Nicol: I'm not sure how Spurs are trying to play
LONDON -- As a neutral turning up for an Arsenal game, there's little that quickens the pulse like seeing a central defensive partnership of David Luiz and Skodran Mustafi on the hosts' teamsheet. After all, It's a pretty decent sign that 90 minutes of high-octane entertainment awaits. Even if there might not be much quality football ahead, there's likely to be some chaos.
The phrase "they've got a mistake in them" has rarely been more appropriate but while it's very good of Arsenal to think of us, the humble observers, it's not the greatest winning strategy. It took seven minutes of their 1-1 draw against Sheffield United on Saturday for the "Mustafi-Luiz Experience" to deliver their first slice of entertainment, the German half of the double-act giving the ball away in his own area after some significant dithering.
An afternoon of high farce was on the menu. Alas, from that point genuine slapstick was disappointingly absent, but Arsenal produced a few moments of more prosaic bad defending to provide moments of despair for their fans and concern for Mikel Arteta, especially in that their backline conceded in the final 10 minutes to undo 80+ minutes of hard work.
Sheffield United dominated the early exchanges and should really have taken the lead, particularly after Lys Mousset was gifted a couple of free headers in the opening 20 minutes. Later in the game, Oliver McBurnie was also left on his own and really should have given the visitors a goal before they eventually did equalise via John Fleck. This was a more low-key performance of defensive slackness than we might have expected, but it could have been equally as damaging for Arsenal's prospects. After all, Saturday's draw leaves them just seven points above the relegation zone, a whopping 10 points shy of the top four and, for perspective, 32 points behind league leaders Liverpool.
Meanwhile, the late goal was just reward for a hard-working Blades side that sit seventh in their first season since promotion. For all their excellence in 2019-20, scoring goals has not been Sheffield United's greatest strength: they've got 25 in 23 games, outscored by Aston Villa in the relegation zone and half of the other teams below them in the table. It's all a roundabout way of saying that a more potent team would surely have punished the Mustafi-Luiz axis more ruthlessly.
Perhaps we can't be too harsh on Luiz and Mustafi in the end. As well as their own performances, they had Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Buyako Saka playing either side of them: both are fine players, but both young and neither natural defenders. They've also only played together in one league game this season, when they conceded twice to bottom of the table Norwich a few weeks ago, the Canaries' goals coming as a result of standing off and watching as first Teemu Pukki, then Todd Cantwell, shot home from the edge of the box. They haven't had much time to develop a partnership or understanding, but then again you might say there's a good reason why two potential agents of defensive chaos haven't been paired together more this term.
With all this in mind, it makes Arsenal's reported interest in PSG left-back Layvin Kurzawa even odder: Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac may be injured, but Saka did a reasonable enough job filling in on that side. Signing another left-back who will not only block a promising youngster's path but also distract attention away from a position they really need upgrading. This is all obviously easier said than done, and Arsenal are working with more modest resources these days. Perhaps they are just waiting for William Saliba to arrive in the summer, but it would be a significant gamble to rely on a 19-year-old with 24 senior appearances to his name and who's been out injured since November.
Shkodran Mustafi, right, were typically wobbly in defence for Arsenal as the Gunners squandered more points via missed chances and moments of calamity."
Interestingly, the post-match talk from both managers was of an Arsenal team profligate in attack, a side that should really have put the game to bed before Fleck's equaliser with seven minutes remaining.
"I'm very disappointed," said Mikel Arteta after the game. "I think the performance deserved three points. If you don't put the game away... in the Premier League if you're 1-0 up in the last 10-15 minutes, be careful because anything can happen."
Chris Wilder was very much on the same page. "I didn't think we were anywhere near our best today. I don't know how much that came down to not being put to bed by the opposition. When teams don't put you to bed, you've got an opportunity."
Despite their consensus, it was Arsenal's attack that might have given the most hope for fans inside the Emirates. Gabriel Martinelli continued his seriously impressive early career with a very passable Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang impression, scoring the opening goal by having that striker's knack of being in the right place at the right time. Aubameyang, serving the first game of a three-match suspension after his red card against Crystal Palace last weekend, tweeted his appreciation from the stands.
"He's an 18-year-old with all the enthusiasm," said Arteta, "but as well he's so brave to make decisions. All the time he's in the middle of the goal waiting for the opportunity to come."
In addition to Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah was greeted with enormous enthusiasm when he came off the bench, the sort of enthusiasm in fact, usually reserved for new signings. The striker was recalled from his loan spell at Leeds with the initial intention of sending him back out, but as Arteta said "circumstances changed", and he'll now be sticking around. Yet the work of their existing battery of attackers will always be undermined if they are so vulnerable at the back. Perhaps this is part of a wider problem, a more psychological malaise that has for some time hung over Arsenal like a grey cloud of ennui; it will take more than a transfer window to fix that problem.
