Gunner Thoughts

[Long Read] The Irritating, the Infuriating, and the Ugly

Arsenal’s onslaught of an October — 9 matches in 1 month — continues to pour down on the Gunners, and while the results tell the story of a highly successful month of football matches, the relentless fixtures have taken a noticeable toll on performance levels lately. Whether it’s the fixtures coming every three days entirely, or it’s a case of us fans seeing more clearly the width between this young side’s floor and ceiling is probably up for debate. But after three consecutive subpar performances were escaped with wins and maximum points, it seems the fourth one was the breaking point.

The positive? Even on a bad day Arsenal left an away match with points.

The negative? The streak continues, it certainly feels like two dropped points, and it was an entirely irritating, aggravating, and enraging affair… And there’s issues to address within ourselves.

Arsenal’s match with Southampton started ominously and ended annoyingly, with plenty to vex and anger fans in between. But before we dive into the match, the refs and the performance, I think it’s important to remember something: we should be upset with the decision-making of the referees and the seemingly confusing conclusions they came to AND take the time to acknowledge Arsenal played poorly. Both are true. And given after the Leeds match I wrote about Arsenal EARNING a win in the face of not DESERVING a win, this match stands as an example of neither earning nor deserving.

It’s because of this that I am going to split my blog into two sections, one that isolates the refereeing and one that looks at the performance. Let me say up front that I am aware you can’t truly untangle these two from one another, it’s not possible, one effects the other effects the other, such is the sport, but hopefully this allows me to share some thoughts constructively for you.

The Assassination of Arsenal by the coward Robert Jones

Too strong a heading? Maybe. But I liked The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and this match felt like one, so I couldn’t help it. Go watch the movie.

Anyways, Robert Jones reffed the Arsenal match and my introduction to him was… ominous..

I posted this before the match happened, before kick off, because it felt odd to make the statement. Now Robert Jones hasn’t officiated a lot of Premier League games, but it felt odd from broadcast and was made ever odder by what unfolded. Is there a conspiracy? No. But it felt off and entirely foreshadow-y.

12th Minute: Jesus brought down in the box

A minute after Xhaka scored to capitalize on early Arsenal dominance, Jesus is through on goal again and manhandled by a beaten Caleta-car. He drapes himself over Jesus, he pushes, he tugs, he pushes again. It’s all from behind and it crosses the line of putting the attacker off. It can acknowledge that Jesus hurls himself a bit at the end, but what’s he supposed to do? The play has been ruined because of the 2, 3, 4 fouls committed to not allow him to beat the defender anymore than he already had. There’s putting an attacker off and then there’s mugging him to prevent a scoring opportunity and wrestling him to the ground. It reeks of cowardice from a ref and VAR system that didn’t want to end the match with a penalty and second goal within the first 15 minutes.

Mid-first half start/stop/reset stretch

Arsenal dominated the ball in the first half, and when play was flowing, Southampton were overrun in the midfield and struggled to deal with five attackers at times. In the first 30 minutes, Arsenal at 60% of the ball and were the team looking for a second. However theres a stretch of time from around the 29th minute — shortly after Saka’s “dive” — to about 38th minute thats filled with oddities, restarts, no calls, that cause the whole game to come to a halt.

Jesus is punched twice by Lyanco, theres a brief stop. Then a drop ball thats botched, a pause, another drop ball, a Tomiyasu boot comes off, another pause, and corner after corner. Theres no calls on some contact, Ramsdale isn’t happy with the blocking off, words are exchanged. Then the ref is hit with the ball leading to an argument, stop, restart, drop ball. Theres 5 or 6 corners. There’s a handball or near handball from Ward Prowse that we never see again, and then another corner.

Not nearly has bad of refereeing as the others in this list, but it’s not smooth management and the start, stop, reset nature of it does Arsenal’s flow no favor while really allowing Southampton to settle back down. We know Southampton love a dead ball and this fit into their style perfectly for a mid-half break.

