Arsenal fall into Conte’s trap

You could see the game plan right from the start. Arsenal had two substitutes on the left side, so Conte put his best player – one who is challenging for the Golden Boot, and is Spurs most in-form and even fastest player – on the side with the two subs and told the team “get Son the ball”. From there it was easy to turn this into an emotional match. Son did his best crying mask face every time Holding got touch tight with him. And Conte complained to the referees so often in the first 20 minutes that he eventually got a yellow card. Though, from what I’ve heard he got the yellow for making a double-handed decapitation gesture – as if to say “they are decapitating my player!”

And I can’t entirely blame Conte. I want Arteta to do the same when the opposition defenders knee Saka in the back, then kick him in the ribs while pretending that he’s accidentally falling over Saka while he’s laying on the ground. Both of these were things Holding did to Son.

Then Son and Holding got into it again, this time wrestling on the ground a bit and Son elbowed Holding in the head, so Holding threw Son off him. Tierney and the VAR official (who was Mike Dean) didn’t quite have the stones to make the right call there (which is a red card for Son) and so they instead did nothing.

It’s not a surprise that a few seconds later when Tierney gifted Spurs a penalty it was once again Son at the heart of the action. This time a curled ball was sent his direction and both Holding and Cedric crashed into Son. It was a soft penalty but also, Cedric turned his back on the play and did just crash into Son’s back. Tierney was laser focused on Arsenal and Son at that moment. So, that’s the moment that you can’t try to get away with anything at all, that you have to be super straight-laced and Cedric just couldn’t do it.

Referee Paul Tierney was clearly effected by Conte’s antics and Holding’s blatant stupidity. His next call was a yellow card on Holding for holding Son.

All of this is happening because Conte made such a big deal of the way his player was being treated and Tierney fell for it hook-line-and-sinker. And, to be honest, so did Rob Holding. Holding is one of my favorite squad players but he totally let the moment and Son get into his head. So much so that out in the open field, he tried to make a foul seem like it was an innocuous shoulder-to-shoulder challenge but right at the crucial moment, you can see him raise his arm to make it into a shoulder shrug. If you’ve spent any time at center back, you know exactly what Holding was doing there. He was “leaving something on him”, he was getting a little retribution for the elbow “Sonny” had given him a few minutes earlier. And again, Tierney was laser focused on that entire interaction between those two players, so of course he saw it.

The only question, then, is why he didn’t see Son elbow Holding. I think he did. But that he was turned by Conte and the Spurs fans. He couldn’t rise to the occasion and make the right call.

This doesn’t absolve Rob Holding. A more experienced player would have correctly read the room. If you want to leave one on a player, you can do that but maybe give it, I dunno, 10 minutes? Maybe wait until someone else gets the ref’s attention? But like Tierney, I think Rob got swept up in the emotion of the game.

And the problem is that Conte’s plan worked because Arsenal’s backups are probably just not quite good enough against the best players. And it’s the problem Arsenal have had this entire season. The starters are probably good enough to get into top four this year, the backups are definitely not. This is the story of this season: that we should probably make top four and also probably shouldn’t.

And none of this absolves Mikel Arteta. Arsenal needed a point and everyone knows that the best way to match up against Conte’s 343 is to play 343 in return. Arsenal seemed to have the players for exactly that as well with Tomiyasu, Holding, and Gabriel slotting in perfectly as a back three. Or if you didn’t want to play with a crazy formation, the other option is to play them on the counter attack. Spurs love and thrive on space, in fact it was Son in space that gave Holding the shits. Arteta kept telling his players to push up, and they kept not wanting to, because they knew how crazy that was.

But that might be seen as post-match quarterbacking, which is a fair criticism (as long as you’ll accept that maybe Arteta didn’t get it right). I think, however, we can all agree that the big problem at Arsenal is that there’s a drop off in quality and mentality from the first team to the backups. Which, frankly, doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season, since Gabriel was hauled off with a hammy and Ben White warmed up but didn’t come on.

