Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Nottingham Forest 4-2 Arsenal: Wenger’s gamble backfires as Gunners crash out of the cup

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If there was anything that summed up Arsenal yesterday, it was the fact we allowed Armand Traore to slalom through our defence like he was some kind of reborn Thierry Henry, only for Mathieu Debuchy to bring him down in the box with a clumsy challenge from behind which was always going to lead to a penalty.

The debate about the double touch really doesn’t interest me this morning, because when that’s the fourth goal you concede to a Championship side who have one win in eight and haven’t scored in three games then your problems go way beyond that. Maybe VAR would have helped, but trying to pin this defeat on any kind of refereeing error seems utterly pointless and basically counter-productive.

Arsene Wenger took a gamble yesterday. Not so much with his team selection which, on paper, looked fine, but with the bench. There wasn’t a single player on there who you could have any faith in if you needed to change the game. It’s not to be dismissive of our young players – on whom none of what happened yesterday should be hung – but there wasn’t one senior option on there.

I realise we’ve had a hectic schedule recently, and that we’ve had some injuries, but I still think he should have had that safety net of quality from the bench if we needed it. And we did need it because we were a bit of mess yesterday. The starting XI looked like a typical Europa League back three with Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles as wing backs, but when the game started it was a flat back four with Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding together in the middle, and Nelson playing on the left side of the attack.

Early on it was obvious we had problems back there. Ben Brereton, 18 years of age and full of running, got in behind and continued to get in behind all day long. It’s clear that Mertesacker’s legs are not what they once were, but you might ask why we didn’t try to address it from the bench at any stage: we could have shifted to a back three without any real fuss, but the manager left his captain and defence exposed when it was obvious there was a problem.

The German had equalised shortly after Forest went ahead, and the defensive set-up for that first goal was, frankly, unbelievable. Ospina had placed a wall to cover his near post, the Arsenal defensive line was a couple of yards ahead of them, thus allowing Eric Lichaj the freedom of that space to attack the cross and head home. Appeals for offside after the ball hit the net were as pointless as they were comical.

Lichaj’s finish for the second just before half-time was superb, but Arsenal were slow to get out and close him down from Holding’s header. The time he was given to wait for the ball to come down, take a touch, and then fire it up and into the top corner was as unforgivable as the mess we made of the first one.

Holding had to defend well to prevent a third on the hour mark after the rest of the defence went to sleep to allow a cross from the left, but the young man was culpable for the third, giving away a penalty which was converted without any fuss or controversy. Our response was to send on 18 year old Eddie Nketiah, hoping that he might do what he did against Norwich in the Carabao Cup, but if that’s the extent of your plan to rescue a game then there’s something wrong with it.

A gift from their keeper allowed Welbeck to pull one back, and maybe in those last 10 minutes we might have got something back but then don’t allow Traore to look like Messi, and don’t chop him down in the box from behind. Replays showed Debuchy took a bit of the ball first but had that happened up the other end every single one of us would be screaming for an Arsenal penalty: a tackle from behind in the box, what can you expect?

The double touch incident that led to three Arsenal players being booked was, even with replays, far from conclusive. Having watched it over and over, I think it probably was, but it wasn’t blindingly obvious. That said, there’s something absurd about the referee – who was standing a couple of yards away with a great view of the incident – going over to consult a linesman who was miles away and could barely see it at all. I think even with VAR that one might have been given.

Anyway, it’s not the issue really. The issue is that we’re out of the cup, beaten deservedly by a Forest team who were better than us on the day, something that Arsene Wenger acknowledged afterwards. He said:

Overall, you can congratulate Nottingham Forest for an outstanding performance. They were sharp, won decisive challenges, were always dangerous going forward and I would say they deserved to win today. It’s as simple as that.

On his team selection, he was a bit more defensive, saying:

We had a very difficult schedule, many players were on the edge and we play again on Wednesday. It was nearly impossible not to make changes. I can understand that the selection is questioned, but it would also be a little bit of an easy excuse because we had eight or nine experienced international players on the pitch today.

I thought the post-match comments of Per Mertesacker were very telling, and I’m certain the captain was not excluding himself from this when he said:

It’s difficult to take because for those players who played today, that was probably a last chance to show up and show the manager that they’re ready to play more games.

It’s not the case anymore.

At this point, however, it feels like criticism of individuals is basically pointless. That’s not to say all of them are good enough, that’s obviously not the case. You can see quite clearly that this is a squad badly in need of upgrading, but as long as the man who brings these players in continues, I think we’ll see the same weaknesses, the same issues, and the same problems.

Perhaps with slightly less frequency but this is fundamental to who we are and how we play. You can count on one hand the performances this season when we’ve excelled: for the most part it’s been staid, average/sub-par fare, and we can’t keep putting it down to flaws in this player or that player. It’s the manager, and it will continue to be the manager until such time as he goes.

I don’t buy into the idea that Wenger didn’t take the cup seriously. You can’t say that about someone who has won it seven times, more than anybody else in history, but yesterday he took a risk and it backfired. He admitted it himself after the game, and while honesty is a refreshing policy, it means that a trophy we could have realistically have had a chance of winning is now gone.

Arsenal played poorly, as they have done for a lot of this season, and Forest took full advantage. Fair play to them, they deserved their win, but it’s left Arsenal and Wenger with some real thinking to do ahead of a Carabao Cup semi-final on Wednesday.

Final thing this morning: I’ll leave you with a brand new Arsecast Extra recorded last night with Elliot Smith @YankeeGunner, discussing the match, Arsene Wenger, the future, and lots more. Listen. Subscribe. Share etc. Thanks.


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