There has been so much good at Arsenal this season in terms of how we played, the management of the game, the spirit and character and all the rest. None of this was evident in yesterday’s 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest.
The team was weird. Earlier, Mikel Arteta spoke about some players not being able to train much this week and perhaps that influenced his choice. It’s also possible that last week’s 3-0 defeat to Brighton required something different from him because of how poor we were that day and what we got.
When the squad dropped an hour before kick-off, I assumed it was Granit Xhaka at left-back, which, while not perfect, made sense if you ask him to replicate what Zinchenko does. Instead, there was Thomas Partey at right-back, Ben White back at center back and Jakub Kiwior off Gabriel at left-back. Partey then moved onto the pitch, reversing a system that we’ve used a lot this season but in a completely ineffective way.
I’ve seen a lot of ‘Let’s have some fun at right-back’ when we were figuring out how to deal with William Saliba’s absence, but suffice it to say it’s not something I’d like to see again. Even the four backs, however smart they were, weren’t necessarily bad defensively, they just made us narrow and unbalanced. Everything we did was on the right side, but Partey didn’t or couldn’t overlap, in part due to the way we set up Forest and shod for dominant possession stats with nothing to show.
Forest’s goal came after a mistake by Martin Odegaard, who gave the ball away in the middle of the field. They went forward, a slightly exaggerated pass came to Taiwo Awoniya, who “scored” the luckiest goal of his career when Gabriel’s tackle sent the ball off the striker’s shin and farther than Aaron Ramsdale. Careless, unfortunate, whatever. There was, like last week’s Brighton game, plenty of time to react. Again, we didn’t.
We finished the match with 82% ball possession and only three shots on target. If you don’t remember Kaylor Navas having to save well, it’s because he didn’t have to. We were sterile, passive, almost lethargic. Passes that would normally be played into a teammate’s path drifted behind them so we had to check, touch and then leave, allowing Forest to stay organized in a back five which left us out of place.
We’ve seen this season that this is a team with craftsmanship and inventiveness, with a sharp move that can pull back defense like this, but not yesterday. The manager tried to change it with subs. Kieran Tierney and Eddie Nketiah came in and did very little, at least the former got a few crosses. Next was Fabio Vieira who did even less. On yesterday’s blog I tried to find something positive for Vieira and Emile Smith Rowe when Arteta talked about players we need to get more out of. The fact that our number 10 didn’t take to the pitch at all in such a performance makes me fear the worst for his future. Not even a Hail Mary ten minutes at the end. It looks bad for him.
Maybe we could have been penalized when Gabriel Jesus was pulled away and booked for a foul (although I think it may have started outside the box), but while it may have triggered something in us, we can’t have an excuse for this behavior. I know what people say about not having anything to play for, and I’m sure the disappointment of the last few weeks has been severe, but it was a poor way of handing over City’s title once and for all. I wanted us to make them work, and I understand that’s not the biggest problem due to the likelihood that they’ll win anyway, but I found it irritating. I’ll be fine, but you can only feel how you feel, and yesterday’s game annoyed me.
Then the manager said:
It’s a really sad day and a lot of difficult emotions. Of course because we lost the game and lost the championship after 10 and a half months of fighting for it. I know we built the illusion, enthusiasm and belief that we could go all the way and win, and we didn’t. Congratulations to Manchester City, they are champions and deserve to be champions. They’ve done that for 38 games and we haven’t been able to do that. That’s it and I’m sorry because we created the belief that we could do it, and in the end the team wasn’t able to do it, and that’s my responsibility.
There was also an interesting passage where he said:
When you come in April and May, you need 24 players who are available, fit and playing at the highest level, full of confidence and ready to play. We didn’t have it for many reasons. Then there are key moments in the league that decide whether a moment goes there or there, and we didn’t have those margins on our side. I think that’s the reason we lost.
Looking at the bench, you could see the shades from last season. This time last year, players like Zak Swanson, Alex Kirk, Salah-Eddine Oulad M’Hand, Omari Hutchinson and others made up the numbers on our bench. We missed out on a place in the top four due to lack of depth. Yesterday it was Reuell Walters, Mauro Bandeira and Armario Cozier-Duberry. Players who I hope can develop and make a breakthrough, but who are not ready yet. When you add an Emile Smith Rowe that the manager deems useless, that’s 50% of your bench and you just can’t have that.
If there’s any lesson from how this campaign ended, it’s that we need depth, depth and more depth. It cost us last season, it cost us now and there is a ‘fool me once’ element of how we have to approach this. I know it’s easier said than done, but the solution is not advanced calculus. We don’t need the Good Will of the Hunt to solve the complicated equation on Edu’s team building board. You know, I know it and the manager knows it too.
Of course, there will be analysis and discussion about how Arteta has handled this difficult part of the season. If there was rightly plenty of praise for what went right, criticism for what went wrong is for territory. I would say that, in my opinion, he showed the ability to draw conclusions from this and implement solutions.
I’ve seen a lot of discussions about his team management this season and it boils down to this: He took the ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach when we were winning, and you can understand that. It’s just that when it broke, he couldn’t fix it or didn’t have the means to fix it at the wrong time. I also think there were games where we could have played better, even with some of the issues we faced, and that’s something he’ll have to deal with. Takes responsibility – his press conference he’s littered when he says exactly that, so he’s not hiding from it, but once our momentum was stopped, we never really moved on again.
The reality is that if you don’t end up at the top of the table, there will always be accusations and things you can do better. That goes for every team below Man City this morning. If you’re second and were close, you need to find the margins that allow you to progress further. If you missed a top 4 finish across Europe, finished mid-table or even made it to the top 3, your challenge is to identify your weaknesses, address them as best you can and make progress next time.
We have one game to play. I will be there next weekend to give flowers to this team as they have entertained and excited us for most of this season and deserve the praise and love that will be part of this improvement process. Keeping that connection, it’s a two-way street – and a mighty one, as we’ve seen so often since August – but the lessons for Arteta, Edu and others are stark this morning. That’s how it is at this level and it’s their job to learn from them.
I think they can.
Have a nice Sunday. Back tomorrow with Arsecast Extra.