Watford 2 Arsenal 2: Arsenal surrender to psychological pressure

In terms of entertainment, you won’t find too many better games to watch. Personally, I’d have preferred a boring 1-0 win. Instead, Arsenal threw away a 2-0 lead, which was predictable as soon as Sokratis pressed the suicide button in the 53rd minute.

Once again we have to detach our emotions and take some distance from the performance.  Knee-jerk responses don’t help anyone or explain anything. You can have a view that you don’t like Emery or think he’s unfit for the job, but you also have to fairly assess whether he’s realistically had enough time or the tools to implement his vision and take the club forward.

First, to say Emery doesn’t know his system of play is untrue. Historically, Emery favours 4-3-3. Last season he chopped and changed as he sought solutions to Arsenal’s defensive problems, now it seems he’s decided to implement his preferred formation in most games.

As for the line-up, readers of this blog know I have little time for Xhaka or Ozil. However, with Torreira still struggling with his fitness, I can vaguely understand why Xhaka starts ahead of Willock, primarily because I haven’t seen anything from Willock that tells me he’d offer more value or be any less of a liability. The fact is, Emery is very light on options in midfield that can change the status quo.

Ozil’s a different matter – I don’t want him near the pitch, but Emery’s the one who has to get Arsenal into the CL if he wants to keep his job. It’s a brave man who chooses a 19-year-old (Nelson/Martinelli) with no Premier League experience over Ozil, and Emery will have to live and die by those decisions.

Spurred by the announcement of a returning manager, the first half was Watford’s until they were caught cold by an Arsenal counter on 21. Ceballos won a tackle in midfield and Kolasinac squared to Aubameyang who spun and finished effortlessly. Watford, a fairly good team in a false position due to their participation in the Europa League duly shrank, and Arsenal caught them again on 32 with Maitland-Niles showing excellent movement before receiving Ozil’s pass and crossing for an unmarked Aubameyang.

At this point Arsenal were in total control of the game. They weren’t necessarily the better team, but apart from one outstanding save from Leno, Watford looked fairly toothless and demolarised after the Gunners opened the scoring. A minor scuffle before half-time was an apt display of the pressure both sides were feeling.

Second half, Watford boss Quique Sanchez Flores threw caution to the wind – it was his only option, and we all knew deep down it would only take a moment of madness – one mistake from a litany of players capable of self-destructing - to restore Watford’s self-belief and destroy Arsenal’s.

Sokratis provided it, his reckless pass from the back intercepted by Deulofeu who set up Cleverley for an easy goal.

In an instant, Watford were a different team. The one that performed so admirably for the majority of last season were suddenly injected with self-belief; inspired by Arsenal’s laughably brittle exterior. Following both Arsenal’s goal, and then Watford’s, you won’t find a better example of how psychology can override tactics or talent.  

Sure, managers can affect change from the bench to help turn a game, but Emery had nothing on the bench except a bunch of kids with very little PL experience. His options were, do nothing or substitute one player for an inferior one. It’s a cold hard fact that Watford had a better bench. Every substitution made them stronger, every Emery sub made Arsenal less able to influence the game.

Removing Ceballos did seem like a strange choice. He was one of the few players that could turn from deep and initiate an attack, but exhausted players can just as easily be a liability and the Spaniard’s only played a handful of games in England. Regardless, the tide had already turned and Watford had the psychological advantage now. Luiz duly gave away his second penalty in a matter of weeks when Pereyra diddled him on the periphery of the area.

At 2-2, there was only likely to be one winner and Arsenal somehow left the pitch undefeated following Watford’s 31 attempts – a quite ludicrous statistic.

So, for what aspects of Arsenal’s collapse is Emery responsible?

Playing the ball out from the back? No. Since the rule change where the keeper can pass to players inside the area, most PL clubs are playing the ball out this way in the hope of bypassing the front press and initiating attacks. Basically, Sokratis’ mistake is on him, not Emery. Guendouzi made similar mistakes, which you have to put down to inexperience. He was closed down, but there were easy outs and he made bad decisions.