As long as Mustafi and Luiz are the men Arsenal rely on for solidity and order in defence, the Arteta revolution will offer little more than entertainment for the rest of us.
Chelsea were defeated late on by Newcastle at St. James' Park on Saturday night, after a last-minute Isaac Hayden goal handed the home side a 1-0 win at the death. With Jetro Willems being subbed off early on due to injury, the away side must have felt like favourites to grind out a victory, but despite their best efforts, Newcastle held out and in the end delivered a shock smash and grab win for the joyous home faithful.
The visiting Blues had plenty of opportunities to score, with Tammy Abraham, Willian and N'Golo Kante notably wasteful, but Frank Lampard's side ultimately fell short against a stubborn Magpies defence on a night of costly errors.
Reece James, once again starting at right-back, continues to show his potential after another eye-catching cameo. His delivery, both in terms of crossing and passing, will have many fans drawing comparisons to Trent Alexander-Arnold and is also a sign of how faith in academy graduates can be rewarded if a manager is patient enough.
Speaking of academy prospects, Callum Hudson-Odoi also impressed, something that his manager in particular will be glad to see, following on from his goals against Nottingham Forest and Burnley in the previous two games.
Wayward finishing in the end derailed a dominant away performance, as Lampard's side wasted a number of brilliantly worked chances. On the counterattack, the Blues frequently created good openings, only to be undone by the final ball. In the end, it cost them dearly.
Manager rating (out of 10)
Lampard, 6: Made only one change from the victory over Burnley, with Kante coming back into the side. The all-action France international was in fine form on this occasion, while the inclusion of promising right-back James also proved justifiable. The away side created numerous opportunities in a thoroughly dominant display but somehow still left the North-east empty-handed.
Player ratings (1-10; 10 = best, players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Kepa Arrizabalaga, 5 -- A solid display from the Spanish stopper, who was barely troubled in the first half. Yet he should have done much better for Hayden's late goal.
DF Reece James, 7 -- The visitors' most creative outlet throughout, James combined beautifully with Hudson-Odoi and Kante down the right-hand side. The England youth international should have been rewarded with an assist, after some delightful crosses were squandered by teammates.
DF Andreas Christensen, 6 -- With Chelsea seldom troubled defensively, the Danish centre-half had very little of note to deal with.
DF Antonio Rudiger, 5 -- Had a solid game and looked tidy when covering at the back, despite one or two tricky moments early on against the powerful Joelinton. The German international will also be frustrated for his inability to prevent Hayden from getting the match-winning finish in injury time.
DF Cesar Azpilicueta, 7 -- Hard-working and committed as always, the Spanish veteran did his utmost to shut down the influence of the elusive Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin on the counter. Almost had an assist from a wonderfully improvised header.
MF N'Golo Kante, 7 -- Energetic and involved from the kick-off, he had an impressive performance on his return to the first XI after missing Chelsea's win over Burnley. Won the ball high up the pitch on numerous occasions, while also picking the ball up in dangerous areas, which caused consistent stress for Newcastle's backline.
MF Jorginho, 6 -- The midfielder probed but was unable to make a real impact. He often picked up the ball in deep positions and attempted ambitious through-balls, only to be frequently outmanoeuvred as the home side sat deeper as the game went on.
MF Mason Mount, 6 -- Playing in a deeper midfield role, the academy graduate had a significant influence on the game, driving forward well in transition.
FW Willian, 5 -- The Brazilian found himself in dangerous positions but was all too often wasteful in the final third. Looked indecisive when advancing with the ball, something that will surely annoy his manager.
FW Tammy Abraham, 5 -- A frustrating evening for Abraham, given how he was unable to convert any of his goal-scoring opportunities. The England international did hit the crossbar with an audacious heel shot but will perhaps rue his luck in an otherwise bright display.
FW Callum Hudson-Odoi, 7 -- Following up on a fine goal-scoring performance against Burnley, Saturday's outing was yet another example of the winger's true quality and his potential. In tandem with James down the right flank, the 19-year-old looked lively.
MF Ross Barkley, 6 -- Despite rumours of an impending loan move, the former Everton man replaced Mason Mount with 22 minutes to go and was arguably the away side's most influential player late on, as they pushed for a goal that never came.
FW Michy Batshuayi, NR -- Replaced Abraham but too late to have much of an impact.
DF Emerson Palmieri, NR -- Replaced James but didn't make much of an impression in his 15-minute appearance.