Still 4th place is 100% in our hands. We are 1 point above Spurs still and all we have to do is have a better record than they do in our final two matches, matches against 14th place Newcastle and 16th place Everton. These games won’t be easy but they are meat and drink for a team who wants to play in the Champions League.



  1. Excellent post. I agree 100%.

    This is all about Arteta’s growing pains as a manager.

    I guarantee you that, unless Arteta is an obstinate dunce (which I do NOT believe is the case), Arteta as a manager three years hence (whether at Arsenal or some place else), will be less wed to “principles” such that he (facing games of similar import) will either match the opponent’s formation (in this case match Conte’s 343) or PLACE HIS BEST DEFENDER ON THE SAME SIDE AS THE OPPONENT’S BEST ATTACKER.

    Yes, Holding should be smarter…but the it’s the manager’s job to put players in the best position to succeed. Super Mik failed this test yesterday.

    Win the next match.

  2. Mikel said something I wanted to hear in his fiery post match with Sky. This match is history… focus on Newcastle.

    That will arguably be the hardest of the 10 match run in, because we are thin at centre back through injury and the Holding suspension, and nobody outside of the coaches knows how match fit Ben White really is.

    Squeaky bum time.

    Can’t comment on the game, because I was too busy with work to see it. Followed on The Guardian live blog.

    The result, however, was not unexpected. They’d rather eat their toenail clippings than let us qualify for CL at their ground. And (our Chelsea and Man U games excepted) Spurs have played their big games better than we have.

    One thing I worry about is our red cards in high stakes games against high quality sides. Xhaka, Gabriel, now Holding. I wonder if we get too wound up.

  3. Excellent analysis Tim. 100% right.

    As was Arteta to write that game off (probably at half time) and focus on Newcastle.

  4. Couldn’t agree more, Tim. I hate to call out the refs – not my thing. But Tierney got worked hard by Son and Conte. Simple as that. Holding’s second yellow was dumb stuff. That ball is 10 feet over everyone’s head. If he wanted to cheap shot Son – and who doesn’t? – that was not the time. Has to happen away from the ball and the ref’s eye. Son got the better of him, for sure.

    Also question Tomi not playing on the right. I do, however, understand the hesitation about having the weaker left-sided Cedric, along with a slow-footed Xhaka, left alone on that side. Seems very fragile defensively, not to mention in build-up.

    Remember how so many were up in arms about Arteta only buying CB’s, and no attacking players? Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Probably rues the Saliba loan at this point.

    Hoping the Gabriel hamstring was not severe. We are woefully thin at the back.

  5. For the first time in years something major was riding on the game. Add to that the needle at the postponement.

    It was obviously going to be a cauldron. It’s on the coach to prepare the team for that. Holding didn’t get the memo and it was clear after his second challenge he wanted an early shower.

    Arteta was right after the match to take the focus off the players. Arsenal got bullied and it was a bad game all round. I get your take on the referee but there’s always home advantage in a big tie.

    I’m not sure Newcastle have much to play for and if results go the right way neither will Everton. 6/6 required.

  6. For all his negatives, that was a game for a Mourinho-esque cynical approach.

    Arteta’s big mistake, in my humble opinion, was actually believing his players could compete with Spurs. They’re can’t. Spurs are better, realistically. Had they hired Conte from the get go last summer, I have no doubt we would be solidly in 5th and Spurs comfortably in 4th or maybe even 3rd by now.

    Mourinho would have gone into that game thinking “away from home, Son in form, Kane is Kane, Conte, Kulusevski a quality player… let’s just not lose”.

    We don’t have Liverpool or City. Arteta should have taken a page from Mourinho or even Conte the week earlier – just go away from home and set up for the draw. That’s what Brighton and Brentford did.

    1. It’s especially odd because we sat back against Chelsea and Wet Sham. Watching him tell the players to get higher up the pitch was really odd.

      Who knows, maybe that was the right approach and we are all wrong. It feels like it really wasn’t.

