Sunday, January 29, 2023

Arsenal 0-0 Villarreal: A dismal end to a dismal season

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In the end it was tame, uninspiring, and with just a hint of bad luck. The kind of display which has been emblematic of our season.

We can bemoan the width of a post in the first half when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s opportunism almost put us ahead; and in the second half his header somehow stayed out when you know, if it had happened at the other end, it would have found its way into the net.

But, Arsenal just weren’t good enough. We didn’t create enough chances. We didn’t play with the kind of intensity you need in a European semi-final, and we’re out. Good luck to Unai Emery and Villarreal in the final, I really hope they go on and win it, but for us, the postmortem begins now.

We weren’t helped pre-game by the loss of Granit Xhaka in the warm up, but given he was going to play left-back again and was replaced by Kieran Tierney, we can’t use that as any kind of excuse. It’s always disruptive to lose a player so late, but if our game-plan couldn’t cope with the loss of a central midfielder playing out of position, it wasn’t a very good game-plan in the first place.

We needed a bright star, to begin the game on the front foot. We didn’t get it. Whether it was nerves, fear, tension, or something else, basically 45 minutes went begging. Aubameyang had just 7 touches in the first half, and his one shot came when the ball fell to him from a corner, not because we created a chance for him from open play.

We began the second period with more intent. Tierney created a chance for Pepe which he fired not far wide, and Emile Smith Rowe was unlucky with a clever dink as their completely scatterbrained goalkeeper almost put himself in trouble. There’s another depressing element to all this. That keeper was dodgy as anything, and over two legs we managed four shots on target (and one of those was a penalty). Lame.

Gabriel Martinelli came on but couldn’t add much. There was a bright spell for Hector Bellerin when he had a couple of effort blocked and provided the cross from which Aubameyang hit the post with a second-half header, but in the end your heart sank when we sent on Willian and Lacazette to try and save the day. A player with no goals all season, and a striker who has been rushed back from a hamstring injury. I know Auba has been suffering the effects of malaria, but he was basically the only one who looked like scoring and we took him off.

The game played out to its inevitable conclusion. A team which knew the importance of the game for them, the manager, the fans, and the club as a whole, couldn’t find a performance to match that. I’m sure I’ve seen more intense games in pre-season. Maybe I’m over-egging it, but that’s how it felt. That it’s possible to go through the ‘highlights’ of the game in around 500 words tells you plenty.

At the end I felt sorry for some of them. Emile Smith Rowe was about the only Arsenal player on the night who showed the kind of bravery needed for nights like this, and as he slumped to the turf at the final whistle it was hard not to have sympathy. Bukayo Saka has carried this team at times this season, and while he wasn’t at his best last night, he got no help from experienced colleagues like Martin Odegaard, Nicolas Pepe and Thomas Partey who were hugely disappointing on the big occasion.

All eyes then turn to Mikel Arteta who, to be fair, looked devastated as he told BT Sport everyone was devastated. I genuinely think he cares, I think he sees the issues at Arsenal and wants to do a good job, but it’s impossible to make the case that’s what he’s done this season. Thirteen Premier League defeats with the team languishing in mid-table; elimination from Europe by the man you replaced at the club after two limp semi-final displays; a club record in that we’ve failed to score in 10 home games this season; and, beyond something miraculous happening in the final four games, no European football next season.

We don’t score enough goals. We don’t create enough chances. We don’t win enough games. We don’t, even among that, play the kind of football that would make you think its worth persevering with. We are boring, uninspired, far too rigid in the way we approach games, and I don’t think it’s down to a lack of preparation or hard work on the training ground. I think the players are suffocated by the precision of instruction, scared to take chances with the ball so the backwards option is, in their minds, the best one far too often.

I know some will say the squad isn’t good enough to be what we want the team to be, and I wouldn’t argue with that. There are just a handful of players I’d be hurt to lose, the rest I wouldn’t shed a single tear about. Nevertheless, I think it’s capable of better than we’ve seen this season, and that has to be on the manager. He’s not getting as much out of them individually and collectively as he should.

Some of his decisions are hard to understand. I thought Pablo Mari was ok last night, but we spent the guts of £30m on Gabriel in the summer and, unless there’s an issue we’re unaware of, the manager doesn’t trust him in a game like this and prefers to play a journeyman. That speaks to our recruitment, and that signing was entirely on him and Edu. Nor can they escape the disaster that has been Willian this season. Again, he had little to do with either semi-final game, but he is the standard bearer for bad footballing decisions – wasting huge resources on a player who has been basically abject all season and whose poor performances were tolerated for reasons I can’t make non-libelous sense of.