The rule change has dictated how teams play to an extent and created a period of adjustment for defenders that requires adaptation. To prevent further mistakes, Arsenal simply have to vary their play. The goalkeeper can bypass the front press with long throws and when the opposition feels it's no longer worth pressing Arsenal can start playing out from the back. It’s called in-game management and in the absence of leadership Emery should assign players with the responsibility to communicate and dictate situations. I really don’t expect to see these mistakes happening again (very often).

Ultimately, we still have to give Emery a free pass on the defence to some extent. Arsenal are still paying the price for Wenger’s shockingly inept purchase and education of defenders because that’s informed the decisions the club has had to make on a limited budget. Sokratis and Luiz are clearly not of the highest quality; they’re stop gaps and nothing more. AMN and Kolasinac are amongst the worst full backs in the PL. These are not exaggerations.

However, they’re clearly not being given adequate protection. In front of them is youth (Guendouzi/Willock), Xhaka who is basically a statue and Ceballos who’s only just joined. Torreira’s never fit.

Few of these problems can be attributed to Emery. You can talk of tactics and coaching but, realistically, there’s a limit to how much you can polish turds or replace an entire backline in 13 months. You can change the formation any way you like but it’s the same crocks on the pitch. There’s no identity because the players are not consistent or mature enough to create one.

On the positive side, when Emery had Bellerin and Holding available last season, Arsenal conceded 18 goals in 19 games, so there is room for substantial improvement within the squad when these players return. Clearly, Tierney is a very promising acquisition.

Don’t think I don’t ask myself whether Emery is the right man to take Arsenal forward. Long-term, he’s probably not going to turn us into title contenders, but if the board’s brief was to gain CL qualification and enable Emery to be a stepping stone for the next man, he’s on course considering Arsenal finished seven points better off last season.

All will become clearer as the season evolves. And we should let it evolve and be less judgmental on Emery until he has a fully fit squad and time for the players to acclimatise and forge relationships on the pitch. We’ll know by the end of the season whether he’s up to the job, and if Arsenal fail to qualify for the CL it's plausible that a change will be made depending on rigorous analysis of that failure.


Leno (7): Kept Arsenal in the game with a couple of fine stops
AMN (3): Managed an assist, but Deulofeu ripped him to shreds and his positioning was embarrassing
Sokratis (3): Might be time to give Chambers a run out
Luiz (5): Was left completely exposed
Kolasinac (5): Similar to AMN, assisted but defensive positioning was inadequate
Guendouzi (4): Not a good day, but all part of the learning process
Xhaka (4): Too slow and positionally inept to halt attacks and his forward distribution was often abysmal
Ceballos (7): Superb at working his way out of tight spaces. He should be receiving the ball from defence
Ozil (6): Creative at times but lazy and ineffective off the ball. That will never change
Aubameyang (8): Did his job, almost to perfection
Pepe (5): Still adjusting to the pace of the PL

Willock (5): Coaching staff obviously feel there’s a top player in there, but I’ve yet to see it
Nelson (5): Got in a few good positions but repeatedly overpowered
Torreira (5): Needs to just sit in front of the back four. Is he carrying out Emery’s instructions? I’d like to know


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Arsenal 2 Spurs 2: Usual recklessness costs Arsenal derby win 

First, those complaining about Torreira and Lacazette not starting against Liverpool saw why in the North London derby. Torreira is clearly not fully fit and looked half the player he was last season coming off early as a result. Meanwhile, Lacazette aggravated the knock he’s been carrying and was forced off after 67 minutes. Had he played against Liverpool, he might well have missed the Spurs game, so supporters need to trust more in the decisions made by the coach when it comes to these matters.

As for the game, it was a typical North London derby with both sides making mistakes and lacking defensive composure. When the atmosphere is so passionate and aggressive, tactical intelligence tends to go out the window and I doubt either manager would have been happy with how either side managed the game.

The ease at which Spurs opened Arsenal up on the counter was embarrassing, again this is down to players getting carried away with the emotion of the game and not thinking on their feet. Setting up in a 4-3-3 formation, supporters complained that Arsenal needed a hook between midfield and attack, but 26 attempts on goal suggests creating chances was not a problem.

What’s clear is that Spurs have the more cohesive team and that was demonstrated by their ability to play a more free-flowing attacking game. However, whatever Arsenal lacked cerebrally was made up for in fighting spirit. Battling back from a 2-0 deficit, Arsenal looked favourites to take all three points until fatigue set in creating a farcical final 10 minutes.

