97% of all threesomes end with a remorseful husband sat playing Sudoku, pretending not to watch his beloved get the ride around of her life.
The first fifteen minutes of Sunday’s game against Manchester City at Emirates stadium similarly left Mikel Arteta watching blurred numbers flying around at pace as he tried to come to terms with what was unfolding in front of him. The option Arteta took of an open marriage with his Spanish beau may now be giving him cause for regret.
Arteta’s men came into this game off the back of a patchy run of form. Two destructive defeats against Wolverhampton Wonderers and Aston Villa left Arsenal reeling after what had been signs of a resurgence. An unbeaten run that included crucial victories and a draw against Manchester United came to an abrupt end, and although he could rightly feel hard done by in regards to some extraordinary refereeing decisions along the way, going into a crucial period of fixtures meant that there was now almost no room for error if movement up the table was to remain a realistic goal.
A thrashing of Leeds (that hardly told the full story) and a rather timid draw against Benfica in the Europa League did little to paper over emerging cracks. So, here Mikel’s men needed to put out a marker that the ship was steady and progress was being made.
Cracks are moreish
A worst possible start saw rampant goal midget Raheem Sterling out-jump both Rob Holding and Hector Bellerin to nod home within two minutes. Arsenal had it all to do. By the time the clock had struck 4.45pm, the North London side had hardly touched the ball and Arteta must have feared the prospect of watching Pep’s balls fill his own net again and again.
Slowly, Arsenal began to take a foothold in the game. Tierney, back from injury and a rusty reintroduction against Benfica, marauded up the left channel in his usual style and was found in space on multiple occasions. His form has understandably taken a dip after the heights of his performances pre-hiatus, and though his gung-ho style remains, his end product left little to be desired. He either missed his man or made the wrong decision time and again. Although we can be sure he’ll return to the standard expected, it was too much to ask of him this evening.
The opposite happened on the alternate flank. Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding have racked up enough playing time this season to establish an understanding of how to police the right hand side, but there was little evidence of it here. Collectively they were at fault with the goal and offensively they offered little. Arsenal’s number two rarely combined with Pepe, playing in advanced position on the right, though Rob Holding did make one hilariously angry run into midfield that ended with him stood victorious, like Maximus Decimus Meridius, fists clenched, over a floored City player. But, it came to nothing.
Mohammed Elneny, in an act of self-flagellation by the manager, was selected in place of the rather more progressive, quick thinking Ceballos, to partner Granit Xhaka. As usual, he was ponderous and predictable in possession and passive out of it, usually choosing to pass sideways or backward and always taking the sting out of any counters the home side had planned on utilising.
We know what the Egyptian is. He’s tidy, but limited. He represents the stultifying obviousness of Arsenal’s demise from Champions League ever present’s to Europa League hopefuls, perhaps more than any other squad member. A poor man’s Francis Coquelin. Yikes.
Saka, as we have now come to expect of the nineteen year old, was once again Arsenal’s best player. However, he seemed to fumble at crucial moments during the game, never quite able to make enough space to be dangerous, never quite able to pull off another act of majesty to pull his team out of a hole. It is a concern that Pep Guardiola must have been throwing admiring glances his way knowing that, like Raheem Sterling from Liverpool, pulling the Gunner’s prize asset away as he approaches his peak years, may not be that much of a challenge if Arsenal don’t begin to make the right moves. Something to keep an eye on. The manager’s reliance on his two teenage stars – the other being Emile Smith-Rowe – and his arguable overplaying of them, are a cause for concern.
Ultimately, though Arsenal put up something of a fight at the end of the first period and for large parts of the second, they created nothing and never threatened to score. It could be argued that a tweak from Arteta pacified the waves of attack from Guardiola’s side, but it’d be generous. More likely, City laboured on in first gear, leaving in reserve enough to hurt Arsenal again should they have needed to. They didn’t.
Arsenal are now enjoying their worst league campaign since 1994/5, the season that saw George Graham sacked for taking bribes from agents and Stewart Houston take over as deputy as the team clung onto a 12th place finish. Four years after winning the title, the team had completed its cycle and was in need of a complete overhaul. Enter Bruce Rioch and Dennis Bergkamp. Arsenal find themselves in a similar position now. Though that Arsenal was only one Arsene Wenger and three years away from winning an historic league and cup double, this one feels a million miles away from competing.
Despite this, there have been some encouraging signs of the direction of travel. Arteta has, fleetingly, brought hints at the high-pressing, free-flowing football to which Arsenal fans have become accustomed. Against Leeds for 45 minutes, against Chelsea and against Wolves before VAR VAR’ed Arsenal into submission, the team displayed the kind of football that the manager is surely after. It has proved unsustainable, however.
