On Thursday evening last week, Arsenal invited some representative supporters (mainly drawn from the Fans Forum, but also my good self) to a meeting about VAR. The Premier League were engaging the fanbase by holding a series of such meetings with supporters at its clubs, with former referee Chris Foy explaining VAR and the Premier League’s supporter liaison manager Tommy Guthrie (or at least I think it was – truth to tell I am relying on this report from a similar meeting held at Wolves for his name) taking note of the feedback. We were shown the videos of a variety of incidents, and heard some of the comms between the referee and Stockley Park, as Foy explained the reason for the decisions awarded. The selection of clips were tailored in places for the attendees, so that we had a look at Harry Kane being denied a penalty for going down too easily when challenged by Sokratis in the North London derby earlier this season, and Aubameyang’s red card at Palace. At the end of the presentation, a vote was taken. Would those present prefer to return to the pre-VAR days at the start of next season with no decisions being checked, or continue with VAR after this campaign on the understanding it is a system in development and will improve? The vote was roughly two thirds in favour of scrapping it. Arsenal have obviously been denied what appeared to be winning goals against Spurs and Palace at home this season, thus losing four points as decisions were overturned.
I wonder if that vote would have been any different if it was taken in the moment after lineswoman Sian Massey’s offside flag for Alex Lacazette’s 78th minute goal was corrected? On this occasion, VAR worked in Arsenal’s favour. Ultimately, whatever fans say, it’s here to stay for better or worse, and the matchday experience is certainly different, with the peaks and troughs of the game being tempered by its use. All the Premier League can hope to do is improve it.
It was certainly a game Arsenal needed three points from if they are to make up the gap to finish the season in a Champions League qualifying spot, which feels a little more possible as points continue to be dropped by the gaggle of teams between fourth and twelfth place, any of whom could make it if they can put a sequence of wins together. Arsenal have won their last three league matches (Newcastle, Everton and West Ham) since the draw at Burnley, and that run has hauled them back into contention, but they are reliant on ensuring they achieve six points against Brighton and Norwich. If the club can take anything from Wednesday’s match at the Etihad, it will be a huge bonus, but realistically, it is the other fixtures between now and the 17th May the club will be looking at.
It is all about results now, and on performance, the match was fairly even, and visiting fans will have thought they deserved all three points. West Ham defended well and should have scored from a number of excellent opportunities, but fortune favoured Arteta’s side yesterday. It is a concern that, with the array of attacking talent at his disposal, the team struggle to create many clear cut opportunities when the opposition is organised and set. So we see a lot of possession, a lot of endless arcs from flank to flank going through the midfield. I’ve not see the stats, but surely Dani Ceballos had more touches than any player in yesterday’s game, although when Arsenal did get into some kind of a groove in the second half once the game became more stretched, he was running the show.
Ultimately though, right now, it doesn’t look too much different from Unai Emery. What has changed is that when the team do not have the ball, the organisation is better, the lines clearer. That didn’t prevent West Ham creating opportunities though. So, good as the win was, you have to wonder if the team can keep getting away with this approach, when what’s really needed is to use the opportunities to catch the opposition flat footed. These generally come when an attack on Bernd Leno’s goal ends up in the keeper’s hands, but he is too slow to release the ball. We end up with a short pass to one of the defenders, the opposition press and quite often, the ball ends up being hoofed out anyway. Better to get it upfield much earlier and ask questions. Leno only has to find a player quickly who can then play a speculative forward pass to exploit the spaces in the opposition half.
But such percentage football has no place in Arteta’s philosophy, so possession is king. Patience, probing, waiting for the moment. Yet, when the defenders have the ball deep after Leno has passed it out, it’s inviting too much pressure. We have to assume this is going to continue, but it really needs working on.
In reflecting on VAR, it should be recalled that it was used when Lacazette was in a wrestling hold after he came on in the second half and the ball was crossed to him in the penalty area. Why that wasn't given is a bit of a mystery. Lacazette had replaced Eddie Nketiah and there were some interesting selections in the starting eleven. Sokratis kept his place at right back with Hector Bellerin on the bench. Pablo Mari also stayed in the starting eleven, with Mustafi presumably not fully recovered from his injury in spite of reports otherwise. Of course, with an option to buy, Arteta needs to have a look at Mari, and although as a team, Arsenal allowed too many chances, Mari himself had a good game.
I imagine Nketiah is getting a number of starts because Arteta has decisions to make about his forward options. It looks inevitable that Aubameyang will depart in the summer unless the club agree to pay him the reported £300k a week he is asking. So with Martinelli and Lacazette both players who can start at centre forward, if Nketiah makes enough of a case, you could see Lacazette also being sold to free up funds for players Arteta wants to buy. It would be nice to think Arsenal might be of interest to Dortmund’s Erling Haaland with his £63 million release clause, but it’s unlikely they can match the wages other clubs will offer the striker. So we may see Nketiah and Martinelli next season instead of Lacazette and Aubameyang, especially if the Gunners fail to make the Champions League.
On one level, it’s a risky policy to play a forward waiting to see if he produces, but Lacazette’s contribution coming off the bench saved the day. Arteta has put together a run of eight matches without defeat in the League, and that isn’t purely down to fortune. They certainly needed it yesterday though. Wednesday evening will provide an interesting measure of the progress the new head coach has made.
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