Best and worst of Granit Xhaka
On day where few things were certain throughout the Premier League, one thing we could count on was the unpredictability of Granit Xhaka ‘s performance.
Perhaps that’s the wrong way to describe. After all after five years in North London we know exactly what to expect from the Swiss international when he pulls on Arsenal shirt.
The thing is that the extremities of his performances vary so dramatically from the sublime to the ridiculous that it’s impossible to know really which one we are going to get.
At Elland Road we saw both sides of Xhaka.
In the first half he was sensational in midfield, providing a sharp assist for Gabriel Martinelli ‘s second with a precise through ball, completing more passes (28 out of 31) than any player on the pitch and winning more tackles than anyone else in the game (3).
However, having seen the good in opening 45 minutes, as he stepped out on to the pitch for the second we almost immediately saw the bad.
Having tested Andre Mariner’s patience by standing in front of Mateusz Klich as he prepared to take a free kick and escaping without a yellow, the Swiss international put in an appalling tackle on Raphinha seconds later.
The severity of the challenge was not the worst part, but rather how unnecessary it all was. Arsenal were 3-0 up with the play in the Leeds half. There was absolutely no reason to make that tackle but Xhaka did it anyway.
At this point calling for Mikel Arteta to drop the 28-year-old is a Sisyphean task. By offering him a contract extension the Spaniard has nailed his colours to the mask, and Xhaka is going to be a mainstay of the Gunners’ midfield for the rest of the season provided he is not injured or more likely suspended.
This is not to say that the Swiss midfielder does not offer plenty in the middle of the park. His skills are often overlooked by those trying to accentuate his flaws.
But on a day where there was no reason to allow a depleted Leeds side back into the game the Arsenal vice captain very nearly did exactly that.
Martinelli following in Foden’s footsteps
Gabriel Martinelli is in some of his best form in an Arsenal shirt right now.
We all remember how good the Brazilian was when he first burst onto the scene in the 2019/20 season, but due to his relatively lowly status in the squad, those moments of brilliance tended to be fleeting and sporadic.
After having a tough time for most of 2021, the 20-year-old is finishing the year with a bang and providing sustained consistency that suggests he is maturing into the player we all hoped he would be.
Obviously the goals – four in his last five appearances – are what’s most eye catching about Martinelli’s recent resurgence, but the subtle changes in how smartly he is playing have been delightful to witness as well.
Whereas before the Brazilian was something akin to a puppy enthusiastically chasing the ball around the pitch desperate to be involved in the action, he is now far happier to be absent from the game for prolonged periods of time, and instead make better runs that enable him to get in to better goal scoring positions.
That out to in run that we saw for his goal against West Ham on Wednesday was back at Elland Road on Saturday, and his awareness to beat the offside trap while making it is a sign that he is coming on nicely.
For Mikel Arteta the past few weeks have been something of a ‘told you so’ moment. The Spaniard has urged caution with Martinelli’s development to ensure it is best for the long-term, while others have been more anxious to send him in to battle immediately to suit the short-term needs of the team.
Patience has paid off and speaking after the game Arteta was keen to highlight how much of a virtue it truly was when it came to the young Brazilian.
“Well, we see the player every day and we know where the player has to be to be able to appear in the right frame, and then sustain that level into the season,” said the Gunners boss in his post match press conference. “We’ve started to use Gabi more and more when we thought that was the case.
“There’s no point exposing a player even when there’s a lot of opinions that it has to be done because it won’t be beneficial for the player.
“And in the end we are here to protect the player and develop the players that we have in the best possible way. We judge every day with what we see and I’m really happy with him and the way he’s performing.”
In many ways Martinelli’s development has resembled of the way Arteta’s mentor has handled the progression of one of the best young players in the Premier League today.
A few years ago people were nervously calling for Pep Guardiola to give more minutes to Phil Foden as the England international found himself behind several senior players in the pecking order despite seemingly being ready to make the step up.
Instead of sending him on loan the former Bayern Munich and Barcelona coach opted to keep Foden around, biding his time until the Goldilocks moment where things were just right came along.
Manchester City now have a World Class talent on their hands. If Martinelli keeps up this form, then Arsenal could well also have one of their own.
