe Ezri Konsa gets sent off for hauling down Bukayo Saka, who but for the foul, would have been in on goal, 1 v 1 with the keeper. On another day, maybe Emi Martinez gets whistled for a foul for what, on replay, turned out to be a tug on Lacazette from a fistfull grasp of his shirt (instead of, inexplicably, a foul on the Arsenal man). That part you can’t control. I’m still going to be upset with it because “the referees often get it wrong” isn’t a reason to roll over and stop demanding they do better. But Arsenal can’t control it.
But Mikel Arteta can control his substitutions, and his decision to bring on Willian for an injured Thomas Partey (sidenote: gigantic, sad sigh) was disastrous. To accommodate the move, Nicolas Pepe swapped to the right side. So in addition to bringing on a useless player who was, once again, useless, Arteta took the sting out of an already reduced attack — already reduced because he moved Bukayo Saka to left back when he took off Cedric. Arteta’s blind spot for Willian’s uselessness continues to be my biggest concern with his ability as a manager. Bringing on Gabriel Martinelli would have been a far better move.
Nicolas Pepe, especially in the second half, had been getting himself into great positions in the Aston Villa penalty area. He probably had Arsenal’s best chances on the day. He did nothing after moving to the right. Bukayo Saka was more of a problem for Villa’s defense in the first half, but moving your best overall attacking player to left back probably isn’t ever the correct move. Honestly, Arsenal would have been better off moving Granit Xhaka to left back just to keep Saka further up the pitch.
Man, Arsenal really miss Kieran Tierney in the lineup. Individually, he’s better than Cedric in every single way, and he balances the formation. His presence forces opponents to defend the entire pitch instead of favoring one side or the other, which creates space everywhere. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Emile Smith Rowe, who looked so bright when he came into the lineup, has been comparatively quieter with Tierney in the training room. It’s so weird to think that a left back can be so important to a team’s attacking setup, but there you have it.
Mat Ryan was strong on his debut. Martin Ødegaard looked good in 25 minutes of action. I think he’ll be quite good once he settles in a bit more, gets used to his teammates, and gets more time. Granit Xhaka kept up his streak of solid performances. Gabriel and Rob Holding were fine, unremarkable, but fine. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was a non-factor, which is understandable given his recent off-field, personal situation (sick mother). But that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s mostly a lost season for the 31-year old striker, which isn’t great given that, you know, he’s 31 and probably doesn’t have many “good years” left in him.
At this point, it’s arguably a lost season for the club as well. But that’s a different story for a different post, I think.
The good news is that Arsenal avoided the major letdown and regression that many of us feared they might have after that deflating loss to Wolves. The bad news is that counts for nothing in the table. Arsenal need points and they didn’t get any today. They’re home to Leeds next Sunday to kick off a spell of 5 matches in 14 days.