The first of two games against Southampton in a matter of days didn’t go well for Arsenal yesterday. A Gabriel own goal was enough to give the Saints a 1-0 win and our defence of the FA Cup was ended.
Having spoken about rotation in my preview and how I fully expected it, I’m not going to be too critical of it. It’s what I thought he would do, in some cases I thought it’s what he should do, but rather than taking the opportunity to force their way into the manager’s thinking, it became a demonstration of why certain players haven’t been playing very much recently.
There were just too many off their game to have come away from this one with a positive result. Gabriel returned for his first start since the EFL Cup game on December 22nd, and he looked very much like a player who had been out for a full month. Mohamed Elneny is usually more reliable in midfield, but a player who almost always gives you a steady 6/10 was a lot worse than that. Gabriel Martinelli never got going on the left, and had fewer touches than any outfield player bar Alexandre Lacazette who came on in the 71st minute and touched the ball just 5 times (an indication of how our game was played).
On the right Nicolas Pepe disappointed again. I know when you look at the stats it shows he was probably our best attacking option, making 5 key passes. There was a nice free kick to Martinelli, and a good ball to Eddie Nketiah which the striker didn’t make the most of, but overall so much of his game was frustrating. Sent down the right by Hector Bellerin, in exactly the kind of space we all hope for him to get, his touch let him down and the defender got back. Another simple pass from Bellerin between the lines into his feet, and the ball just bounced away from him. I don’t know if it’s concentration, lack of confidence, or whatever, but he has this ability to make relatively easy things look more difficult than they are.
To be fair to him, I don’t see a lack of effort or application – although some would argue that ties in with letting simple moments pass him by – I just think we’re seeing things that we have consistently seen since he joined. In the beginning you can look for reasons/excuses as to why it’s happening (new league, new club, new language, coach turnover etc etc), but 18 months into his Arsenal career you have to ask if this is just who he is as a player. If it is, it’s quite worrying.
Another player with a chance to find some form … any kind of form … was Willian, and again he dropped another stinker. Like I said yesterday and in the podcast, I understand why he was picked even if I didn’t like it too much. I even understand why the manager publicly pledged his support for him and Pepe. But if we’re not actively trying to find a way to cut short his tenure at the club and finding a new club for him this summer (yes I know how difficult it is), we’re not doing our jobs properly.
We all know he had a good game on the opening day against Fulham, but since then he has produced no goals, and just a single assist (for Gabriel against Wolves). Perhaps it’s confirmation bias on my part, but unlike Pepe I see a lack of effort at times. If I’m being kind, I see a player who looks absolutely lost at this club, unsure of himself, unsure of his role, the squarest peg trying to fit into the roundest hole, and he was asked again to play in a kind of number 10 role which isn’t where he plays as a rule.
I think we’ve already seen signs that the manager has accepted he’s got a problem with this player. He hasn’t started in the Premier League since the Everton game on December 19th, and when we needed a goal against Crystal Palace, he wasn’t called on from the bench. The emergence of Saka on the right and Smith Rowe has relegated Willian to an afterthought in Premier League terms, and that’s no bad thing. The mooted arrival of Martin Odegaard gives us more choice again. The bad thing is that we’ve given this guy £200,000 a week for three years, and having just ‘solved’ the problem caused by having an aging/declining player on a big salary, we’ve got another one to deal with. It’s a mess that needs to be cleaned up as quickly as possible. There’s no shame in a transfer not working out, it happens all the time, the bigger issue is when you keep doubling down to try and justify it, and yesterday Willian was pretty much in the last chance saloon anyway.
Ahead of him, it’s time for an Eddie Nketiah discussion. He did have a couple of chances, but didn’t make the most of the one fed to him by Pepe – his toe-poke looked more dangerous because it hit a defender on the way through – and late on he slashed wildly at a chance in the box and put it wide. I know strikers depend on service, but Eddie is a player who, if he doesn’t get any of that, doesn’t give you much else. He’s a penalty box predator, but outside of it he can run and he can press, but he offers little to our overall game.
I don’t want to make this about another young striker we have because I think it’s something worth talking about in and of itself, but how much do you need to see of a young player before you more or less know if they’re going to make the grade? I feel we’re kinda there with Eddie, and as he heads towards the final 12 months of his contract, we have to ask has he done enough to earn a new one, to deserve that investment of time and money? We’ve given him chances, we’ve built up his experience and his value, and there’s an optimal time to sell players. It feels very like that’s where we are with him.
In the end, it was a slightly unlucky own goal which separated the teams, each side had 11 attempts on goal, 2 each on target, so it wasn’t as if we were played off the park. It was just that Southampton didn’t seem to need to do a great deal to appear dominant, aided and abetted by our rotated side which had simply too many issues on the day to produce anything like a winning performance.
It’s a shame to have gone out in such tame fashion, but I don’t know that it taught us a great deal we didn’t already know. There is such a gap between the players who can help us win us games, and those who can’t. The hope for Tuesday is that more of those players will return to the starting line-up. We might well be without captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who had to leave because of what Arteta called a ‘personal issue’ before the game. Hopefully everything is all right for him and his family, which of course is the main concern above and beyond football.
This defeat, and this performance, adds more pressure to Tuesday night’s return to St Mary’s, let’s hope we can find a response.