That one leaves a real sour taste in the mouth. Arsenal lost their first match of the season at Newcastle, a 1-0 defeat that feels a tremendously unjust result. It was a bruising, physical match, and Arsenal acquitted themselves quite well. The contest lacked much in terms of actual chance creation. If you take Newcastle’s dodgy goal out of the equation, Arsenal created about double the expected goals, although neither team got to one full xG.
The Gunners have consistently struggled going forward this season. They did so again today. It remains the biggest issue that needs addressing as Arsenal move on with the season. One of the ways to overcome bad bounces and questionable decisions is to score enough goals to make those circumstances outside your control irrelevant to the result.
To be fair, a large part of Arsenal’s attacking difficulties can be chalked up to the absences of Thomas Partey, Martin Ødegaard, and Gabriel Jesus. That’s the primary ball-progressor from deep, the most creative central attacking player, and first-choice striker missing. It’s also 36 Premier League goals of 88 total (3, 15, and 11 respectively), about 33%, out of the lineup. Moving beyond the raw goals scored, that’s the attacking spine of the team from last season all missing. It’s not hard to see why the Gunners might struggle to create chances.
Declan Rice, who was as excellent today as he’s been all season, can do a reasonable impression of Thomas Partey and replicate some of his contributions. That’s especially true as Rice gets more comfortable surging forward, carrying the ball himself. But Arsenal really don’t have like-for-like replacements for Martin Ødegaard and Gabriel Jesus.
I had hoped that Kai Havertz might be able to replicate some of Ødegaard’s attacking flair from the other side, but that hasn’t been the case. The German is a lower touch player who excels running off the ball and being physical with opponents rather than getting on the ball and dancing around them. But Havertz was excellent on the evening. Particularly impressive was his composure after his naive, slightly wild tackle that received a booking. It was a flashpoint situation and he was immediately surrounded by multiple Newcastle players, three of whom were booked as well. Havertz kept his head on straight, his arms at his side, his mouth shut, and did nothing that could have earned him a second booking in the fracas.
Mikel Arteta’s response to the injuries his squad is facing has been to sacrifice some of the attacking flair for more control in matches. You might argue that it was his plan for the season regardless of player availability. It’s tough to know. I’m not sure that Arsenal have had Mikel Arteta’s preferred XI fit at the same time.
The match was decided by a goal that should not have stood. There were three separate aspects of the goal checked by VAR and all three went against Arsenal. First, it’s not clear that the ball stayed in bounds to be crossed back into the area. It looks as if it just might have stayed in play by the finest of margins, but it is really tough to tell. It also might have gone into touch by a similarly smaller margin. It’s surprising that with all the cameras and technology available, they don’t have a way to see straight down each of the four touchlines from above.
Second, it clearly looks as if Joelinton fouls Gabriel from behind to bungle the ball back across the face. He has both arms outstretched and contacting the Arsenal defender’s upper back. Gabriel was leaning forward for the header, which may have been what prevented the foul being given, but it was a foul.
Third, we’ll never know whether Anthony Gordon was onside or not after Joelinton “won” the ball to get it back across the face. We won’t know because again, with all the tech, cameras, and resources available, they didn’t have a clear enough look to even draw the lines.
I’d also note that I’m really not sure what David Raya was doing on the goal. He was flapping, scrambling, and seemed out of position. But it really doesn’t matter because the foul was clear as day.
Unfortunately, the Newcastle goal wasn’t the biggest officiating blunder of the day. That honor goes to Bruno Guimaraes avoiding a straight red card for a vicious forearm blow to the back of Jorginho’s head. It looked to be calculated and intentional, too. The Brazilian midfielder raises his arm well above the natural running position just before getting to the Arsenal man and targets his opponent. VAR checked the incident and did not intervene. Shocking is one of many apt words for the decision. I cannot even begin to explain the call and the choice to not even send referee Stuart Atwell to the monitor to review the incident himself.
Mikel Arteta did not mince words after the match. “Embarrassing what happened - how this goal stands, in the Premier League - this league we say is the best in the world. I’ve been 20 years in this country and now I feel ashamed. It’s a disgrace and there’s too much at stake here.”
He will undoubtedly be fined for his comments, but what does that matter? Something has to change. It seems as if every match the pivotal moments of matches are barely understandable / explicable refereeing decisions. It makes it really hard to enjoy the Premier League because it does not feel like a legitimate competition. That’s not an allegation of corruption. Gross incompetence and a complete lack of desire or urgency to remedy it perfectly explains what we see week in, week out.
Whatever words you choose to describe the refereeing, it is inarguable that the refereeing ruined the enjoyment of what was otherwise a fiery, entertaining match. Both teams played right up against and over the line. It was physical and passionate. We’ll have to put aside the fact that Bruno should have been sent off and Arsenal should have spent two-thirds of the match against 10-men because that fundamentally changes the nature of the match, and it should have happened.
We should be talking about the brilliantly competitive match that might have been decided by a moment of wonder by a star player. Instead, we’ve got this. Nobody wants this. We’re all losers today. And the Premier League is far worse off for it.