Even if Manchester City’s European ban is upheld by CAS next week, Arsenal were looking at a top five place if they were to make the Champions League next season, and with the run of victories, there was optimism they could just do it before the matches to catch those ahead of them ran out. That looks very unlikely now. Mikel Arteta’s team can reach a maximum of 62 points, a total that surely all of Chelsea, Leicester and Manchester United will surpass in their remaining games. We look back to the folly of retaining Unai Emery’s services after disastrous collapse in the final months of the previous season. Arsenal are now paying the price for their misguided loyalty. In Baku, it was so obvious that change was needed. Arteta has improved things, but it is too little too late. At least Europa League qualification remains on the cards – and the income from that is significant enough for it to matter hugely. But even that is now looking a possibility rather than a likelihood, given the next two fixtures.
Arsenal started well in the rain at the Emirates. I am a long-standing advocate of summer football, although with the proviso that I am allowed to actually attend the matches. This though, was not quite how I perceived Premier League football in July. Arteta limited his rotation with just two changes, Lacazette and Bellerin coming in for Nketiah and Cedric. The rain suited Arsenal’s football and they had a very decent opening half. A sequence of end to end play saw Saka play Aubameyang in to put the home team ahead, but with the quality of chances created, the lead should have been at least doubled by half-time. Arsenal have dropped a large number of points from winning positions this season, and so it proved again last night.
The second half was similar to the one last Saturday when Wolves pressured Arsenal for the opening 20 minutes. And Arteta’s men held on. The end of the match was very different though. It was unfortunate that Alex Lacazette was offside for a tap-in after 67 minutes, but when he was switched for Eddie Nketiah, the game changed in a way no-one could have foreseen. Four minutes after coming on, with 15 minutes of the scheduled time remaining, Nketiah tried to win the ball with his leg outstretched and on the television replays, it didn’t look good. The referee Chris Kavanagh’s original yellow card was upgraded to a red after the intervention of VAR (Stuart Atwell on duty at Stockley Park). Without VAR, Nketiah would have remained on the pitch. So it goes. The referee let quite a bit of physical stuff go during the game, much of it coming from the away side.
Arsenal did their best to hold out, but with little opportunity to get out of their own half, eventually the goal came, typically from Jamie Vardy. There was still plenty of time left, given the injury time of 8 minutes that was added, so ultimately, the Gunners did well to ensure they at least took a point. It might prove significant further down the line. However, sixth place is the best the team can hope for now, and they need to at least secure a point at Spurs on Saturday or they may well be reliant on the results of others if they are to be in Europe at all next season.
Dani Ceballos was a bright spot in the first half, threading the play together. Martinez had another good game, dominating his area and reading the play well. Kieran Tierney also impressed. Arsenal didn’t play badly, they simply failed to kill off the game when they were on top. And that is what the best sides do. There is plenty of work ahead, we know that. In a sense, yesterday was a case of bad luck. Nketiah was wreckless rather than cynical, but paid the price. Arteta wants his players to be competitive and challenge for the ball, so there were reasons Nketiah was over-committed. It’s a difficult balancing act, and God alone knows, Arsene Wenger’s best Arsenal sides saw plenty of red cards whilst winning trophies.
Next up, the North London derby – and perhaps a little advantage in that Spurs play on the Thursday night.
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