Mikel Arteta’s VAR outrage cannot distract from a harsh truth about Arsenal

The Gunners’ lingering problems at both ends of the pitch are of their manager’s own making

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 06 November 2023 07:08 GMT
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Arteta claims Newcastle 'goal is not a goal' and 'embarassed' by officials 'disgraceful' decision

It may be wrong to brand it a deflection strategy. Because a strategy would imply something cold and calculated and a manager whose team have been accused of being too emotional was being too emotional himself. Mikel Arteta competed with himself to repeat the words “embarrassed” and “disgrace” most as, with wild-eyed fury, he discussed Anthony Gordon’s winner for Newcastle. He said it would not have happened in Japan or China, displaying a knowledge of the Japanese and Chinese leagues he had hitherto concealed.

All of which might find a receptive audience, and not merely among the large Arsenal fanbase. A culture of complaining appeals to conspiracist theorists and those who invent agendas against their clubs, but also to those whose obsession with referees and VAR seemingly comes at the expense of an interest in the actual football. But if constant carping about officials is a copout, Arteta is neither the only culprit nor (normally) the worst one.

Yet distilling football to a state of permanent outrage can require a selective interpretation of events. Amid Stuart Attwell’s erratic officiating, perhaps the worst decision was to only caution Kai Havertz for a reckless, dangerous lunge at Sean Longstaff. There is an alternative scenario where Arsenal left St James’ Park having lost their unbeaten record in the Premier League this season because they spent almost an hour with 10 men; because of a choice a £65m signing made.

Instead, analysis of the decisive moment revolved around a triple VAR check where, perhaps, there was nothing conclusive to rule it out and, despite being repeatedly asked why he thought it should be chalked off, Arteta did not explain; yet that ignored a fourth factor, and where the pivotal verdict was not reached in a booth in Stockley Park. David Raya failed to claim Joe Willock’s cross: had he done so, it would not have mattered whether or not Joelinton fouled Gabriel Magalhaes or if Gordon was offside.

Arteta chose to bring in his compatriot when it scarcely seemed that goalkeeper was a problem position for Arsenal; in time, he may be deemed justified in his ruthlessness in demoting Aaron Ramsdale. For now, Arsenal have lost to Lens and Newcastle when Raya blundered. His errors are not limited to those games, as the draw at Chelsea indicates. The underperforming Raya has become an issue Arteta created.

Strip away the controversy and perhaps the oddest thing Arteta said was: “If there was a team looking to win the game today it was Arsenal.” The facts showed that they had failed to score in the Premier League for the first time since January. Not since February had they finished a game in any competition with at least two shots on target: on Tyneside, they mustered just one.

Kai Havertz has failed to make an impact for the Gunners following his £65m signing

That came before Gordon’s goal, not in the remaining half-hour when Arsenal required a response; instead theirs was a mediocre reaction. This is a team who demonstrated an ability to finish strongly: they came from 2-0 down to draw at Chelsea, held their nerve to get a late winner against Manchester City and an even later brace against Manchester United. There was no sequel.

Arteta’s Arsenal have shown an ability to share the goals around which perhaps explains why they always tended to score. Yet on a day when Newcastle kept Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka far quieter than usual – doubling up on them with great energy and perhaps benefitting from Dan Burn’s back injury as it meant Kieran Trippier swapped flanks to go up against his England teammate – Arsenal were more subdued. Last season’s three top scorers had a negligible impact: Saka and Martinelli were nullified, Martin Odegaard injured.

Yet, in turn, that highlighted other shortcomings. This might have been a match to suit Gabriel Jesus, with his battling qualities: instead, with the Brazilian injured, Eddie Nketiah was ineffectual. The Londoner got a hat-trick against Sheffield United last week but his goals tend to come at home and against sides who are likely to finish in the lower half of the table, not away against teams in the Champions League.

The theory remains that Arsenal need a high-class predator. The funds that could have gone on one were instead spent on a conundrum, in Havertz. The German played a part in Martinelli’s winner against City; apart from that assist, however, the only goal he has made a direct contribution towards in his 17 appearances for Arsenal is a penalty that was gifted to him. That £65m could have either brought in a more compelling midfielder – Dominik Szoboszlai, say – or a striker.

A ranting, raging Arteta dominated the post-match discussion, his histrionic overreaction presumably suiting those who like to claim that referees and VAR are turning football into a farce, his club’s silly, self-righteous statement on Sunday an exercise adding further fuel to the fire. Yet if a man in black bore a certain responsibility for defeat, if it could be traced to his decisions, perhaps it was the one who paired a dark coat with trademark grey slacks: Arteta himself.

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