Monday, May 29, 2023

Brentford 2-0 Arsenal: More of the same …

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Friday night lights, Arsenal style: Clear eyes, full hearts, can lose.

An opening day defeat to Brentford was not part of the plan, but the script had been written for the newly promoted side, and we gave them more than a helping hand to christen their new stadium on their return to the Premier League.

It was quite telling that the mid-afternoon news of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette missing out because of illness didn’t freak people out at all. In fact, quite the opposite. It meant that Mikel Arteta would have do something he might not ideally have wanted to. With Eddie Nketiah also injured, it meant a first Premier League start for Folarin Balogun, and with Bukayo Saka not quite ready, Gabriel Martinelli started from the left. There were also debuts for new boys Ben White and Albert Sambi Lokonga.

The line-up created some excitement and enthusiasm, but pretty soon it became clear the football itself wasn’t going to match that. Balogun has loads of potential, but got bashed around too easily by senior opposition, and that’s something he’s going to have to come to terms with pretty quickly at this level. Martinelli didn’t get involved anywhere near as much as I’d have liked, he played infield quite a lot (I assume on instruction), leaving space for Kieran Tierney, but not much support for the Scottish international as he overlapped.

I thought Sambi in midfield was encouraging, showing the kind of mobility and availability that augurs well, and although White won his first aerial duel with Ivan Toney, winning just 3 of 7 as the game went on showed that this is an area of his game that needs some work. The Brentford striker had the measure of him and it was an inauspicious debut for the centre-half.

There were some moments where we looked bright, most of them coming from Emile Smith Rowe who looked like the only man to make something happen (beyond our very obvious tactic of working the ball to Tierney down the left hand side). At times it felt like our attacking plan was for him to just do something good, beat a man, drive forward, and that’s a lot of burden to place on the shoulders of a 20 year old.

Brentford’s opener came after we cleared a ball which appeared to have gone over the line, it came back, Calum Chambers got done in the box by Sergi Canos and his powerful shot flew inside Bernd Leno at the near post. I think it’s fairly obvious we have a considerable problem at goalkeeper right now. Leno made a couple of good saves, but his distribution is getting worse, and the opposition view him as a weak link, as the second goal showed.

A long throw came in, Leno was absolutely being fouled by a Brentford player, but it was also weak goalkeeping. I do think the two things can be true. We let the ball bounce, they headed it in, and if you had flashbacks of a team playing in red and white stripes scoring goals from long throws against a timid Arsenal defence, you’re not alone. It was Stats Stoke, as Andrew Allen described it.

With very little on the bench to help us, the result felt inevitable. Arteta claimed afterwards that his biggest worry was lack of goal threat, but he also took off two strikers to put on wingers/attacking midfielders. I know he wasn’t helped by the absences, but it still seems a bit counter-intuitive. The stats tell us that Arsenal 22 attempts last night, apparently the most we’ve ever had in a Premier League game under Arteta, but it’s one of those which makes you blink. It’s demonstrably true, but like us having the third best defensive record in the league last season, it just doesn’t feel like it.

Bukayo Saka was positive when he came on and he, along with Smith Rowe, Tierney and Sambi were the only pluses we can take from this game. Beyond that, even with the young guys playing, there was little be enthused about. So much of it felt the same. If not quite familiarity breeding contempt, but familiarity making you wonder how much, if anything, could possibly be different?

Calum Chambers as our first choice right back highlights a deficiency in this area. I like him, he’s a decent, honest player, but that position a big issue in this team. Incredibly, given our ‘depth’ in that position, Arteta added to that by bringing on new left-back signing Nuno Tavares at right-back – when he had Bellerin, Cedric and Maitland-Niles on the bench. That felt like something of a Hail Mary substitution, desperate times calling for desperate measures and all that. It’s impossible to judge Tavares in the context of this game and that change.

Add to that Granit Xhaka in midfield and as captain; Pablo Mari looking increasingly out of his depth at this level; Leno a shrinking violet in DayGlo orange, with what’s left of his fragile confidence now battered out him by a couple of hands-on attackers; all of which,  coupled with a style of football – if you can call it that – remains uninspiring, predictable, and far too easy for the opposition to negate.

Maybe it’s a bit better with two more senior strikers in the team, but I don’t know I really believe the difference would have been substantial; perhaps some of those issues are diminished with Thomas Partey in midfield and Gabriel at centre-half; but quite how much it’s hard to say. Creativity is a big issue, the likelihood of Martin Odegaard returning is increasing, and I’m pleased because I think it’s obvious we need more, but we saw no signs at all last night that our biggest issue – scoring goals and creating good chances – has been addressed. You can argue personnel all you like, and obviously it’s part of it, but so too is the way this team is being coached to play.

Having patterns of play is a useful thing, but without any real room for improvisation or freedom of expression, you’re going to struggle. Every opponent will be well versed on what we do and how we do it, so without that spark – that in fairness ESR tried to provide – it’s going to be difficult.

It’s tough feeling so down after the first game of the season, but Brentford had us all worked out ahead of this game, executed a game plan which came to fruition, and at the end of the 90 minutes, you can’t argue that we deserved any more than we got. Which was nothing.

Next up, Chelsea, and it remains to be what might be different by then. New signings? Perhaps, but what about the approach? They’re a team we beat twice in the league last season, and after what happened last night, the pressure is on to ensure we win our first home game of the new season.

Till tomorrow.

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