Saka in first half

I mentioned in the block above a Saka “dive”. Saka was booked for a dribbling at goal and splitting defenders. There’s lots of contact, there’s a pretty clear clip or foot catch as well, but even if you don’t want to say penalty, it’s pretty shocking to suggest it’s an outright dive and booking. At minimum it’s a play on, no foul, but stopping and issuing a card set an odd precedential view of the things Saka was doing. Saka was taking a LOT of contact and hacks that first half, and being told to get on with it. He was allowed to be hacked out of the game, and while he has to continue to grow and not allow the teams that do this to prevent him from playing, that’s pretty damn hard to do. The first half felt like a shocking bit of refereeing on him specifically.

Ben White shove

In the 44th minute, Ben White is unapologetically shoved over in the box. Granted White is facing away from the goal, but you’re allowed to do that. What you shouldn’t be allowed to do as a defender is step across him, come nowhere near the ball and put a two-handed shove through his back. Yes, White goes over without much fight, but there’s no real attempt to play defense from the Southampton defender who impatiently just barges through. White can’t complain, especially given Saka was booked already for diving, but I can. It’s not as egregious as some of the others, but it adds to a grocery list of slimy business and game management from Robert Jordan and crew, and on other days it’s given a pretty blatant penalty. You’d call it at midfield, you’d call it in someone’s defensive third, you’d call it outside the box…

Caleta-car and Lyanco

Two of Southampton’s more dubious offenders throughout the match were Caleta-car and Lyanco. I spoke about Caleta-car putting both arms around Jesus in the box, but the truth is he does it about 3 more times in the match and is rewarded for it. We know Jesus is up against it with size, and I have no problem with a defender using their size, but this wasn’t even close. Two arms wrapped around his head and neck and used as leverage to rag doll an opponent is, and should be, a foul 100% of the time. Like many other aspects here, its leaps and bounds across the line and Robert Jordan didn’t see an issue with it once.

Early in the match Lyanco goes up with Jesus, comes down, takes one swing with a closed fist to hit Jesus in the back and then winds up for a second! He delivers a second closed-fisted punch! In a VAR era, what is that? To make matters worse, it sets the precedent for the end of the match when he tries to headbutt Nketiah AND THEN raises a hand to his throat. It’s not different from Xhaka being sent for this on Dwight McNeil.

I have no explanation for why they were allowed to do this, and I am sure the PGMOL will gladly side with all of them, but shy away from the fact that next week these calls will be whistled, rightfully. I mean Lyanco even has to double check the card color after his Nketiah exchange and I have to imagine it’s because even he knows he crossed way over the line. I simply have no idea what VAR is looking at to allow this. It is horribly poor all around — whether it changes the result or not.


This final one is a little harder to call out as we very simply were not shown it again. There’s a long ball toward the back of the box, Tierney goes up for it, the defender looks like he comes across him with a high arm and Tierney is left in a heap holding his throat. Nicolas Jover is booked on the sidelines for dissent and I can’t say I blame him. Unsure what to make of it, and maybe there’s nothing there, but given this match and this list, the whole thing just leaves you fuming.

Performance Review

Now look, that section is out of the way and we have to talk about the Arsenal performance. Because, while these two things are impossible to isolate entirely, as I said before, Arsenal had plenty of opportunities to take this result out of the officials hands and take it for themselves. I have not doubt that when you feel like things are stacked against you it’s hard to find that drive, but as Arsenal mature it’s matches like this that will turn from draws to wins if they can do so.

At it’s very core, Arsenal still controlled the game. They had 60% of the ball, they created 3 big chances, they created 12 shots (3 SOG) — objectively not astounding — but as expected, they were the better team. Now, Arteta and Arsenal have all the reasons above to cast their frustrations outward, but it may behoove them to spend some time looking at that which they can control.