This was a bad night for Arteta. It was a bad tie for Arteta. He mismanaged the first leg, and failed to elicit the kind of performance you need in the second. The lack of European football next season is going to have significant repercussions for the club, on and off the pitch. We can think about recruitment and how that might affected, with a lot less money to spend and revenues hit by lack of games/broadcast income. Are we the kind of attractive destination that players might just be willing to ignore the lack of Europe for? I don’t know that we are.

Beyond that, we’re currently run by the kind of people who just weeks into the pandemic forced pay cuts on the players, ruthlessly laid off 55 people, and canned a beloved dinosaur. Our on-pitch failure may well have consequences for those on the football side of things, but without European football revenue, I worry for jobs in other areas of the club too.

Quite what happens next is anyone’s guess. In January, the owners backed Arteta in a significant way by taking loans to pay off players he wanted to get rid of. I have no issue with that, those guys needed to be gone, and they trusted his judgement. Now, with a summer transfer window looming, and the very obvious need to invest, do they trust him to give him the money to do that? If you have doubts over a manager, and you’re willing to give him some more time, do you let him spend money on players who may not be to the taste of the next man if things don’t work out? Or how much money is he allowed spend in the first place?

Then you ask yourself, who is going to make that decision at executive level? Where is the football knowledge on this board to put in place a plan? Having moved away from a system where power was concentrated in one man, Arsenal more or less undid all that last summer by consolidating power in Arteta, making him manager, and making it more or less clear that even the Technical Director was subservient to him. It should be the other way around. Now we have a situation where we have entrusted the football side of things to man whose job is under massive threat.

Let me be clear: I like Mikel Arteta as a person. I’ve been impressed with the clarity of his communication and the fact he’s openly acknowledged that Arsenal have to rebuild. I really wanted it to work for him, and for us as a club. However, after this Premier League season, losing that many games, crashing out of Europe in this fashion and to a team managed by the man we sacked 18 months ago, he could have no complaints whatsoever if he lost his job. I don’t know if there’s a top level football club who wouldn’t fire their manager after a season like this.

But Arsenal isn’t just any football club. We’re run by people who have allowed the stature of this institution to diminish year on year. Not necessarily because they don’t care – when it comes right down to it KSE are business people and they can see the link between sporting performance and revenue/value – but because they are, quite simply, very bad at running a football club. They are borderline incompetent, and the key decisions they have made have been dreadful. Arteta may stay, he may go, but the problem at the very top remains.

My gut feeling is they will stick with him, because they will have been sold on a plan of sorts, and because they don’t know what else to do. They have put too many of their eggs in the Arteta basket. There are good coaches out there, nobody in this business is irreplaceable, but as much as the romantic idea of a former player coming back to be the modern, innovative manager is one that’s easy to get behind, you can’t be blind to the fact it’s not working. Or, if you’re being really, really kind, it hasn’t worked this season.

That then leads you to ask: what have you seen that makes you think it will work next season? I know the circumstances are different, and there have been other complicating factors, but Emery lost his job for less than this. Every club has had to deal with Covid, every club has had to deal with no pre-season. I suppose Arsenal are a bit unique in that not every club has had to contend with the departure of a legacy manager followed by 18-24 months of executive departure, ineptitude and self-interest, as well as long-standing issues stemming from a past culture which was all-too-indulgent and in which few were accountable enough. However, when he was made manager Arteta’s remit was to sort those things out while also producing enough on the pitch. He may have done some of the former, but nowhere near enough of the latter.

For now, I better leave it there. It’s all still very raw, and to lose a European semi-final without any bang and pretty much all whimper is painful. All our hopes rested on this competition, and now there’s nothing left. What come next remains to be seen, we have to play out four Premier League games, and if there’s any optimism it’s got to come from the young players who could be key to the future. Let as many of them have these games as possible, but I fear too many of the same old faces will feature.

And with them, under this manager, comes disappointment. Guaranteed.

I will be recording a podcast this morning. It’s not an Arsecast Extra as James isn’t available today, but we’ll have something out before lunch.

Until then, take it easy.

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