Monday, July 22, 2024

Brighton 2-1 Arsenal: ‘Unacceptable’ Gunners lack mettle and a midfield

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“It was unacceptable the way we lost the game,” said Mikel Arteta afterwards. “The fact that we missed so many chances, the fact that we gave them the first goal and we didn’t compete in the second goal.”

He then shouldered the blame himself, saying it was his job to make the players competitive, and if they weren’t, it was on him. You can understand his frustration at the goals we conceded. Lack of concentration/organisation left us two v one from a short corner, which ended up being bundled into the net off Lewis Dunk. That’s simple, it’s basic stuff. Who is your defensive leader making sure that doesn’t happen?

For the second, Neal Maupay’s winner deep into injury time, you can look at how easily Shkodran Mustafi got turned by a simple 1-2 on the edge of the box, but in the passage of play that led to it was a string of half-hearted, perhaps tired, efforts from a number of players. And of course it had to be that bloke who scored the winner, didn’t it?

Whoever is writing the Arsenal script at the moment is really pulling out all the stops. The French striker had been involved in an incident late in the first half which saw Bernd Leno pick up what is feared to be a very serious knee injury. If you’re a regular reader of the site or listener to the podcast, you’ll have heard me talk more than once about this kind of thing – where a player who has both feet off the ground, and is thus extremely vulnerable, is subjected to a little nudge from an opponent.

Go back to when Marko Arnautovic, the pound shop Ibrahimovic, did it on Mathieu Debuchy, sending the defender into the advertising hoardings and causing him a serious shoulder injury which more or less put paid to his Arsenal career because it allowed Hector Bellerin a chance to emerge. I remember Alexis Sanchez being shoved down a camera pit at Norwich. I think there might have been one on Laurent Koscielny last season or the season before. It’s both dangerous and cowardly.

And look, I fully accept that Maupay didn’t want to hurt Leno, but here’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to take advantage of the fact he was off balance, push him out of his area with the ball in his hands and win a free kick for his team. The first thing he does is point to the fact he’s got the ball in his hands outside the area. When Leno starts screaming in pain, he backs away because he knows what’s happened. The injury, a hyper-extension of the knee, is caused by Leno landing badly – 100% because of that little nudge. Leno certainly knew it, look at his reaction as he went off the pitch on a stretcher.

The Brighton man accused Arsenal’s players of lacking humility afterwards, but you can’t take that from a bloke who knew fine well what he was doing when he nudged Leno. Saying you didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt is mealy-mouthed nonsense. He did it, own it and accept the consequences. Nobody’s saying he deliberately set out to injure Leno, but it was entirely down to his action that the Arsenal keeper now faces months out of the game with what’s feared to be an ACL rupture, and for what? A free kick outside the box. He can stick it.

Some people have said it’s good that some of the Arsenal players had a go at Maupay after the final whistle. Frankly, it’s to their discredit it took that long, that it took him scoring the winner to get their dander up. I don’t want to go all ‘back in my day’ on it, but Maupay should have been left in no uncertain terms what people felt about it when it happened, and it’s the kind of incident that should have galvanised a team during the game. Not after when it doesn’t count, not one bit. This group of players lacks of a lot things, and strong characters who won’t accept that one of their teammates got injured by a snide foul is one of them.

One of the other things we lack is a midfield of any substance. That’s not a new thing either, but the inclusion of the super-talented Bukayo Saka in there yesterday was – if not quite desperation from Arteta – acknowledgement that we have to find a way to influence games from that area of the pitch. He doesn’t have Granit Xhaka to call on, nor Lucas Torreira who isn’t going to be fit for a few weeks yet, so he tried Saka and to be fair it worked pretty well. The width of a crossbar denied him a goal and us the chance to go ahead early and set a different tone for the game. We don’t have much luck these days, what we do have comes from the big box marked ‘BAD’, but that was a moment which *might* have changed the complexion of things.

I thought Guendouzi was ok, tidy/safe on the ball, but a nominal defensive midfield player who goes through an entire game without making a single tackle shows that there’s something missing from him in that position. As for Dani Ceballos, that sunny day in August against Burnley feels more and more like an outlier. He is eye-catchingly slow when he runs, and similarly so in his decision making at times. He’s got no future with us. I don’t know how any manager can produce the kind of performances we want to see without a functioning midfield – and in terms of what he’s got to work with, I feel for Arteta. It’s no wonder we keep being linked to Thomas Partey, it’s like a toothless man wandering around town showing off a catalogue for dentures.

I even feel like our midfield is part of the reason we have the Aubameyang on the left thing, and that whole debate. We are so bereft of goals from that area of the pitch that we have to get other players in the team who can take up that slack. It’s a big part of why we need to start a traditional striker as well as Aubameyang who, in fairness yesterday, had quite a few half-chances from that wide starting position. Joe Willock is our leading scorer from central midfield with 4 goals, 2 in the Europa League and 2 in the EFL Cup. Dani Ceballos has one Europa League goal, Lucas Torreira has one in the Premier League and one in the EFL Cup, while Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi haven’t scored at all. We have one Premier League goal from all of our central midfielders this season. What can you even say about that?

Again, if you read regularly you’ll know I have a lot of understanding for the situation Arteta found himself brought into, and big reservations about our squad building and recruitment decisions over the last number of years. Those are things that happened above the manager, and before his arrival, and there are clear issues which need to be addressed. You cannot convince me that those people have done a good job, we have an imbalanced squad with all kinds of problems in key areas of the pitch, coupled with a litany of off-pitch/contractual issues which stem from poor executive level management. It’s something we talk more about in the latest Arsecast.

However, it’s Arteta’s job to win games, and to lose against Brighton – particularly in the fashion in which we did – is something he has to take ownership of. I mean, he did – right at the top of this blog – but whatever about losing to Man City, these are games we need to starting winning. Before lockdown, he had made us more difficult to beat. We still hadn’t properly clicked as a team but apart from Olympiacos we’d been unbeaten in the Premier League in 2020.

I think we can all understand that a rookie manager is going to make mistakes and learn on the job. Again, losing a player to injury disrupted things to an extent, and the confusion with the fourth official robbed of us of an opportunity to make changes, but his in-game management is something you can see needs to be improved. I know it was 1-1 when he made his final changes, but where is Gabriel Martinelli at the moment? Perhaps injured, but if he’s in the squad he could surely play a few minutes. As one of the few real goal threats in the squad, he could potentially win us a game while, with all due respect to those who came on, that chance is much slimmer. With another tough away trip to contend with on Thursday, it’s something he’s got to get right if we are to have any chance of a win.

Before this game, Arteta said we had no margin for error when it came to our chances of finishing in the four. What’s minus margin? We’re now 6 points off the top six, and while the upcoming game against Wolves could be seen as a ‘six pointer’, if we’re on the wrong side of that one there’s no Europe for Arsenal next season. As I wrote previously it may not be the worst thing in the world from a footballing point of view, even if the financial implications are problematic.

We can’t just write off these remaining games though. We have to find a way to win, to produce, to perform, and that’s down to Mikel Arteta. It’s a tough job, and I don’t evny him it one little bit.

Right, that’s it for this morning, more tomorrow and James and I will be here with a brand new Arsecast Extra too.

Have a good Sunday.

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