Like Liverpool last week, the most frustrating element was not that Arsenal conceded goals, but the manor of the goals conceded. Arsenal had to work hard for theirs, Spurs didn’t. Eriksen’s first goal was shaped by a litany of defensive errors, notably Sokratis who lost a header in midfield then failed to spot Eriksen’s late run after Leno spilled Lamela’s shot. Then Xhaka let everyone down again with a preposterous lunge on Son in the box.

With the first half drawing to a close, Lacazette fashioned a lifeline with a superb close-range effort and Arsenal sorted their shape out in the second half and dominated for 30 minutes with Aubameyang scoring an excellent poacher’s goal from a fine Guendouzi assist on 71. Spurs looked perilously close to folding as Arsenal targeted Sanchez playing out of position on the right of their defence, but exhaustion led to a fragmented end to the game with neither side able to fashion a clear chance.

Tactically, I don’t think there’s much you can observe from a game ruled by such high emotion, but you can analyse individual performances and Xhaka was once again the villain of the piece. He’s been at the club three years now and put in some brain dead performances in his time, but few have been as laughably bad as this one.

Apart from his unforgiveable penalty concession, he lost possession in key areas and made a litany of stupid fouls that destroyed Arsenal’s momentum. There was a moment in the first half when Spurs had a corner and Xhaka was standing in the box marking no one with Eriksen directly behind him salivating over the fact nobody had spotted him. Luckily Leno was alert and woke him up seconds before the corner came in.

Anyway, Xhaka’s next calamity is likely to be his last. When managers don’t act, fans do, and they’re likely to turn on him Eboue-style, which would make him unplayable. While Emery may have had some excuses for starting Xhaka in the past, and probably will in the future, I’m going to have to start getting on his back if he continues to field this dolt in games of genuine significance. From now on, Xhaka shouldn’t be near any match involving a top six club - at the very least.

Thankfully, Arsenal can take a few positives from Sunday’s match. Guendouzi was quite superb in the second half. The bigger the spaces became, the more he began to control the tempo and dictate play. His positional sense and defensive awareness is measurably improving, as is his range of passing. The passion and energy has always been there, and the young Frenchman has often taken one step back to move a couple forward, but there’s no doubt we’re watching a star in the making. He has to be allowed to develop and start as many games as possible.

I also thought Arsenal’s front three looked dangerous. The more Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe play together the better they’ll be able to read each other, and when Tierney and Bellerin arrive to give Arsenal meaningful width and a smidgen of defensive solidity, they’ll be able to get into more dangerous positions and interplay.

I still think we have to give Emery a free pass on certain aspects of our defensive game. It’s not his fault he has to play Maitland-Niles/Kolasinac as full backs. Sokratis, meanwhile, was a bit of a stop gap, as is Luiz. Torreira’s never fit, Guendouzi’s still learning and Xhaka’s a liability. If supporters want Emery to be less pragmatic in his approach they have to accept there’s going to be a price to pay.

I’d like to see a 4-1-2-3 formation with Torreira static in the hole and Guendouzi and Ceballos taking turns to roam forward and supplement attacks. This may stop Arsenal being so prone to counter-attacks, especially when the wing backs are out of position. Either way, Arsenal need another defensive midfielder to give the manager more options.


Leno (6): Was at fault for the first goal and nearly repeated the mistake. However, he also made two fine saves
Maitland-Niles (5): Got turned too easily for the lead up to the second goal and lacked composure going forward
Sokratis (4): Made a complete hash of the first goal and looked slow off the mark
Luiz (6): Not perfect, but at least showed a measure of composure
Kolasinac (4): Horribly wasteful despite getting into good positions
Guendouzi (8): Showed a serenity beyond his years. Second half was faultless 
Torreira (5): Need him on the pitch and in form with far more regularity
Xhaka (2): Enough’s enough, I’ll be blaming Emery for Xhaka’s fuck ups in future
Aubameyang (7): Played a more creative role and scored a quality poacher’s goal
Lacazette (7): Worked his nuts off and scored a brilliant goal
Pepe (6): Very raw, but he’s immediately caused problems for two top three sides. The future’s exciting