Lacazette increases difficulty of pathway back for Aubameyang
Before the game we knew yet again that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was not going to be involved.
Since the Gabon international was stripped of the Arsenal captain it has been his good friend Alexandre Lacazette who has replaced him in the role, and the Frenchman has done a sublime job of things.
While Aubameyang may have been a more laid back skipper, Lacazette is the leader in the more traditional sense, setting the tone with intense pressing – like what was seen for Martinelli’s first goal – showing streetwise gamesmanship that is often lacking from the Gunners squad, and actively protecting his young teammates on the pitch.
After Bukayo Saka ‘s goal the Frenchman could be seen remonstrating with Andre Mariner for trying to stop the England international from celebrating in front of the Leeds fans instead of focusing the blame for any anger onto those in the Elland Road stands who were unable to control themselves.
But Lacazette is far more than a bodyguard or a glorified cheerleader.
In recent matches the tactical role he has played has been essential for creating space in behind for the Arsenal wide players to run on to and take advantage of.
On Wednesday against West Ham his tendency to drop deep drew Craig Dawson out of defence into space the Gabriel Martinelli could run on to for the opening game of the match leading him to earn considerable praise from his manager.
“I am really happy with the way he played,” said Mikel Arteta of the Frenchman.
“Absolutely he has embraced the captaincy, but Laca has always been like that in the dressing room. You see the way he acts with the young players, his willingness to help.
“It’s in his nature, he is not a selfish player, he is happy to make the rest better.”
This was apparent yet again on Saturday as the Frenchman intelligently exploited Marcelo Bielsa ‘s man to man tactics to drag Robin Koch out of position time and again fashioning space for Martinelli and Saka to run into and wreak havoc.
Of course the 30-year-old has his limitations.
There were two golden chances he was presented in the game after passes from Martin Odegaard that he should undoubtedly have scored from, but his wastefulness in front of goal is what means a contract extension will probably not be forthcoming before the end of the season.
But until then Lacazette appears well placed to offer Arsenal what they need from a number nine to get the very best out of the talented wide players they posses.
With this in mind you wonder quite how Aubameyang is supposed to get back in the team again.
COVID cases continue to rise
In many ways the main story of the day was away from the pitch at Elland Road and instead taking place up and down the country as five out of the six Premier League matches were called off due to rising cases of COVID-19.
As cases continue to increase rapidly across the UK, it is near impossible for footballers to exempt themselves from this, as the bubbles that were possible before are now unattainable while the country is not in lockdown.
Although they were one of the two teams able to play fulfil their fixture obligation of Saturday, Arsenal themselves have not been immune from this, and it has been confirmed that two of their players – Albert Sambi Lokonga and Pablo Mari – have tested positive for the virus.
The club was forced to shut down its training ground at London Colney on Thursday as part of measures that Mikel Arteta confirmed were nothing more than precautionary.
“Pure precaution. We had some cases (of COVID-19) in the staff and we wanted to prevent any issues,” the Spaniard said explaining the incident.
“Everybody that we’ve seen around us had a few cases and the cases have risen, so we wanted to protect our people and Gary [O’Driscoll, the club doctor] and the medical staff made the right call to close it for a day, make sure that all the tests from everybody was negative and make sure that when we’re back, everybody is safe.”
With the Gunners camp breached it is currently unclear how future preparations for games is going to be affected.
Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup tie with Sunderland is still set to go ahead as things stand, while plan as far ahead to the trip to Norwich on Boxing Day would be ludicrous in the current climate.
In the absence of certainty over what is to come, Arteta has consistently called for clarity over the criteria by which the postponement of games will be decided so that clubs can understand the decision-making process behind this weekend’s spate of cancellations.
The Spaniard’s demands are perhaps a bit more pointed than most after his side were forced to play on the opening day of the Premier League season against Brentford amid a COVID outbreak, while others have not had to face such a fate.
Instead, of offering the clarity that managers are seeking however, the authorities continue to kick the can down the road, insisting that it is their desire for all games to be played a scheduled.
Surely this cannot realistically continue for too much longer though.
The Premier League has just about got away with it this weekend, but without a clear plan of action over a problem that is unlikely to go away in the coming weeks, you wonder if the integrity of this season will be able to survive too much longer.