      1. Felt like he wanted a famous, Hollywood ending. Bad tactics, bad decision, and I hold him as accountable (almost as maybe) as Holding and Tierney. All had a role to play in this shambolic result.

        1. Yes. I think we lose sight of the fact that Arteta is still a young guy, a young manager. A more seasoned manager would have done the calculus and decided a draw meant we only had to win one of our last two games against teams in the lower half of the table – better odds. But he probably became too tempted by the notion of a famous victory away from home, sealing Champions League on their turf, at their expense and St. Totteringham Day all at once. It was a youthful mistake dare I say.

          What will help us long term was the absolutely patronizing comments from Conte afterwards. I’m sure those comments had Arteta fuming. Conte is a piece of work – a good coach, but a total hypocrite and he’ll flame out in a year or two at Spurs, and I predict have nothing to show for it.

          1. I don’t think Conte’s comments had the effect that he intended. He dwelt too much on Arteta and his newness in the game, and you’re right… it was patronising. Not a good look for Conte. He wanted to come across as the adult, and didn’t. He came across as holding grudge a bit too much.

            He needed to make his point a bit more subtly, i.e. “that is the game… take the rough with the smooth”, and move on. Instead he went on and on (probably also function of his still shaky grasp of fluency in English, but still..).

            I think that Mikel has gotten under his skin, and if he stays at Spurs, that’s no bad thing. He came across as not being able to even enjoy his own victory. The postponement worked in your favor, dude. Quit moaning about it.

            Spurs were insufferable after yesterday’s win. Imagine if they pip us.

            Agree that we needed to be super pragmatic, but in defence of the manager, I’d say that not only was it very tempting to qualify at Spurs, it was a simple, straightforward equation. Win, and we’re through.

            As for them, the have the best forward line after Liverpool. With Conte and money to back them, they’ll be a handful next year.

          2. I’d add that although Conte’s comments were clearly patronising, there’s a recognition from one of the game’s best coaches of the work Arteta has done. I think he’ll be quite flattered. Conte doesn’t waste his time building enemies with nobodies.

            Part of these big games snd big personalities is the theatre they bring to the occasion. Klopp and Mourinho before him knew how to play to the gallery. I think Arteta is trying to do the same (see his comments about the importance of fan support), but rather than charismatic he often comes across as highly strung and tetchy. He needs to relax a little.

          3. 2 1/2 seasons up Arteta no longer deserves the latitude of a young manager sympathy. Definitely not when he is paid 6 million for the job.
            We are in EPL damnit

  7. We were too amped up for this, while we knew we didn’t actually need to win. A dangerous combination. I suppose it’s better than being too casual though. Still, pretty sure Arteta would have instructed the players, probably Holding in particular, to rough Son up.

    I think the red card was the correct decision, and that Son is never in a million years getting sent off for what he did regardless of Conte’s behaviour. We should also have expected a dive of some sort for a penalty, and I agree that while it’s soft, Cedric was way too clumsy in his effort to be sneaky.

    But the disappointing thing was conceding the 2nd goal from a corner. My reading of it is we lost all belief we could get anything from the game after being a goal down (an issue for us anyway) and then the red card. If we’d just held on… who knows? Maybe we get a chance to draw in the last few minutes.

    I don’t mind that Arteta put it all on the referee as long as it keeps up confidence for the players. We still have it in our own hands, and our mental task might be made easier by the lack of ambivalence about needing to win.

  8. As usual Galaxy brain chose wrong again!

    Tomiyasu on the left, struggled over there after the first 15, and could not play the ball off his left foot very well, no chemistry on that side with those players.

    Cedric on the right with Holding, no pace to match Son, who is on the form of his life!

    So, back to the norm, not enough goals scored, conceding more than last year, injuries piling up, no squad depth. AMN sure could have been used over there, just saying.

    However, win the last 2 games and AFC will get 4th, no matter what!
    Draw and win, get 5th.
    Two losses would be considered cratering the run in.

    AFC better spend some $ in the summer on some robust, physical players either way as the demands will be greater next year for sure.