Ceballos (6): Looked a game changer at first and tested Lloris with an excellent drive, but soon got embroiled in the atmosphere which didn't help him
Mkhitaryan (4): Couldn’t trap a bag of cement. Still he’s gone now, thank god


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Xhaka - the playmaker who doesn’t play

I pride myself on impartiality and sometimes wonder if I do players justice in my player ratings. It’s easy to forget what happens in a game, gloss over performances or allow your bias to taint your opinion. Historically, Granit Xhaka is a player I’ve trashed; I had him down as Arsenal’s third worst performer in my end of season review.

After Saturday’s game, I gave him a four rating and mentioned he was a spectator - so much so, Liverpool should have charged him for a ticket. With that in mind, I thought I’d analyse his performance a lot deeper to see if I was being overdramatic. Ultimately, I discovered my initial conclusion was wrong, as Xhaka was much more involved in the game than I’d figured.

It turns out, the reason I was dismissive of his performance was not because of his lack of involvement, but because he didn’t do what he was purchased to do. Whatever Xhaka’s key attributes are, considering he was signed as midfield playmaker, they were almost entirely absent throughout the game.

Let’s focus on those attributes. Throughout the 94 minutes Xhaka was on the pitch, he made 13 passes that could loosely be considered forward thinking. The majority of these were short 3-5 yard passes or forward balls to team mates inside Arsenal’s own half. Rarely did Xhaka turn, pick his head up and initiate an attack with a pass of any accuracy despite having more possession of the ball than any other Arsenal player, or Liverpool player excluding Alexander-Arnold.

Everything was safe and predictable; a dereliction of responsibility - highlighted by the fact that he made 17 back passes and 25 square passes. Granted, some were under pressure, but often not. And let’s not forget, a Premier League midfielder is always going to be under pressure – it comes with the territory.

Only two of Xhaka’s passes in the entire game could have been considered vaguely creative; one to Lacazette with his back to goal and one to Aubameyang who later squared to Torreira who eventually scored. It was not a pre-assist either; even Aubameyang didn’t get the assist.

Xhaka also attempted seven long balls, only four of which were accurate enough to be controlled.

Surprisingly, ‘some’ of Xhaka’s defensive statistics were quite good. Making five interceptions, five clearances in the box and two blocks – although on one he turned his back, which demonstrates how a statistic can be made to look good when it’s actually an act of cowardice.  On the negative side, Xhaka lost possession nine times and committed four fouls. He also didn’t make a single tackle in the entire match.

While Xhaka might not have been a spectator, he was a passenger. The Swiss went on the journey with the rest of his team mates but didn’t offer what the club purchased him to offer. Xhaka was not bought as a defensive midfielder, and therefore you would not expect winning the ball back to be a key selling point, but neither was he bought to sit stationary in midfield and simply circulate possession.

If Arsenal want a ball winner, they should buy one, and if they want a creative playmaker that can provide a range of incisive short and long range passes, turning defence into attack in an instant, they should buy one – or loan one (Ceballos).

Xhaka is neither and hasn’t acclimatised to the Premier League because he’s too slow to affect a game. He’s too slow to press (his press is actually non-existent), he's bypassed too easily and he doesn’t turn and bring the ball forward because he’s all too aware of his physical limitations. He was badly scouted, a waste of money and needs to be sold in the next transfer window.

Having re-watched Saturday’s game – albeit a lot of it in Benny Hill mode, what also stood out is just how good Liverpool are at both winning and retaining possession. It really was men against boys, but then Arsenal’s midfield had two boys in it. Arsenal didn’t press or tackle effectively and have little understanding of each other’s positioning, which made it dead easy for Liverpool to control the game.

No tactic was going to bypass that. It was about damage limitation from the first kick to the last and Emery’s tactics were simple, to prevent Liverpool doing what they’re best at, which doesn’t mean you can stop them doing what they’re not best at.

This Arsenal team still needs to evolve; many players are new and many are young. They need to understand each other much better and build relationships on the pitch. The idea that a club needs to have an ‘identity’ is over-exaggerated. Good players play good football. The better they get, the more confident they become, better they perform and the more enjoyable they are to watch.

