Well, well, well. Drama at the Emirates, a comeback to stir the heart and three much needed points to raise Arsenal to fourth place, in between Leicester and West Ham on goal difference. And although it was indeed a triumph to win the game with ten men after the dismissal of Ainsley Maitland-Niles for a second yellow before half-time, let us not forget that Arsenal were already a goal down before that, and that after equalizing, it was less than two minutes before they conceded again.
The attack got the defence out of jail, which seems to be the underlying principle of the Gunners’ football under Unai Emery. Last season, it wasn't quite good enough to get the club into the top four. This season, we wait to see. One thing’s for sure though, looking long term. You don't win titles without some element of discipline and organisation on the defensive side of things. And that is not going to happen under Emery. Ever.
It felt ironic when Bruce Rioch was the half-time guest, interviewed pitch side. It would have been interesting to hear what he had to say, but the PA is so bad at the back of the east upper, there was zero chance of making out his words. Emery has been compared to Rioch by those who don't feel he will enjoy a long tenure at the club. In the second half, after Villa had taken a 2-1 lead, I reflected on Arsene Wenger’s quote back in the 1998/99 season that fans might have to get used to sausage after experiencing caviar. Because at times right now, the football is tripe, and sausage seems a distant memory, never mind caviar.
That was certainly the case for Villa’s goals, and with better finishing they could have had more than two. I reflected before the game that Dean Smith’s side were the perfect opposition at this time for Arsenal, but with Emery’s lack of defensive nous, the same could have been said the other way round. Still, at least the attempts on Bernd Leno’s goal were reduced to 14 from last Sunday’s 31. That’s progress of sorts.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles had a stinker. His first booking led to Villa’s opening goal, and AMN did not get tight to prevent the cross that came after the resultant free-kick was taken. In the centre, Guendouzi did not track the scorer McGinn and it was an easy chance, which he took gleefully. Maitland-Niles’ challenge that led to his second yellow could easily have been a red card on its own, so high and reckless was one of his legs. As it was he looks to have badly injured himself as he took out this man, which given his performance at least gives us the opportunity to play a more natural defender at right back until Hector Bellerin is fit again. Calum Chambers entered at the start of the second half in place of Buyako Saka.
After each side has scored once in the second half, the feeling of the game changed with a key substitution. Granit Xhaka was removed from the fray after 72 minutes, accompanied by loud boos expressing many of the home fans’ feelings about the player who is by default the current club captain. As one friend texted me, Xhaka contines to pen the ‘View from the Dressing Room’ in the club programme and “frankly that is where he should stay for 90 minutes of game time”. Dani Ceballos was also subbed at the same time. On came Lucas Torriera and Joe Willock and it felt like the spirit of the team was transformed.
Late goals from Chambers and Aubameyang (the latter from a free kick) put Arsenal ahead and they hung on. It was a relief to see the drive in the team, with man of the match Guendouzi at the forefront of the recovery.
It felt like a huge result, although the reality is that Arsenal need to go back to the drawing board in terms of their defending. And in terms of contribution, Xhaka should not be in the starting eleven against United. He made a few errors yesterday, but nothing major. However, his laconic style and lack of defensive ability does the team few favours, and compared to the drive of Guendouzi, Torreira and Willock, he hampers the momentum of Arsenal’s play.
It was refreshing to see Buyako Saka given his chance after his display in Germany, although he was an obvious choice to be sacrificed once the team were reduced to ten men. His replacement, Chambers was partly responsible for Villa’s second goal, a quick response to Pepe’s equalizing penalty to open his scoring account for his new club. You could point the finger at Chambers, Sokratis and David Luiz as all failing to do the basics as Villa punctured the joy that had arisen from the hard fought equalizer. No matter in the end, because Chambers made up for it with the goal that made it 2-2. But you have to hope that when Bellerin, Tierney and Holding are fit that the defending will improve, because it’s unlikely to be a consequence of anything being done on the training field in the meantime.
Chambers’ goal and Aubameyang’s winner came in the last ten minutes, a testament to the fitness levels of Emery’s team. They were fortunate not to concede a penalty when Sokratis left an arm dangling to block a late Villa shot, and we’ll only know the significance of that at the season’s end when the points tally is finalized.
If only the team could sort themselves out at the back, then games like yesterday’s would be far less stressful, and the club would be much nearer to Manchester City and Liverpool in the league table. Nevertheless, it was good to see the spirit the players demonstrated, and credit to Emery for at least making the right switches when he made the double substitution at 2-1 down. He now has to have the balls to start matches without his captain, and we will hopefully see more purpose about his team. It would be refreshing to see more of that at Old Trafford in a week’s time. It’s about time Arsenal won there again.
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