You know football is back when you look at the heart rate monitor and see that because of your elevated beats per minute, you’ve been fat burning on a Monday night from about 9pm onwards, despite sitting on your sofa. Specifically, you know you’re an Arsenal fan who knows that football is back because as we know, we don’t do things the easy way.
And so it came to pass that last night we were eventually made to sweat at the end due to some ‘circumstances’, although those were not really in our control and in the control of third parties who we all know about, but we’ll hold fire on getting to eventually today. But before then, let’s start at the beginning…
The murmurs on my football WhatsApp groups were certainly not ones of complete satisfaction an hour from kick off, as is the way with the depth of squad we have these days. No Gabriel, Tomiyasu in for the injured Timber and a continuation of the side that just about got past Nottingham Forest last weekend. Naturally when you see a guy who made something crazy like 72 or 73 appearances in the league in a row benched for the second time running you start to ask questions, but Fabrizio Romano tried to clear up the noises about whether big Gabby is on his way by saying that both player and club are happy. Arteta also came out after and said ‘nothing to see here’ and that Gabriel would be getting plenty of games and at this stage I think we have to take him at his word. But other than that the side stayed the same and I guess you have to say that perhaps there was an element of sticking to a winning team and that’s what I suspect he was going for. There is also the fact, as we now know post game, that Palace would set up in a low block formation and look to hit us on the counter, which is pretty much what happened until that turning point in the second half that I’ll come to in a bit. So I guess what I’m saying is that I can kind of see why he went the way he went.
And so we started and the familiar pattern was set for the game; Arsenal had most of the possession, dominated the ball and looked in control. We repeatedly looked to move Palace around by placing our wide forwards in very wide places and tried to move what was clearly a very defensively sound unit that had little intention of being manoeuvred out of position. Which made it difficult and chances were at a premium in that first half. But we still did create them. Eddie Nketiah, in particular, showed us the good and the bad, the Jekyll and the Hyde of his game. Firstly his spin of his man to create a chance and hit the post was impressive, but shortly after when one-on-one with the ‘keeper his flick over Palace ‘keeper Johnstone was poor. He should have scored it and I suspect Eddie definitely knows this. I was on Twitter and halftime lamenting his inconsistency, but ultimately I have to chalk it down to being a good day at the office because it was his quick movement in the second half to run in behind for the penalty that led to our goal; quick thinking from Martinelli sliding him in was clever, then his run and poke of the ball beyond Johnstone was equally crafty. I always find those kind of penalties frustrating though. Obviously not when your team is the recipient of said pen, but there’s no way that Eddie was going to get to the ball after it’d been touched past the ‘keeper, so it always feels like a weird one to get such a high-scoring chance from something that – had the ‘keeper not been there’ – probably wouldn’t have been has high scoring.
But I guess that’s kind of the point; had Johnstone stayed on his line then Eddie would have controlled it and had a one-v-one against him, so his chances of scoring ARE so much higher.
Nevertheless, it was a penalty, Roy Hodgson’s weird claim about Partey being a blocker wasn’t right but that man Odegaard stepped up and slotted away brilliantly. I thought Martin once again had a great game and dictated our tempo at times, with a lot of the attacking flow through it, but it was his midfield man just behind him – Declan Rice – who I thought stole the show. He was brilliant; he kept the ball, won tackles, recycled possession, was always showing and overall it was exactly the kind of performance you want from a guy who cost as much as he did. And his post match interview with Sky Sports was also brilliant. He’s such a down to earth guy and you can tell that he is going to have a massive impact for us not just on the pitch, but off it as well in terms of his personality. I think we’ve got a grand ol’ player in Rice, you know.
So that was the good, but there was also some other aspects of the game that were probably less than great, that I might as well get on to. Firstly, Kai Havertz who I really hope I am not developing a blind side for, but I didn’t really think it worked for him yesterday. He does go down quite easily for a big fella, I didn’t really think he impacted the game enough and if I’m honest I’m just not seeing whatever ‘it’ is that he does. Hey, it’s two games in and there’s still plenty of football to be played, but unlike many other players, I’m still not seeing how he massively improves our team. Right now I’m certainly missing Xhaka more than getting excited about Havertz. But we have time and I guess he is still learning about his new team and the way we play. So right now I think we have to give the benefit of the doubt.
And so to the main talking point from the evening, which is the refereeing and the decision to send Takehiro Tomiyasu off which, let’s all be honest here, was an utter joke. The first yellow I have seen that he had the ball in his hands for eight seconds and was booked. For this one, actually, I can almost sort of see. There had been a bit of the referee saying “get on with it” a few seconds earlier when Ramsdale took the free kick and I think about five minutes earlier that Tomiyasu had probably taken about 30 seconds on a throw in if I remember rightly. So perhaps Tomi was just a victim of the accumulation of instances and referee David Coote decided that enough was enough. Ok, I kind of get that. I am hoping we see the same level of gesticulation at the Emirates next time a team is time wasting on our home turf. I suspect I might be holding my breath a little too long for that instance to come about though.
What I don’t get is that just a minute or two before the second yellow card, Jordan Ayew brought down Saka by tugging his shirt back, whilst Ayew was on a yellow card already. There was some leniency showed there, perhaps because the referee was thinking “come on man, I don’t want to send you off”. Fine. I’m sure we can all live with that providing the rules are applied equally. And YET AGAIN we are talking about inconsistency because there is nobody on this planet who can truly tell me that what Tomiyasu did was worse than Ayew. The contact was minimal, if anything, the Palace player made a meal of it, the ref fell for it and noboddy was in his ear to tell him that it wasn’t worthy of a second yellow. I heard last night that they can’t intervene for second yellows, which seems like a very weird blind spot in the rules, but something has to be done in that instance. The referee was generally useless and inconsistent anyway, but in this instance perhaps it would have been better if he could have been told “actually, have another look at that, because the contact was exaggerated”. Instead, Tomiyasu walks, the game becomes an attack versus defence and we find ourselves with our backs to the walls.
But, as Arteta said afterwards, that fight and determination won out and we held on for the three points with quite an impressive defensive display, one which Arteta admitted he was very pleased with afterwards. So we move on, with two wins out of two, with the visit to Fulham next weekend in our sites. All eyes on that three point prize. Hopefully with less stress than last night though, eh?
Catch you all tomorrow. I’ll be re-living the game with the guys on the Same Old Arsenal podcast tonight so if you fancy tuning in you can do it here.