Opinion: Arsenal's progress under Mikel Arteta undermined by individual errors - not referees
Familiar failings were at the centre of Arsenal's dramatic New Year's Day defeat to Manchester City at the Emirates as the Gunners surrendered a deserved 1-0 lead over the champions in four crazy second-half minutes that saw Granit Xhaka concede a costly penalty and were reduced to 10 men after Gabriel was sent off.
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It wouldn’t be unfair to say that for 55 minutes at the Emirates on Saturday, a casual observer might have been forgiven for not correctly guessing which of the two teams were the runaway Premier League leaders.
Bukayo Saka’s first half goal was the least Arsenal deserved for their efforts against Manchester City and playing with a growing confidence, the young Gunners could have secured a famous win to kick off the new year.
However, perhaps in not quite the manner they would have liked to live up to their historic nickname, Arsenal seemed to redirect the famous cannon that adorns their club crest to shoot themselves directly in the foot.
Four hectic second half minutes saw Granit Xhaka foul Bernardo Silva to concede a penalty, Riyad Mahrez scoring from the kick, a frustrated Gabriel earning himself a booking for dissent, Gabriel Martinelli immediately missing a glaring chance to put Arsenal in front again and finally, Gabriel earning a second yellow.
Even by Arsenal standards this was remarkable.
All this was compounded by the inevitable City winner which came in the third minute of stoppage time, just when Arsenal thought they had escaped with a hard-earned point from a game where even Pep Guardiola admitted his opponents were "better".
After the match, much of the talk centred on the referee Stuart Attwell and the VAR with Aaron Ramsdale and assistant manager Albert Stuivenberg bemoaning the lack of consistency in the application of the video technology.
The decision to review Xhaka’s foul after Attwell had initially waved it away, along with the fact the Gunners were themselves denied their own spot kick when Martin Odegaard looked to be fouled by City keeper Ederson in the first half, was the root cause of the indignation.
Manager Mikel Arteta, who missed the game with Covid, is likely to share the view of his team but in reality, the Gunners boss will need to look closer to home for the reasons for his side’s painful loss.
Arteta recently celebrated his two-year anniversary at the club, and after a poor campaign last time out followed by a disastrous start to this season, things are actually looking up.
Shrewd summer purchases, as well as a clear-out of so-called 'deadwood' means the Spaniard finally has ‘his team’ in place. Recent weeks have seen Arsenal playing some of their best football for years as they look to secure a top four finish for the first time since 2016.
However, what may well undermine their progress are the continued individual errors that seem to course through the veins of the club like a certain virus.
While they may have ‘vaccinated’ themselves from the likes of Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz, different variants remain within the confines of the Emirates Stadium immune system, such as that of Granit Xhaka who once again was the culprit at a point when Arsenal were in the ascendancy.
Granit Xhaka of Arsenal reacts after Bernardo Silva of Manchester City goes down in the box during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on January 01, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty)
Image credit: Getty Images
On another day, maybe Attwell’s original call might not have been considered a clear and obvious error and he would have got away with an admittedly soft infringement but ultimately, he gave the officials a decision to make.
Just like he did against Crystal Palace in 2018, just as he did against Brighton in 2019, just as he did against Tottenham a few months later, the Swiss midfielder conceded a needless and costly penalty for his side.
Add to that his penchant for needless bookings and red cards – including one in the reverse fixture – and one wonders why he still makes the team week in, week out. It’s been six years of mistakes and at 29 years old, he’s clearly not going to learn or improve.
More leniency can be afforded to Gabriel, but this is the second time he has been dismissed in Arsenal colours for two quick-fire bookable offences following a near identical situation against Southampton last season.
As good as he has been as a player, as Stuivenberg said at full-time, the centre back quite simply needs to be "smarter".
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There’s no shame in losing to City – this was the runaway league leaders’ 11th win in row – but the self-destructive manner of the defeat after such a positive performance is arguably more galling than the 5-0 hammering they received at the Etihad in September.
Much like the silly penalty conceded by Odegaard at Old Trafford a month ago, and even the one conceded by Ben White in the win over Leeds, all the good things Arsenal can undoubtedly do these days always seem to be mitigated by their own all too familiar moments of madness.
Gabriel's sending off handed Arsenal the dubious honour of becoming the first team to reach 100 red cards since the league’s inception in 1992, and of greater concern, this was the 11th dismissal of a Gunners player since Arteta’s arrival – far and away the most of any team in that time (Brighton and Southampton sit joint-second on seven!).
There is clearly a problem here. Costly individual errors were a staple of the latter years under Arsene Wenger, and played a big role in his eventual downfall, due perhaps to the over-forgiving nature of the legendary manager towards his players.
In his two years at the club, Arteta has mostly changed things for the better but the issue of stopping these calamitous moments may be his biggest challenge.
As he has demonstrated with the recent exile of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Arsenal manager clearly has a ruthless streak and may need to apply it to one or two others in the team to stamp out these mistakes for good.