The Premier League is back, but unfortunately for Arsenal fans (myself included) the restart was met with a 3-0 loss at the Etihad vs Manchester City, the team’s 25th consecutive winless game game away to a top-six rival.
Although the Gunners have a variety of issues that need to be hammered out, Wedneday’s result could be whittled down to two things: injuries and David Luiz.
Gunners’ double injury blow
Just five minutes into the match, the team suffered their first injury of the restart with midfielder Granit Xhaka suffering an apparent right ankle injury. Based on the replays, Xhaka looked to have a prototypical inversion (inward) sprain that stresses the ligaments on the lateral (outer) aspect of the ankle, specifically the anterior talofibular ligament (ATFL).
Xhaka’s return timeline will depend on the severity, with a typical range of seven to ten days for a mild grade 1 tear (every sprain is a tear, so don’t let that word scare you) and all the way to six or more weeks for a grade 3 severe tear.
To add to the problems created by this, centre-back Pablo Mari went down clutching his lower left leg in the 20th minute. This injury is less straightforward than Xhaka’s as it involved a series of events: Mari first had an incident in which Raheem Sterling rolled onto his left ankle forcing it into external (outward) rotation; this is the typical mechanism of injury for a high ankle “syndesmotic” sprain, but Mari was able to play on.
However, in the 23th minute, while turning to close down Kyle Walker, Mari came up limping. After going to ground and conversing with the physio, he pointed at his lower calf area and also the lateral part of his ankle. According to the Athletic, Mari has been ruled out for the season with a left ankle ligament/tendon injury with surgery possibly needed. For more information on the injury, the surgery considerations, and what it means for Mari’s future at Arsenal, you can watch the following video:
In-game injuries are always a challenge for managers to adjust to, particularly against a team like City that is extremely organised on both sides of the ball. Injuries to these two players in particular also severely limited Arteta’s game plan of attacking and stretching City down the left channel via Mari’s left-footed distribution and Xhaka’s newfound confidence under Arteta to effectively break lines via the dribble or pass.
Xhaka has become a dangerous, efficient central hub under Arteta’s tutelage; able to find passing lanes into the final third, play progressive balls across the pitch, and complete dribbles with a low rate of being dispossessed.
If the injuries weren’t damaging enough on their own accord, Mari’s injury meant the introduction of David Luiz.
An unwanted hat-trick for David Luiz
David Luiz’s performance was everything Arsenal fans have become accustomed to from him since he joined from Chelsea, accounting for two brutal individual mistakes that led to City’s first two goals: a misjudged ball in first-half stoppage time that careened off his thigh into the path of City winger Raheem Sterling and a moment of ill-judged desperation when he pulled down City’s Riyad Mahrez in the box in the 49th minute to concede both a penalty and red card.
2015 – David Luiz is the first player to be sent off, concede a penalty and commit an error leading to an opposition goal in a Premier League match since Carl Jenkinson for West Ham vs Bournemouth in August 2015. Hat-Trick. #MCIARS pic.twitter.com/zpLK6yDfxm
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 17, 2020
According to Opta, Luiz is the first player since Carl Jenkinson in 2015 to commit an error leading to a goal, concede a penalty, and be sent off in the same game. For David Luiz, all of this occurred in the span of 25 mins and such mistakes have become commonplace in his time at Arsenal, having now received two red cards and conceded four penalties this season, which twice that of any other player in the Premier League.
The pressing question becomes, what causes him to suffer such lapses in judgement? Perhaps it is partly his environment. His record in conceding spot-kicks with Chelsea was far less blemished.
David Luiz in the Premier League since returning to Chelsea:
2016/17: 0 penalties conceded
2017/18: 0 penalties conceded
2018/19: 0 penalties conceded
2019/20: 4 penalties conceded pic.twitter.com/zSRWuQyUbF
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 17, 2020
As to what qualities give a player the ‘error-prone’ reputation, it is impossible, and unfair, to judge individuals without knowing them. But one possible contributing factor among many (and it’s nearly always multi-factorial) comes in the neuroscience of stress and decision-making.
When a player becomes overly stressed, it inhibits what’s known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain, which is responsible for high-level thinking and executive decision-making (area 10 in the following visual).
Loss of concentration or focus can of course also result in poor positioning and decisions that ultimately domino into high risk, panicked situations. For example, before fouling Mahrez for the penalty, David Luiz’s poor initial positioning is what puts him in such a situation.
Every individual has different thresholds of stress tolerance and therefore differing abilities to make decisions under these circumstances. David Luiz may have a lower threshold than, say, a player like Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk, who is seemingly more often calm, cool, and collected when having to make split-second, high-stakes decisions.
Further, given the Arsenal defender in question spoke post-match about his contract situation it’s possible that, with a lot on his mind, his mental state was compromised on this occasion.
Stress and focus can certainly be interrelated, with excess stress leading to mental and physical fatigue (see graphic above) but considering David Luiz’s career sample size and proven ability to play well in high pressure situations in the past, there will be much more to his mistakes than stress alone.
Regardless of why, the mistakes have put the team and manager in yet another pickle. With Mari on the mend and David Luiz now serving a three-game red card suspension, there’s just two days for manager Mike Arteta to “delete the game from the hard drive”, find a reliable centre-back to pair with Shkodran Mustafi, and regroup for Brighton on Saturday.
Dr Rajpal Brar, DPT, is a physiotherapist, movement and mindfulness coach. He runs the LA-based wellness and athletic development/performance clinic 3CB Performance, and you can subscribe to his Youtube channel (which posts analyses of Lionel Messi and more) by going here.