There are caveats to this: all Arteta’s transfer eggs were placed in Thomas Partey’s basket, a basket that subsequently broke the moment it was full, spilling injury egg all over the manager’s face. Whilst not his fault, Arteta did rush him back from injury – a decision that caused the midfielder’s injury to flair up immediately into what appears to be a chronic concern.
His absence has forced Arteta into making decisions he perhaps thought were a thing of the past. Namely, relying on Elneny to partner anyone and be effective. His doggish running in the 1-0 victory against Manchester United in November is now faded into near myth.
Elneny is the symptom of the malaise and predicability of Arsenal’s approach, but not the cause. Again, we can point to a disastrous transfer policy, again we can point to a lack of proper management of Matteo Guendouzi, but whatever the reason, Mohammed Elneny should not be in contention of Arsenal’s first eleven. Chosen ahead of Dani Ceballos, Arsenal and Arteta got what they deserved.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been a prolific goalscorer for the entirety of his senior career. As such, he was long touted to sign for one of Europe’s giants – the Madrid-Barca-Munich – triumvirate, before he eventually made his way to North London. Concerns around his past behaviour are well documented, though Arsenal have only publicly seen the very best of their captain. The concerns that are now bearing fruit however, are that of age and overall value to this team.
Outside of scoring goals and a seemingly fun-loving personality, the Arsenal forward currently offers little to nothing to the squad. Anonymous outside of the box, he creates little from the wings and represents a problem when playing as a number nine. The ball tends to bounce off him when it needs to stick. His interplay is limited and, as was demonstrated in the flat track race with John Stones during this game, his pace appears to be deserting him.
What Arsenal are left with now is another ageing player on enormous wages and a long contract. Jamie Redknapp got it right when he said that he’s a player on the wrong side of thirty who is still capable of an occasional hat trick, but is lacking in influence elsewhere and is heading into a permanent decline. Worse still, the question that warrants asking is: where does he fit into Arteta’s system?
The risk of a public enquiry strong handed the Arsenal hierarchy (that included Arteta) into offering Auba a bumper deal at the end of the last campaign. Context is everything here – in the midst of a rebuild and a glorious goal scoring run, retaining their number 14 became the club’s number one priority. The press said so, so it must have been true. Raising concerns about the imminent decline of his major weapon – speed – were heretic and so the deal was done.
The Gabonese is an athlete, is rarely injured and appears in very good shape, but the cruel nature of elite sport promises that his best is behind him. So, what to do?
He offered nothing against City on Sunday, and should have been replaced by Lacazette early in the second half. Quick passing and progressive, through the gaps, movement is the way to get at Pep’s team, and unfortunately none of that materialised with the playmakers unsure of trusing their captain to retain possession.
Mikel Arteta is operating under the most unique set of circumstances ever seen in football. In the wider context of the pandemic and diminishing revenue streams and in the more specific context of where Arsenal Football Club are, the manager is by all intents and purposes being given a bye this season. Upon appointment, most would have been satisfied with his utilisation of Hales End graduates and the easing/kicking out of unwanted players. The transfers of Brazilian defender Gabriel and Thomas Partey seemed to be just what was required alongside some squad reinforcement in Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares. Willian on a free, but only to those who can afford it, transfer put the icing on what felt like good business for the club.
BUT…there does seem to be some grounds for concern around squad and in particular, in-game management. Substitutions have on the whole, been a regressive affair. During the second half most armchair critics (myself included) would have made similar decisions – Ødegaard was largely being sidelined during build up play, Auba was barely involved and Elneny was a negative force on proceedings. The solution was simple – Lacazette in the middle, Emile Smith-Rowe in support and Ceballos in place of Elneny.
Ultimately, Cabellos came on with five minutes left to make an impact, by which time the game was over. Smith-Rowe’s impact was obviously from the go – the team’s flow improved, it’s balance improved and had the change happened earlier, Arsenal may have taken advantage of a City who were already on the coach home.
The young manager is learning on the job. We can forgive him that, but if there was an area where immediate improvement were needed, neigh demanded, then it’s in the courage to change what isn’t working.
Form is temporary, class a memory
The facts remain that Arsenal have now, after 25 games, won 10, drawn 4 and lost 11. This is the kind of form that saw the fanbase turn on Unai Emery and ultimately end his tenure. One wonders whether the squad are relieved that the fans aren’t allowed in the stadium, as might the manager be, because they may not be as forgiving when witnessing this run of form face to face. With a difficult run of games on the horizon, it’s time for Arsenal to turn things around before that 1994/5 finish comes back to haunt them.
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