Great teams get from A to B quicker and more incisively and eventually dominate games to an extent where they no longer have to adjust tactically to the opposition in most cases. Everything leading up to that is an experiment. Alex Ferguson is one of the greatest managers of all time, but what was Manchester United’s identity? I don’t remember one. They didn’t press, counter, go long or short or play tiki-taka. He built great teams with great players that played a simple, incisive game. If they had an identity it was in their consistency, not their playing style.

Besides, for Arsenal, it’s too early to speak of identity because the manager has been fire fighting with his line-ups since the day he joined – and still is. Unfortunately, Xhaka is a fire that needs to be extinguished.


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Liverpool 3 Arsenal 1: Luiz impersonates Koscielny

With a full week of training under their belt, Liverpool were back to their best at Anfield on Saturday evening despite being given a helping hand in what was a comfortable 3-1 victory for the home side. The gulf in quality was clear from start to finish, but at least Arsenal had a game plan.

Emery set up with a 4-3-1-2 formation; not a million miles from the 4-3-3 I’d hoped for. I wasn’t particularly happy with Willock’s addition, but Torreira’s obviously not match fit yet so few other options were available.

In fairness, Arsenal defended well for 41 minutes. Emery took criticism for playing into Liverpool’s hands by utilising a narrow diamond formation in midfield that allowed their opponent’s wing backs plenty of space to rampage into. However, I thought it was a good tactic as Liverpool are at their most dangerous when the front three interplay or have space to run into, yet Mane, Firmino and Salah were squeezed out for most of the first half and Arsenal dealt with the crosses.

The problem Arsenal had was Liverpool’s remorselessly effective front press, yet the visitors still had two of the three best chances in the first 45. A duff clearance by Adrian gave Aubameyang a sight of goal that was narrowly missed and Pepe was set clean through only to steer his shot directly at the Spanish keeper. Mane might have done better when a bad Ceballos clearance fell into his path from 10 yards.

It was therefore disappointing that Arsenal should concede from a set piece. Defending corners has not been a problem throughout Emery’s tenure, yet Sokratis was too preoccupied with Van Dijk’s shirt, enabling Matip a bullet header past Leno on 41.

There was no need for the goal to drastically change Arsenal’s approach. If Arsenal could keep it close until the last quarter, they might have been able to prey on Liverpool protecting a narrow lead. However, Luiz’s ridiculous shirt pull on Salah four minutes into the second half changed everything. Salah slammed home the penalty and nine minutes later the game ran away from the Gunners completely when Luiz got too tight to the Egyptian who rolled him, sped past Monreal and placed his shot expertly past Leno.

Emery could have changed the system and gone all out, but it was fairly obvious that Liverpool’s superior quality on the break would have resulted in a demolition. Instead, Liverpool took the sting out of their own performance, Arsenal advanced and Torreira snatched a late goal.

All in all, the result I expected. While tactics can give you an edge, they’ll rarely give you THE edge against such superior opposition. Emery’s formation enabled Arsenal to stay in the game – if not almost upset the odds by the end of the first half, but ultimately the Gunners had too many weaknesses to resist a Liverpool side that ruthlessly exploited every frailty.

As speculated, to get anything out of this match Arsenal needed to play beyond anything we've seen in recent years, hope for a bit of luck and be super-clinical in front of goal, yet none of those events came to pass. However, it’s disappointing that despite restricting Liverpool to five shots on target Arsenal should concede such soft goals.


Leno (6): Dealt with crosses well
Maitland-Niles (4): Solid in the first half, fell apart in the second
Sokratis (6): Did okay, but lost focus on Liverpool’s first goal
Luiz (4): Typical Luiz, but he’ll offer more than Koscielny over the course of a season
Monreal (6): Stable. Offered nothing going forward, but that was part of the plan
Guendouzi (5): Made quite a few clearances but never got a foothold in midfield
Xhaka (5): Perfunctory ball recycling
Ceballos (5): Thrown into the lion’s den and struggled to cope at times
Willock (5): Must confess, not seeing what others do at the moment
Aubameyang (6): Did okay considering he was deprived of support
Pepe (7): A constant menace, even if nothing much came off for him


Torreira (6): Scored a nice goal, but too late to spark a comeback
Lacazette (5): Didn’t see the point of bringing him on if he’s carrying a knock
Mkhitaryan (-): Late sub


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Liverpool v Arsenal: Dignity may be the only prize on offer

Arsenal travel to Anfield on Saturday for their first ‘big’ game of the season, and Gooners all round the world head into the fixture with a sense of optimism following a positive summer transfer window and two opening victories. That in itself is a good thing, but whether that optimism is realistic is another.

