Attwell and VAR cost Arsenal
It’s impossible to really discuss this game without any analysis being tinged by the controversy of the refereeing decisions, so it appears that is the place to start.
After putting in one of the best performances of their season, Arsenal found themselves on the end of a refereeing display that conspired to destroy their game.
It should be said that usage of the word display over decisions there is very deliberate.
Individually you could probably make a case that Stuart Attwell got the big decisions right on the day – Peter Walton certainly did his best to.
The shout Martin Odegaard had for a penalty in the first half was a close one that could very debatably have been seen as a foul on Ederson by the Norwegian, while you could make a case that Granit Xhaka‘s collision with Bernardo Silva was worthy of a spot-kick due to the fact that the Swiss midfielder had hold of Manchester City midfielder’s shirt as he threw himself to the floor.
What you cannot make a case for, though, is one was worthy of a review on the pitchside monitor, while the other was not.
The placing of the events on the pitch only served to emphasise the inconsistency of decision-making the Gunners quite rightly felt aggrieved by on the day.
But the turgid display did not stop there.
From the moment the Manchester City penalty was given, it felt as though Attwell knew the game was getting away from him and felt the need to fire a warning shot to re-establish his authority.
The unfortunate victim was Gabriel. Now that is not to say that the Brazilian’s challenge for his second yellow card was not rash, but having seen the way the game was going Attwell could perhaps have used his discretion to officiate the game in a less draconian manner.
The referee’s job is to try and keep all 22 players on the pitch after all, so perhaps a stern talking to for Gabriel – who up until that point hadn’t even committed a foul in the game – would have sufficed given the tension and the context of the occasion.
Instead, it seems in his overzealousness to remind the rest of the players on the pitch who was in charge Attwell sought to use his power with excessive eagreness and in doing so effectively ended one of the most thrilling games of this Premier League season as a contest.
This point was hammered home even more resoundingly when after the match Albert Stuivenberg revealed Gabriel’s first booking had been for questioning the inconsistencies of the penalty decisions rather than scuffing up the penalty spot as was reported on TV.
Poor officiating is not something anyone really wants to be discussing in the wake of such a thrilling match – for the first hour at least – but it is becoming a common thread across the league at present time, and until it is addressed with the severity it commands, we will keep coming back to these same dull conversations time and again.
Arsenal show no fear against the very best
Aside from the officiating, though, we have to pay some attention to just how well Arsenal did on the day.
Despite having won their last five matches and scored 19 goals in the process, there was a general assumption among supporters going into the game that this would be where the Gunners’ fine run would come unstuck.
Manchester City are probably the best team in the world right now and having struggled against the big sides this season so far many thought that history would repeat itself. Expectations were so low that jokes began to fly around social media celebrating how Arsenal had made it past the three-minute mark without conceding to Pep Guardiola‘s side for the first time in three home games against them.
But as the minutes passed on it became clear that the Gunners weren’t here just to make up the numbers – they wanted to compete.
In hindsight, the attitude was actually probably best summed up by Stuivenberg pre-match who made it clear that although the team respected their opponents, they did not intend to just roll over on this occasion.
“We all know the qualities of City it’s going to be a very big challenge,” Mikel Arteta‘s assistant said. “They are in great form but so are we at the same time and we expect a team that is competing with Manchester City.”
Far from just sitting back and looking to keep out the opposition like Arsenal had done for many of the games against top opponents during Mikel Arteta’s time in charge, Arsenal went at City looking to take the game to them.
On countless occasions the press was high and effective as Guardiola’s men sturggled to get out, and for a period between the 20th and 30th minutes in the first half, the Gunners had the Premier League champions penned back in their own half in a manner that hasn’t been seen for probably half a decade at least at the Emirates Stadium.
They may have ended up losing on the day but there does seem to be something different about this latest run of form that Arsenal are on.
Earlier on in the season, they went on a 10 match unbeaten run, but it always felt that the confidence that had been built up had something of a glass jaw.
Underlying attacking metrics were not too favourable and in games against Brighton, Burnley and Crystal Palace the Gunners often struggled to play their own football.
That is simply not the case now.
This Arsenal side looked ready to go toe to toe with the most in-form team in Europe right now and backed themselves to win.
The move in the build-up to Bukayo Saka‘s goal, which began with Ben White engaging Kevin De Bruyne and winning it back off him before spreading out to Kieran Tierney via a quick ball from Thomas Partey was a goal that we would have been lauding over if City had scored it and is testament to how much the Gunners wanted to play their football.
Getting over the inferiority complex against big sides feels like a huge step in Arteta’s project in north London and after the game it was this that his assistant Stuivenberg insisted would be the big takeaway.
“Well, upset about that we don’t end up with three points from this game,” said the Dutchman when asked for his thoughts on the display. “That’s the most frustrating part.
“At the same time, we are very proud about the performance of the players.”
It’s performances like these that Arteta can genuinely hang his hat on when things inevitably get to a stage when they’re not going as well as they are now. We were told it would be a process during the Spaniard’s time at the Emirates Stadium, and after a splendid performance on New Year’s Day, it’s now much easier to trust in than back in August.