  9. I’d apportion blame for this result as 50% referee, 25% player mistakes, 25% manager. You cannot give a soft penalty and a soft red within 30 minutes of a derby kickoff, he should never referee a top-6 Arsenal game again.

    Failure to make top 4 will not turn on this game, all said. There were and are more winnable games, as much as an NLD defeat is its own species of turrble.

    The ‘discourse’ around Rob Holding should not become accepted fact. He got played. He also played Diego Costa when he was barely out of his teens (and Diego was in his early 60s). He’s not a liability, far from it, and you will not find a better combination of quality, attitude and affordability on the backup CB market.

    1. “Diego was in his early 60s” lol.

      I like Holding too but he does have these games where he tries to be the aggressive, front-foot defender against forwards like Son, Costa and Adama “brick sh*thouse” Traore, and where he ends up getting turned, giving up fouls, getting booked or worse. I understand it is probably a coaching instruction that he’s following but I don’t think coaches should be telling him to do that.

      So yeah, I put a fair amount of responsibility for his red on Arteta, too.

  10. Holding is sort of traditional defender who tackles and wins the ball. Has no speed , so setting him to chase passing Ferrari like Son , was stupid, though telling him to rough up and disorient Son was ok , but Holding was not the man for it

  11. At first I was surprised so see Tomi on the left not marking Son but then as the match started and I saw him get muscled twice by Kulu I realized how damned we were either way. Kulu would have shrugged Cedric aside over-and-over so I’m not sure this was a mistake even in hindsight. We maybe should have gone 5 at the back but I’m receptive to the belief we could have stolen a goal and then sat were we to continue to play higher up and had the ref not done what the ref done; Spurs could barely get out of their half but then there’s that space in behind so it’s a gamble. Ultimately, we didn’t have the players available for this one I don’t think, no matter how we lined up, to mitigate one gamble was to invite another. The answer might have been to go full Mourinho but even that’s tough missing as many as we did. Besides, it was over when the ref blew it with zero control of the match.

  12. Slightly off topic, a continuation of the discussion around spin – this news around a new 3 year contract, who is it for?

    The idea that it was initially offered after that run of losses can be safely dismissed as complete fabrication. A statement of faith? Sure, from a club that fired its previous two managers within 18 months of a new contract.

    The more nuanced explanation is that it’s for the player market – to signal we’ve got a long term vision etc. I’d like to believe it, but any agent worth their salt is going to ask some basic questions, like “how much does it cost the club to fire the manager” or ” does it include CL qualification-related clauses”. Moyes famously signed a six year contract. If we attract the right players, it’s going to be for the “traditional” reasons – money, European football.

    So – near the end of the season, CL football very possible but not yet secured, squad requiring big summer investments that may or may not happen, Club level season ticket renewals open (since March), revenue sharing discussions for next year’s TV receipts likely ongoing – who was that announcement for?

    1. I have no problem with the club opting to invest in long-term stability in showing full support and confidence in Arteta . And I think that the club publicly supporting its manager is a good thing, actually. Just don’t gaslight us. Their original timeline and his had him qualifying for CL this season, and challenging for it the next. Now you can make good arguments for why that wasn’t realistic; but they don’t change the fact that that was their timeline. Briefing to a credulous Ornstein a month or so ago (prior to issuing the contract extension) that we are ahead of schedule — 4th or not — is either taking us for fools, or hoping that we don’t have memories; or Google.

      They need to level with the fans; either at the start of journey, or now. We don’t know how any of this related to season ticket sales, as you mention. We’d just be guessing. What we can do is look at what they said then, what they are saying now, and how things are playing out in Mikel’s 3rd season (it’s 2.5 completed ones, but it’s still his 3rd)

      But as I said, opting for long term stability is good. They didn’t initially, after the short-termism involved in hiring a manager who took us to within 1 point of 4th in his first and only full season, and getting rid of him during his first bad run.