Let’s be clear, Liverpool are on another level to Arsenal – they’re a club we can only aspire to be at this point in our history. Not only are they European Champions, but their battle with Manchester City has elevated the performance levels of both clubs to something rarely witnessed in English football.

We might also factor in that Liverpool didn’t lose a single home game in the PL last season, only drew two and conceded a paltry 10 goals. Statistically, Arsenal’s chances of getting anything from this game are slim to zero, but football being football, one can dream.

It may be interesting to note that the home games where Liverpool did drop points last season were against Man City and Leicester. We can discount analysing City’s performance as it can’t be replicated, but it’s interesting that Leicester were the other side to secure a draw. Although it’s been three years since Leicester won the title, they remain a highly effective counter-attacking side. In January’s 1-1 draw at Anfield, they recorded 28% possession yet limited Liverpool to just three shots on target.

However, you cannot compare Arsenal to a side whose entire philosophy is honed towards the counter-attack. Although the Gunners will likely seek to absorb Liverpool‘s pressure and hit them on the break, it’s arguable whether the squad has the personnel to carry out a counter-attacking strategy with a similar level of efficiency in a one-off match.

On the plus side, despite their good start to the season Liverpool have looked a little rusty defensively, conceding 23 shots on target in their opening four games across all competitions. Although two of those games were against Man City (Community Shield) and Chelsea (Super Cup), both Norwich and Southampton did cause Liverpool defensive problems – the latter almost earning a point were it not for a shocking miss from Danny Ings in the 89th minute.

It’s worth noting that Southampton only recorded 38% possession in that game, yet still managed 14 attempts on goal (3 on target). One of those was due to a howler from Liverpool’s backup keeper Adrian, so it’s worth Arsenal pressing him aggressively.

All said and done, it seems fairly obvious that a counter-attacking approach is the only road to take in this match. Last season, Arsenal failed to beat any of the top four clubs away from home, yet the more possession they had the worse they performed. Arsenal managed 41% possession against Man City and 52% against Liverpool. Respectable numbers, yet they got trashed in both games.

I feel it’s pointless playing five at the back as the extra man rarely makes a difference and whatever system Arsenal play we have to recognise the continued weaknesses we have in the full/wing-back positions. With Maitland-Niles, Monreal and Kolasinac our only options, Arsenal go into this game on a wing and a prayer regardless.  

Ultimately, to get anything at Anfield, Arsenal are likely to have to defend beyond the supporter’s wildest dreams, yearn for a few lucky decisions, hope that Liverpool are profligate and be super-clinical when chances come our way.

Personally, I’d like to see Emery go with a 4-3-3 formation, employing Leno, Maitland-Niles, Sokratis, Luiz, Monreal, Torreira, Ceballos, Xhaka, Lacazette, Aubameyang and Pepe. Youngsters like Willock, Nelson and Guendouzi shouldn’t be starting this match.

Liverpool’s threat is clearly in wide positions, so Arsenal need to force their opponents into the middle with Monreal and Maitland Niles fully focused on negating Mohamed Salah/Sadio Mane. Torreira and Xhaka need to offer the full backs defensive support and help deal with marauding wing backs Andrew Robinson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, with further assistance from wide forwards Lacazette/Pepe.

I wouldn’t play Aubameyang as an inside forward; he’s not effective at tracking players back. Just leave him to play through the middle and hopefully gobble up a chance.

Can Arsenal get anything from this match? Unless I’ve grossly underestimated the ability of this squad, I don’t think so. It's likely that our full/wing-back options are simply too weak to be relied upon defensively or offensively, but I’d expect to see Arsenal put up a much better fight than last season and hopefully come away with signs of progression in terms of tactics and in-game management.


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