Arsenal hosted PSV and past villain Ruud van Nistelrooy at the Emirates on Thursday night. Playing a style of football that can only be described as Diet Conteball, PSV were thoroughly dominated by Mikel Arteta’s men. Unfortunately, the scoring touch was not quite with the Gunners that night. However, Granit Xhaka managed to grab a winner in the 69th minute. With four wins in hand, Arsenal now only need two points from their final two matches to guarantee a first-placed finish in their Europa League group. Below are four Hits and two Misses from the 13th win of the season.
Saka was probably Arsenal’s biggest threat on the night. His power and skill gave PSV’s defenders consistent trouble. The winger had a hand in practically every dangerous move the Gunners produced, and was unlucky not to come away with a goal to his name. Nonetheless, we was involved in the Arsenal’s winner. Perhaps his importance to the team is best illustrated by the collective worry exhibited by supporters when Saka went down with an apparent calf injury. He is a bona fide superstar.
Xhaka has come into his own playing the left-sided eight role this season, and he demonstrated that once more against PSV. The Swiss midfielder continuously took up dangerous positions in the box, occasionally operating almost as a second striker. He was rewarded for this, scoring a sweet volley on the bounce from a Takehiro Tomiyasu cross. The goal proved to be the winner. Xhaka truly seems to be enjoying his time on the pitch, and that surely is contributing to his terrific form. Long may it continue.
Phone, wallet, keys, Cody Gakpo. Those were likely the contents of Tomiyasu’s pockets when he arrived home from Thursday’s match. The Japanese defender was immense, essentially rendering PSV’s star player irrelevant for the duration of the match. On top of that, he was vital at the other end of the pitch. His well-delivered lofted cross found Xhaka for Arsenal’s only score. For his efforts Arteta subbed off Tomiyasu for a rest, suggesting he might have a role to play at the weekend.
For all their domination, Arsenal were unable to take the lead in the first half. In the second, Odegaard took the pitch. The introduction of the Norwegian maestro led to an increased intensity that eventually brought about the goal, which Odegaard played a role in. After some interplay with Saka and Thomas Partey in and around PSV’s penalty area, the captain played Tomiyasu in to make the cross that Xhaka volleyed in. When a touch of class was needed to seal the points, Odegaard stepped up. Just like a captain should.
His inclusion in the Misses section again is disappointing, especially considering many among the Arsenal faithful have made him into something of a scapegoat. To be fair, the role he is stepping into requires top-level play. But he still does not show the intensity he needs to. Sambi drifts when he should be flying. He hides when he should show for the ball. His passing is quite good, but even that was wayward at times on Thursday. Partey eventually needed to be called in to finish the job. He’s still a decent player, but these are the games in which he must show his ability. And he hasn’t done so convincingly.
“Look at the top players in the world, they play 70 matches every three days and make the difference and win the game. If you want to be at the top you have to be able to do that… I want them to be ruthless, every three days, they’re going to be knocking at my door, ‘I want to play and I want to win the game.'” That’s how Arteta responded when asked about the sustainability of Saka’s playing time. Most fans are not medical professionals or physiotherapists. They are not familiar with sports science and do not have all the information regarding players’ fitness. They have to trust that the club know what they are doing and won’t endanger the players. Frankly, Arteta is right; at the level Arsenal aspires to, players take the field two to three times a week. Ours should get used to that.
Sham writes and podcasts regularly about The Arsenal, and once embarrassed himself by choking on baby bok choy multiple times in the middle of a government building. He can be followed on Twitter @dopegooner.