      They then gave us the fans the manager we had clamored for since it was known that Arsene was leaving; and they have backed him financially, and in his personnel decision-making. That’s great. They listened, and they supported. But tell us from the start that Top 4 is a 5 or 6 year aim or whatever. Just don’t gaslight us.

      1. Claude / others, you may need to help me out here. I don’t really get where this gaslighting stuff is coming from, unless there’s something I’m missing. Maybe I’m gaslit!

        In August 2020 Willian said in an interview that when Arteta signed him on a 3-year contract, the manager told him, Willian, that he wanted to qualify for the CL and then win it before Willian left. Is that what you mean?

        But I can’t find anywhere where Arteta or the club either came out with a similar statement, or backed Willian up and stood by it as an ambition. But maybe my googling skills are failing me and I’m wrong?

        All the stuff I can find from the club back when Arteta was hired is about how it would be a long road, it wouldn’t happen overnight etc. In fact they seem to have gone out of their way to avoid putting a timeline on success. Indeed, while I’m fine with that, isn’t that what others are complaining about, that it’s all a bit vague? Low expectations for ever? No accountability?

        On club spin in general, yes, it certainly exists and no, I don’t love it, but it is what it is. I’m fine with announcing Arteta’s new contract early, I can see all the reasons for that.

        There are a few bits of ongoing PR that I’m not super comfortable with. The first is the Amazon documentary, (although I will definitely watch it because I’m a big old hypocrite), the second is the level of access some journalists are getting, in order to come up with puff pieces like this just last week from Balague on the BBC:

        I don’t love this tactic of giving interviews and access to the team and manager in order to get more, and more favourable coverage. But Arsenal seem to be getting generally more favourable coverage at the moment than they have in the past so it may be smart. I don’t take any of it at face value, but overall I’m happier when the press are being overly positive about the club than when they are being overly negative.

        1. I don’t understand what’s going on in this thread.

          Be nice to each other

          1. I’m happy and definitely wasn’t trying to be rude, glad others didn’t read it that way either.

            Genuinely asking when the club promised everyone a schedule for success, cos if they did I missed it, and I could absolutely have missed it, I do miss things.

        2. (Re Tim – I thought this was a generally civil+interesting discussion… no? Maybe I leave it be with this thread)

          Re Greg, Claude, Tim – They could’ve announced a new contract after the last game of the season. In my opinion, the decision on a new contract should flow from securing top 4, not precede it. But okay, we can’t drop below 5th and maybe they really feel like they’ve got their guy.

          If they really want to back the manager though, they will seriously address striker and midfield. Without that, the contract means very little except as a headline. Maybe his place is really secure, but if we finish 5th next season, it’d take a brave Kroenke to say he has to continue because of a contract.

          The story* that the club offered a new contract after three terrible results is just ridiculous. It’s an obvious set up to a story two months down the line about how the club had the vision to keep faith when the fans didn’t. If it’s true, it was a dumb move, however it plays out. More likely the new contract was tabled either before that terrible run or after the recovery, and the suits were pissing themselves when we lost three winnable games on the bounce. Then we win a couple, it’s safe to announce a new contract, and “chapeaus” all around. Sure.


          1. I have no issues with Greg’s comment. it’s his perspective, and i dont see it as being disagreeably expressed. We just see the world differently, and thats fine.

            To your point, I dont have an issue with the club giving the extension before season’s end. Providing stability is good. And as Tim said, players thinking of signing want to know the manager’s position.

            Willian bought in because Arteta sold him on a Champions League challenge the next season. it was illusory, but the point (irrespective of how he performed) was that he came because he got certain guarantees and assurance from the manager. These talks start and continue over long periods. He might not have with someone else.

            The ground can shift under a player’s feet very quickly. Look at Guendouzi, who went from ever-present to unwanted when mangers changed. So I’m cool with the club extending Arteta when it did. That isnthe Arsenal I know and like.

            What I dont like is their shifting narratives. Respect the intelligence of the fan base.

            Greg’s right… everybody spins. Doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t call them out on it.

    2. You can’t let the manager go into next season in the final year of his contract: players simply won’t sign for a club in that state.