In their last four matches, Arsenal have created 11 Big chances… they have converted 2 of them. Yesterday felt like a day they needed to get Jesus on the score sheet and put some life back into his form. Sadly, he would become the embodiment of Arsenal’s wasteful play. That’s not to demand he carry that burden alone, there were others that failed to convert or find the final ball. But like a flashback to recent seasons past, close margin games that fall short leave you grasping at those few failed moments and adding extra emphasis to their dissection.

The worst part as a fan, and writer reflecting back, is that I’m unwilling to give the Southampton set up too much credit. You have to give them some because they dealt with the traffic of Arsenal’s five attackers, they managed the moments they were overrun in the midfield. They then come out in the second half, and if they weren’t the better team, they were significantly better in how they played their game to lock down the danger and produce a few moments for themselves.

The goal by Armstrong will be loved by their fans. It’s an excellently timed run, a nice little slipped pass and Armstrong slots it home. From an Arsenal perspective you have to feel like we switched off as a team, didn’t communicate the movent, and got punched in the mouth for it. As a group, across 90 minutes, the defense played a good game. Saliba was a little sloppy in a moment or two, Gabriel sloppy on this goal, and the goal hurt a lot even though it felt like it was coming, simply because Arenal weren’t putting anything away or getting a firm grasp on the match. But in a 1-1 final, that small blame will lay heavy at their feet.

The fact is, Arsenal have steadily shown us lately that second halves are when they become susceptible, that the early fire they display isn’t something they are sustaining, and that their attack can get flustered, frustrated, and ineffective. As a team, Arsenal’s front six looked as though they ran out of ideas and energy in the second half. Saka looked unwilling to take his man on and create space, Martinelli made some nice moves but couldn’t connect, and Jesus got more and more frustrated as things weren’t coming together. He changed his game, he dropped pretty deep at times, and as hard as he worked, that work wasn’t turning into much. 4 shots, 0 on target in the second half tell a huge tale.

Finally, we have to probably discuss the substitutes. First off, I feel like Arteta made a mistake in bringing off Martinelli and Ben White who were two of Arsenal’s better attacking threats. Mikel could have easily done a straight swap of Tierney and Tomiyasu, and even Eddie and Jesus. I can understand why Mikel would be hesitant to bring of Jesus in level game, but it was clear it wasn’t his day.

Now the subs themselves. I have to say, really disappointed in their impact — or lack thereof. The energy was really low, and there wasn’t a lot of visible desire from the likes of Eddie or Vieira to really drive at Southampton with their fresh legs and create opportunities. Tierney seemed to be the most hungry of the changes — and one can easily understand why — but it’s disappointing to see Eddie and Vieira look so flat given they should be competing for as many minutes as they can.

It’s a long season, hell it’s a long month, and given the amount of fixture congestion Arsenal are and will face, the impact off the bench has to be felt. Substitutes have to no only feel a part of the plan, they have to feel the hunger to play their part and change games. Already this year, we have seen what an effective Nketiah change can do to a game and we have seen what Vieira can produce with a small bit of time and space. Very disappoint to see a game so ready for their fingerprints be wasted like that. If I had to, I would say Tierney was by far the best sub and maybe made a real statement that he’s still the better left back selection for most matches if it’s between him and Tomiyasu.

Much like the previous three matches, Arsenal will look to forget this. But the schedule congestion doesn’t stop here and with a chance to seal the Europa League group stages officially with a single point, it will be interesting to see if Arteta sticks with his previous lineups or opts for a more tradition “off day”. Tired legs, tired performance, and you can’t help but feel at this moment, it’s a team that isn’t finding the gas to push themselves into top gear for as long of stretches as we have seen.

Entirely irritating, a steady helping of infuriating, and a little dose of ugly, however, Arsenal walk away with a point. They didn’t lose, but they probably dropped two winnable points. How much this affects their season feels entirely up to them. Let this slide continue and have results tip from draws to losses? Yeah, Arsenal could soon find themselves in a top four dogfight. Let this be the wake up call that they can’t play like this and expect to still leave with three points? It could see them push onward and reach the break with a bit of steam. 28 points from 33 is still an incredible start, Arsenal just need to recapture what got them there.

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