If Mikel Arteta was hoping a decent performance and result would give his team a boost ahead of Thursday’s Europa League quarter-final, he is left instead picking up the pieces of a demoralising, disappointing, disastrous night at the Emirates.
I’m someone who believes there has been improvement since that red letter day on December 26th when we beat Chelsea, but last night’s shambles was well and truly a return to the worst of this season. It was like the clock was turned back to November/December because what we saw was nothing like the post-Christmas Arsenal at all.
The manager refused to put this down to absentees: Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe weren’t fit enough to start; Granit Xhaka was ill; and David Luiz’s knee injury may well keep him out for the rest of the season which, despite my endless worries about him, would be a blow. Any team would miss those players, and I do think it was a factor, but it’s no excuse for what we got last night.
Liverpool were good, no doubt about it. They’ve been through a terrible period, but they remain an excellent team. However, as good as they were, we made them look better by our own ineptitude and inability/unwillingness to compete properly. Jurgen Klopp praised his side afterwards for how intense they were, winning the second ball time and time again, but they could have all had a great big goblet of opium pre-game and looked sharper than us.
We were lucky to be level at the break. Milner missed a glorious chance, Salah made a mess of a break and a pass from Mane, and it was all Liverpool. We had one attempt on goal in the first 45 minutes, and that was a tame Pepe header late in the half which Alisson could have caught with his moustache if he wanted. Losing Kieran Tierney was obviously a blow, and probably put paid to a half-time sub which would have been more than warranted. Take your pick from Ceballos, Pepe, Aubameyang or Lacazette who could have come off and had no complaints.
With Cedric at left-back, Liverpool had more joy down their right, and that the opening goal came from there was no real surprise. Aubameyang’s attempt to block the cross was half-hearted, and while taking nothing away from the quality of the delivery, it’s not the first time of late that Rob Holding has been out-jumped by a small man. I don’t think Bernd Leno covered himself in glory either, it was a powerful header met with chocolate wrists.
For the second Cedric is caught high up the pitch, a pass to Salah sees Gabriel go to ground and fail to get the ball, and Salah’s nutmeg finish on Leno made it 2-0. I thought Gabriel was probably our best player on the night until he very much wasn’t, and he was culpable for Liverpool’s late third, giving the ball away cheaply, and in the end Jota was there to get his second of the night. Poor defending, cheap goals, but no less than Liverpool deserved. No less than we deserved. It could, and probably should, have been more.
Elneny came on for Ceballos, a perfect encapsulation of how badly we need to upgrade midfield. We missed Granit Xhaka a lot, which in itself tells you more about the quality of our options in that position than the Swiss, and there was a run out for Gabriel Martinelli who replaced Aubameyang. If Arteta had taken him and Lacazette off at the same time and played with 10 men for the remainder of the game, I don’t think I’d have complained and I don’t think we’d have been any worse.
I think you have to question the team selection for this one. Even if Aubameyang hasn’t been scoring of late, it made little sense to have him running up and down the left wing. If the argument is that he was there to exploit the space left when Trent went forward, that only works if you actually do that. For me, the obvious thing would have been to sit him centrally on inexperienced two centre-halves who pushed high as Liverpool came forward, and use the energy and running of Martinelli on the left. Aubameyang can play wide, but more and more it’s obvious that he shouldn’t. If he’s not starting up front, he shouldn’t be starting at all.
The idea that Lacazette’s hold-up play is important has been well and truly overplayed for me. He was good against West Ham, no argument there, but this was a dismal showing from him. His touch and passing were off on the rare occasion the ball came to him, and this was a performance as poor as the one against Sp*rs a few weeks back. On that day, it wasn’t highlighted as much because he took a good penalty and we won, but for me displays like yesterday are further evidence that what we need to do in the summer with him is obvious (as I wrote the other day).
Martin Odegaard barely got into the game, despite trying to press early on. One man ploughing a lone furrow with no support won’t make a dent in a team like Liverpool. We have a £72m Joel Campbell on the right hand side, and a £50m midfielder who can’t do it alone against the likes of Thiago and Fabinho. I don’t know what’s going on with Ceballos at the moment, but he’d be lucky to get a game for Real Housewives, never mind Real Madrid.
Afterwards, Arteta said:
I apologise to our supporters for the display and the show that we saw today that I am very, very disappointed about. It’s unacceptable. At that level it’s unacceptable. To not be at 100% is unacceptable to our people and for a lot of work that we put in so what happened today is nowhere near what we want to do. It’s my fault.
Now it’s a challenge. A challenge brings an opportunity and in football, you have an opportunity a few days later. If you have courage and you have big balls and you represent a club like this you have to stand up and take it.
It’s odd to think that a win yesterday would have put us to within a point of Liverpool, because what yesterday showed was that the gap should be much, much bigger than that. What remains of our season now well and truly rests in Europe. We’ve lost 12 games in the Premier League and for a club like Arsenal, that’s simply not good enough. The chance of redemption comes in the shape of Slavia Prague, then the possibility of a semi-final and a final, but our wretched inconsistency is something we have to reckon with in Europe too.
Things may well be even more difficult depending on the seriousness of the Tierney injury, and we have to closely examine a situation where a near 34 year David Luiz, with all his flaws, remains our best central defender. He may not play again this season, and the options don’t fill me with much confidence.
For all the positives we’ve produced of late, yesterday was a reminder that this iteration of Arsenal under Arteta is a long, long way from being good enough. I’m sure that’s something the manager would readily acknowledge, but this is his team and he is responsible for the performances.
If it were me, I’d lean as far into the young players as I possibly could. Saka and Smith Rowe will make a difference when they come back. It’s time for more Martinelli as our experienced forwards continue to disappoint. It’s not something he can do in every position, but he needs to do something to demonstrate an intolerance towards what was produced last night. Saying it’s unacceptable is fine, doing something tangible about it is far more important.
Till tomorrow, when James and I will discuss all this in more detail on the Arsecast Extra. Have a good Sunday.