If the way to measure a team’s progress is their resilience when things go against them, their ability to perform in situations that carry additional weight and their ability to shape-shift into something more effective, then Unai Emery’s Arsenal are definitely on an upward arc.
They found themselves 2-1 down at half-time in the North London derby despite arguably playing better than Spurs and conceding on a goalkeeping error and a hugely dubious penalty. (Heung Min Son may have been touched; whether that meant it’s a penalty or he needed to scream and roll around is another matter.) We’ve seen softer versions of the Gunners fade in these situations, but Emery’s half-time substitutions — Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan off, replaced by Aaron Ramsey in the hole and Alexandre Lacazette joining Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front — gave them another gear and they never looked back.
The back three — and bear in mind, it includes the much-maligned Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi — dealt with Spurs’ attacking firepower for much of the match, Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka were dominant while the various forward permutations did what they were supposed to do.
You can chalk some of it up to Mauricio Pochettino’s choices and a bad day at the office. Leaving Toby Alderweireld on the bench seemed to mess up both his direct replacement, Juan Foyth, and his defensive partner, Jan Vertonghen. Eric Dier, who clearly isn’t 100 percent physically, struggled after half-time with Arsenal’s new setup, and Tottenham’s tactical reaction came late. But make no mistake about it, a ton of credit has to go to Arsenal and Emery in this match.
The other side of the north London derby
Two off-the-pitch issues also surfaced at the North London derby. One was the banana skin some idiot threw in the direction of Aubameyang. It’s an ugly legacy of football-related racism from the 1980s and obviously has no place today. Tottenham have said they will ban the supporter; naming and shaming him wouldn’t be a bad idea either. (On Monday, news emerged that the supporter had been arrested.)
The other concerns Emery. I appreciate he’s new to the Premier League, but somebody needs to have a word with him about how the media work. Last week, he justified the decision to leave out Mesut Ozil by talking about the “physicality” and “intensity” of the opposition — when they were playing Bournemouth. This week, he said Ozil had back spasms but then added that he didn’t know when they were diagnosed or whether he had even bothered to show up at the Emirates at the derby.
Maybe he’s just being honest to a fault, but what he’s also doing is giving the impression that something is wrong in his relationship with Arsenal’s highest-paid player. And he’s leaving plenty of room for speculation.
Here’s a tip. Next time, simply say: “Yeah, unfortunately Mesut hurt his back on Friday and it’s a real shame because he’s such a gifted player.” And leave it at that. Unless, of course, you’re trying to start something.
UEFA’s big idea: another tournament
As expected, UEFA’s executive committee approved changes to European competition, reducing the teams in the Europa League to 32 and adding a third club competition (known as UEL2 for now).
The idea is to increase the standard of the Europa League and make UEL2 the sort of competition open to more leagues around the continent. UEFA say it makes matters more “inclusive” as the number of participating countries will go from a minimum of 26 to a minimum of 34. What that exactly means to fans in those countries, and whether it’s commercially viable, remains to be seen.
Mourinho makes himself the story again
ESPN FC’s Alejandro Moreno believes that Jose Mourinho doesn’t believe his claim that he can get the team to the top four by the end of December.
Last week I wrote about Jose Mourinho’s seeming inability to not make everything about himself. The trend continued on Saturday in Southampton, where Manchester United drew 2-2 and Saints manager Mark Hughes was later sacked.
Mourinho reportedly called Paul Pogba “a virus,” saying he didn’t “respect players and supporters” and killed the mentality “of the good honest people around you.” The thing about this story is that it comes from Duncan Castles, a reporter who is very close to Mourinho’s camp. And that suggests that Mourinho is happy for the contents of this dressing down to be out there.
Maybe he thinks (a bit like the vice captaincy nonsense) that it’s the best way to motivate Pogba. Heck, it’s his choice. But players aren’t stupid. It’s one thing to be metaphorically crucified in a dressing room in front of your teammates; it’s quite another when it gets leaked to the press and you’re pretty sure who is responsible.
One more thing. Helpfully, the Pogba story was accompanied by stats showing that Pogba had handed over possession more than any other midfielder in the Premier League this season. That’s an average of 19.4 per game. But before we destroy Pogba (or drown him in antiviral drugs), we may want to consider this “lost possessions” stat because it came up last year too.
At the time of that tweet, Kevin De Bruyne had lost possession 22.1 times per match and Cristian Eriksen 20.8 times per match. And, of course, we all know De Bruyne and Eriksen are notoriously selfish, unproductive “viruses” who infect everything around them.
Real Madrid win but still lack identity
Santi Solari is going to do things his way at the Bernabeu. Valencia may be underperforming this season, but when they visit Real Madrid, it’s by definition a “trap game.” Yet there he was with Dani Ceballos and Marcos Llorente in midfield (later joined by Federico Valverde) and Sergio Reguilon at the back. And, most notably, Isco and Marco Asensio on the bench while Toni Kroos and Marcelo watched on in the stands.
Valencia gifted them an early lead via Daniel Waas’ own goal and Lucas Vazquez made…
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