  13. i try not to focus too much on the referee unless they get something wrong. in my opinion, he got the penalty and the sending off right. besides, you can’t control the referees. my focus is on why is cedric putting his shoulder through son’s back or why is holding trying to make a challenge on son under those circumstances. it’s not exactly kids making these awful decisions. for what it’s worth, i knew as soon as holding got the first booking that he was going to get sent off. his approach was overly-fixated on bodying son.

    i think arteta’s initial strategy for this game was sound. before the penalty, tottenham created absolutely nothing. in fact, they were dreadful while the away team were flying. spurs appeared void of confidence. however, goals change games. after the first goal, the crowd got behind them and they had their tails up. the sending off only reinforced that belief. holding’s red card may have cost arsenal a top 4 finish…..and that possibility would resonate in my debrief.

    my only gripe against arteta, if you call it that, was this team doesn’t seem to have a strategy after going down a man. it’s almost as if arteta is trying to figure it out. if you intend to get a result, it’s important the players know what they’re going to do. likewise, they need to believe enough in the strategy to know they can win despite going down a man. personally, i would have gone with a 3-4-2 with xhaka in the back line with eddie and marti as a front two. however, i’m not the arsenal manager. surely, he did what he thought best.

  14. Big, defining game. Both White and big Gabriel play. Hope that neither has been cleared prematurely. Come on, you gunnaz!

  15. Claude

    I am 100% sure the players and manager gave everything they had. Unfortunately when players know in their hearts they are not really a top 4 team and don’t really believe they are good enough to climb over the hump and that effects the quality of their play. I think it was the same with Wenger’s teams 2005-16 when they could never quite climb over ManU and Chelsea and then Man City trying to win the league.

    1. I was expecting you to pop up now when we lost. Continue with your usual BS. I guess it was too much to expect you to f*k off for good

    2. Did you watch the game?

      If you saw the second goal, I doubt youd still say that they “gave their all”. Even Arteta suggested in his post match that they didnt.

      Goal one. Did you see how Elneny tracked his runner? Tell me agains he gave his all.

      Goal two. Xhaka’s half a**** clearance, then he and others showing no urgency to clear the danger. From Ode’s half hearted tackle on the runner, to Xhaka freezing after his botched clearance, to Elneny and Pepe throwing their hands fruitlessly in the air. The only man busting a gut on the play was poor Ben White.

      Bill, please watch the games and not comment in the dark. “I am 100% sure” doesnt cut it if you havent.

      Speaking of which, what were your thoughts on the game, the goals and the general play?

  16. All the reasons for announcing Arteta’s new contract are valid, but I had also felt there’s a possibility the message it sends to the team may not be ideal. Especially combined with the we are ahead of schedule, and the story of offering the contract after the 3 defeats. Subconsciously, this says job done, and in part we’re seeing the results of that.

    In the larger scope of things, we’re not a CL worthy team despite playing fewer games than any Arsenal side in the past 35 or so years. For this to change we’ll need to spend but I don’t think that is the issue. We’ve not used our resources well, and I don’t see any reason to trust it’ll all just come together. Remember our goal is top 1, not top 4. Jumping from 8th to 4th is a lot easier than 4th to 1st. We’re just saying it’ll all get better because the young team will automatically get better, when the truth is more young teams fall apart than succeed. We have made some bad choices and portrayed them as essential. Including in January.

    Still, outside chance of Spurs being spursy, and of us capitalising. But realistically, we prepare for the EL, back Arteta this summer, and start making plans for who we’d want to replace him with for the team we do assemble. Oh, and be crystal clear about next season’s targets. None of this heads I win, tails I win attitude.

  17. Claude.

    What possible reason could there be for the players to take it easy and play with less then full effort for one of the biggest single games of most of their careers. I don’t care what you think you saw watching the game, you don’t accept an explanation which makes absolutely no sense. I just don’t believe any of these players are so pig headed they would decide today was a game they didn’t care about enough to try their best. I believe they were outplayed because they played scared.

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