It’s not normal to lose a game and feel like you’ve taken a step forward, but that was the way I felt at the final whistle, and it’s the way I feel this morning. There is deep frustration that we didn’t take even a single point, but I don’t know how anyone could look at that Arsenal performance yesterday and not see how different it was to previous games against Man City.
The first half surpassed even the most optimistic expectations I had going into this one. I hoped we might be competitive, I hoped we could stay with a table-topping Man City side on a very good run of form, but we basically dominated it and were deservedly ahead at the break. We should have had a penalty (more on that anon), Tomiyasu and Tierney were causing them problems on both flanks, Thomas Partey absolutely bossed midfield, Gabriel Martinelli was inches away from scoring a couple of times after brilliant collective and individual play, and Bukayo Saka swept home a fantastic goal to put us ahead.
The goal was full of little moments, like Ben White stealing the ball to spark the attack, Xhaka playing a first time ball forward, Lacazette blocking off Nathan Ake to allow Saka the space for the shot, the involvement of Odegaard to keep it moving, and lovely delivery from Tierney. It was no less than we deserved, and it came after we’d had that period of the game where City looked to get on top. They had plenty of the ball early on, there was a header which went just wide, but we didn’t allow them to settle into that relentless, tedious rhythm they use to suffocate opponents. Even without our manager on the touchline, we had a gameplan and executed it well. The 1-0 scoreline at the break wasn’t lucky, it was well earned.
Then it all changed early in the second half. It is not possible to discuss this game without talking about the referee and the officiating, so here’s how I see the various incidents. If you read regularly or listen to the podcast, you’ll know my marker for how I view penalties given to us is how I’d feel if the incident happened at the other end, and to be absolutely honest, this one just tips over into the red for me. Ask yourself if Bukayo Saka had gone down over the hung-out leg of a City defender who then clearly tugged his shirt, what would you want? I don’t think there’d be too many of us suggesting it was a generous decision. It was clumsy from Xhaka, and an experienced play from Silva to make the most of it.
I absolutely get the frustration, but there are a couple of things at play here. First, I can’t help but wonder if the incident would have been viewed differently if any other player than Granit Xhaka had made the challenge. It’s a consideration for me – and something we have to take into account because rightly or wrongly, I think he’s viewed by referees as more likely to have made a foul than for the opponent to have dived.
The main thing though is the fact that the referee was instructed to view the incident on the screen when he wasn’t for the Ederson foul on Martin Odegaard in the first half. At half-time on BT Sport they showed a replay which demonstrated very clearly that the City goalkeeper hit the man first, then some of the ball, and it’s a stonewall penalty. If we could see that at home, we have to assume that VAR had the same angle (and probably more), so why was this not reviewed on the screen? You cannot justify the review of the Xhaka one when you’ve chosen to ignore the Ederson one.
This idea of a clear and obvious error is such nonsense. It’s either a penalty or it isn’t. It’s a foul or it’s not. If offsides can be given for toenails, then something like this should be a spot kick every time. Obfuscating the decision making process like that is a way for the PGMOL and the officials to hide their dreadful, damaging inconsistency. If you were being cynical, and I feel very much like being that this morning, you can’t help but wonder if decisions are being made for purposes of entertainment rather than to properly and evenly uphold the rules of the game.
City scored the penalty, and temperatures were high. There are various suggestions as to why Gabriel picked up his first booking: scuffing the penalty spot, being barged into the referee by City players pushing him, but afterwards Albert Stuivenberg said the players told him it was for something he said. Not swearing, not abusive, a ‘normal remark’. Whatever the truth of it though, he had to manage it better, and I think he got caught up in the post-penalty fury a bit. His challenge on Gabriel Jesus is a yellow card all day long, and after the first one the outcome was us being down to 10 men.
Just before that though, we should have been 2-1 up. City almost scored an own goal, but cleared it off the line. The rebound fell in the direction of Gabriel Martinelli who should score of course, but he could have done with Stuart Atwell being in his way. What is he doing in there?
If you see the replays from behind, the referee makes a striker’s run into the box – he has no business being that high up the pitch. I still think Martinelli should score but split seconds make a difference at this level and he had to adjust to go around an official who shouldn’t have been there. An official who already ignored an accidental but utterly blatant foul on him on the edge of the City box and gave a corner. A corner! Arsenal players were being booked for everything but City’s were allowed to do what they wanted without censure.
Then again, this was a game refereed by a man who, while on VAR duty for our defeat to Everton, ignored the fact that Ben Godfrey literally stamped on Tomiyasu’s face and didn’t think it was a red card offence. So what should we expect when he sets the bar that low? When people ask is it incompetence or corruption it’s a difficult question, perhaps even a dangerous one, but when we see the latter in every day life all the time in matters much more mundane than football, why shouldn’t we at least consider the idea? The PGMOL remains a closed shop, completely opaque in how it does its business and who it employs, and utterly unaccountable to anyone. When everything and everyone else in football is, why should they be so different?
Anyway, instead of being 2-1 up, we were down to 10 men. That changed things, obviously, but I still think we deserve a lot of credit for how we played. With 11 men we were dynamic, positive and effervescent; with 10 we were solid, committed and defensively stout, right until the end. Aaron Ramsdale barely had a save to make, and that’s testament to the players ahead of him who worked so hard and didn’t deserve to lose. The goal was annoying, I think Rob Holding’s defensive header is poor, and City got a nice rebound that gave them a win they didn’t merit.
It was a punch in the guts, no two ways about it, and if I’m being completely objective here I can see how we could have manged a couple of situations better and taken more from this game. The 20 second double Gabriel bit in particular was basically completely in our control and we were found wanting. However, this is a fan writing, and I don’t feel like being completely objective. Where’s the fun in that?
I want the sense of injustice to act as fuel for this team, because it’s like a turbo boost on top of yesterday’s performance. Let’s not lose sight of that, of how well we played against the best team in the league. We’re not sitting here this morning trying to rationalise defeat because of how good they are or how young we are or how big the gulf between us is. What we did yesterday was close that gap by some distance. Obviously we still have some way to go, but everything about the way we set-up, prepared and executed the game-plan yesterday was a step forward.
This was progress manifested in the way we played and without that few minutes of mayhem this is a game we could very well have won. I know, if my auntie had balls and all that, but I wasn’t expecting that from Arsenal yesterday. I hoped we might see something like it, but what we got was so positive and so promising I can sit here the morning after a defeat which really stings and feel like this team is going somewhere. I hope that’s the case. I hope this is stuff we can replicate, because if we can it’s very exciting.
You can measure football in all kinds of ways with all kinds of stats these days, but it boils down to how you feel, and to me it feels like something good is happening. The team and the fans are connected in a way they haven’t been for way too long, and games like yesterday will only consolidate that. Not just because we’re united in our distaste for officials, decisions, and mega-rich opposition, but because we can see honest endeavour and commitment to the badge on the pitch, coupled with the kind of football we know we have to produce to improve to the level we want. Not even VAR can take that away.