The only place to start this morning is at the beginning of the second half yesterday against Leeds, because the idiotic actions of Nicolas Pepe and his headbutt to get himself sent off was a pivotal moment that cost Arsenal, or certainly could have done, had we not been able to muster a decent enough defensively display after going a man behind for most of the second part of the game.
Pepe was a moron. He fell for some dark arts from Alioski and for no reason whatsoever decided to push his head into another players face. Of course that player is going to make a meal of it but you cannot be that reckless and stupid in these days of VAR. The referee Antony Taylor really had no choice and we can have no complaints as Arsenal fans. It was moronic to the extreme and now Pepe will miss the next three Premier League games. And given the performance of our wide forwards so far this season, these are games that we could have used the Ivorian.
Arteta’s face was rightly like thunder after the game when asked about it and you could tell he was seething. It hampered our ability to get any kind of sustained possession in the second half and whilst we still had one or two chances that we could have taken, ultimately we were limited in our ability to create enough chances to take, where as Leeds had plenty of chances to bury us and just didn’t take them.
We also rode our luck too. The crossbar saved us a couple of times and Bamford’s header off the post was also a decent enough one and probably deserved a goal. Leeds were dominant in the second half, but what is also worrying is that with 11v11 they were also dominant. They moved the ball quicker, they closed the space quicker, they created more chances and in possession they looked miles off. In contrast we looked sluggish going forward and our passing felt laboured. It’s when we get into the final third; our passing seems to really let us down and the number of times I saw players play the ball behind their teammate, or just out of play, was really worrying. We gave Leeds the impetus in the first half and then in the second half, through Pepe’s actions, we surrendered any really opportunity to put their defence under any kind of sustained pressure by being down to ten men.
You do have to wonder where next for Pepe now. We all thought that this was a game for him to come on and stake a claim in the team. Instead he’s going to have to sit out Wolves, Tottenham and Burnley matches. He’ll probably drop back in to the Europa League squad now and I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t see him from the start until Christmas now. The irritating thing is that he wasn’t that bad in the first half. He hit the bar with a cross, he had a couple of nice touches, so I was hoping he’d show us his stuff in that second, but instead he took an early bath.
As for the rest of our attacking unit, well, it never really clicked at all. We are leaving too much space between attack and midfield and that was evident yesterday. Arteta decided to go for a 4-2-3-1 formation and Joe Willock got the thumbs up to start after impressing in the Europa League, but unfortunately he just didn’t play the role of connector between midfield and attack that we all wanted him to be. He just isn’t at that level. Whether he gets there we don’t know but as it stands right now he isn’t the player we need to be able to bridge the gap between midfield and attack. You could tell that Arteta thought the same because he hooked Willock early in that second half, although that may have been more tactical because of the Pepe sending off. On came Saka for Willock and you could see that he made more of an impact; his direct running and pace troubled Leeds when we did get opportunities and he probably got our best chance of the game when put through by a good ball by Bellerin. It was a decent save by the Leeds ‘keeper to deny Saka but that was a golden opportunity to get ourselves a smash and grab win.
It wouldn’t have been deserved but we had the same against Leicester City so it would have been nice to be on the receiving end of a result like that. But our problem is in that creative end of the pitch and it is now five games since we scored from open play. We haven’t seen Arsenal hit the back of the net through build up work since October 4th and the 2-1 win at home to Sheffield United. We have nine goals in nine matches and, frankly, we have some massively under performing players who are in a real funk. Aubameyang offered little yesterday, Willian was better than the Villa game but that was such a low base it would be hard not to be better and whilst Pepe was ok in that first half, his actions were stupid in the second and so ultimately you have to say that he had a stinker too.
I thought Ceballos looked busy and industrious in midfield and Xhaka was ponderous at times. He gave the ball away in our half on a couple of occasions but thankfully it didn’t cost us. The only real positive you can take from yesterday was that our back four stood firm against a lot of Leeds pressure. We set up in a low block, asked Leeds to break us down and ultimately got the point and clean sheet. We’ve seen teams do it to us and yesterday we were doing it to our opponent.
That part of our game is fine, but the other end is a massive issue and Arteta needs to sort it soon. We need to do something. I don’t know what that is but something has to change and I hope he has some answers. Whether that is pushing Ceballos further up to be the connector in the team, or play with Willian centrally behind Aubameyang, I don’t know, but we aren’t getting what we need from our attacking players and at this rate we’ll end up being mid table fodder by Christmas. They say that the table starts to take shape after about ten games. Our tenth game is against Wolves and right now we sit in 11th. If Wolves win at home to Southampton, or even if they get a draw, we drop to 12th.
That simply isn’t good enough.
Catch you all tomorrow.