So January was fun, and sadly it’s now over. February has arrived and with it, a whole box of delights. Heading into last night’s fixture, one team hadn’t lost in 7, whilst the other hadn’t won in 9. Something was bound to give when Arsenal squared off against Wolves, little did anyone know it would go down like it did.
Saka and Pepe, Pepe and Saka, Sakpe? Pepka? Whichever fancy nickname sticks, it’s hard to argue that these winged menaces right now have to be the two first names on the team sheet. The praises for Saka are well known as the youngster has gone from one solid performance to the next, but over the last few weeks we’ve seen what can only be described as the ‘lightbulb moment’ for Nicolas Pepe.
Yes, that Pepe embraced Alioski with his head in November? Well yes, and in the sense it’s the exact same player, but these last few performances have truly been invigorating. Prior to this Pepe was seen at best as a peripheral player, resigned to cups, and slowly working his way out the door. We had all hoped November 22nd was ‘the’ breakthrough. Alas a foolish red card delayed that moment to January 2021.
Pepe is finally looking like a big money signing, scoring in 3 consecutive away games, megging more than Jason Statham chasing sharks, and putting in an all-around effort that is hard to find fault with. Perhaps most importantly, it is this new-found work ethic that should cement his position in the team. On a grim Tuesday at the Molineux, Pepe put forward a compelling argument to keep Auba out, and make us question what is the way back for our number 14? In typical Pepe fashion, this was captured by some clunky, yet graceful dribbling and a finessed finish with his weak foot.
We already know the glory that is Bukayo Saka. What a baller. At 19 years old, he is without a doubt a Hale End hero. He was very unfortunate to not get on the scoresheet with an effort smashing off the post in the second, following up with becoming a victim of VAR in the 9th with a goal rightly chalked off. In fairness the youngster could’ve killed the match off before Pawson decided to send this match into infamy. But alas for the wood work and VAR . . .
Still, as mirrored by his partner on the opposite wing, Saka showed the skill, drive, determination, and an eye for goal that nearly tore Wolves apart before they could get to the midway point of the first half. When the two of them are on song, you can see the league struggling to cope with these two.
The sad part about last night’s fixture is that the focus will be on the ref’s poor decision to send off Luiz rather than the near perfect performance of the Arsenal winger players.
The cohesion of our central midfield duo is growing.
Partey is just immense, sure there were a few misplaced passes, but the standard he is setting, is one we’ve not come to see in midfield for a plethora of seasons. His love for the dink drove Kilman mad in the opening half an hour, and you can see just how that vision causes opponents to rethink how they press. Partey ended the night with an 86% pass success rate, making 50 accurate passes out of 58 attempted and 1 key pass (that can’t be right, can it).
The duo is also effective in cutting off any whisper of a defence splitting pass. There are probably web sites out there that have the exact number of interceptions but Partey seemed to be in position each to time to win the ball in the midfield as the Wolves tried work their way through Arsenal’s revised midfield without much success.
Additionally, there seems to be a growing understanding between the two, watching much of the match focusing on that position, it was evident to see that they were on the same page as one would drop as another would venture forward. Off the ball both would drop and provide effective cover for the centerbacks and with sufficient spacing between both made sure there was little room for Wolves to operate in.
The tandem’s effectiveness has also had a positive effect on Xhaka who has seemingly gone from daily pariah to hero after turning in a slew of solid performances. The composure of Partey, allows Xhaka to play forwards, yet retain a position where he can snap up onward traffic, redistribute, and roll. The Swiss midfielder looks like a new player and that could be in part to the influence of Partey alongside him but it could also be another player adjustment brought on by a manager who believes in him.
Red sky at night
Luiz. Love to loathe him. Likeable liability. When he is on a run of form, you know he will pull the ace out of his sleeve and deliver a trademark blunder. However, this time it is unfortunate.
BT’s Resident Ref shed light on the incident :
“Intent doesn’t come into the law because you can’t read a player’s mind, so you go by his actions,” Walton said.
“His actions there were rather careless. In terms of bringing the player down… yes, he doesn’t make an attempt on the ball, that’s the important thing. Had he made an attempt on the ball, it would have been a yellow card plus a penalty kick.
“But because he hasn’t made an attempt on the ball, and the ball is not within playing distance, that becomes a red card. Craig Pawson’s got no opportunity at all to issue a yellow, it has to be a red card and a penalty kick.”
As the triple punishment rule has been previously axed, it does raise doubts over the legitimacy of this red. But a victim to his reputation, and perhaps his incessant over-compensation-rampage-runs-to-recover, Luiz (much like his defending) is in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The result, essentially game over from the moment Ruben’s resulting pen bulged the net.
Hopefully Gabriel will have a resurgence (much like his frosted tip mohawk) of his early season form.
But this kind of ref call isn’t new to Arsenal. While we are loathe to suggest there is a conspiracy, the league is littered with moments where Arsenal could argue they were robbed because of dubious referee calls. Who can forget Calum Chambers getting mugged by three Crystal Palace players in the 6 yard box with the game drawn at 2-2 and one of thos players coming through the back of Chambers. If that doesn’t work for you how about Saka getting “clipped” like against Brighton in the Box – much like Luiz did last night – with the defender in the same exact position as Luiz as – and no call at all being made. In fact the pundits called it incidental contact.
There are threads upon threads of social media showing such calls. And on one level I am sure every fan feels similar injustices, but what made Luiz’s card hard to take was Arsenal were all over Wolves. The home side couldn’t handle a full strength Arsenal. They were constantly dealing with the threat. Had the penalty been given and a yellow brandished I believe that Arsenal could’ve still gone on win that match and also perhaps, Leno isn’t forced to make a poor decision outside the box because we were chasing the game leaving ourselves exposed at the back. But that’s a complaint for another day.
Alas, backs to the wall with Ryan out injured, Icelandic Iron Man Rúnarsson has the chance to prove his worth against Villa… As he opted to chip the ball out for a corner under no pressure, the omens are looking Damieny.
Extra Time – Moving on
Whilst it’s hard to be sunshine and smiles after that match, the team should feel some positive. The match when 11 v 11 was scarcely a contest, just unfortunate finishing prevented the game from being out of sight. There is certainly reason to feel aggrieved by the red cards, but if the choices aren’t there for the man with the whistle to make, then unmade they remain.
Undoubtedly everyone associated with Arsenal will feel hard done by last night. Such a spirited performance, leading to a spectacular collapse. The question is what next? Is this to be a season defing slump, or will Arteta muster his charges to bounce back from tonight and look to avenge January’s Arsenal mess at Villa?
We are inclined to feel the latter, and hopefully the players will be spurned on by such a harsh loss, perhaps the signs were already there, as the 9 men ran themselves into the ground in futility.
Hopefully this match will be rescinded (perhaps like Luiz’s card) from memory by the next.
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