The two away games in the last four days were a chance to see if Arsenal have made genuine progress. Throwing away the game at Old Trafford, and conspiring to lose a game from a winning position against a desperate Everton demonstrates that despite some promising signs in the last couple of months not enough has been made.
I’m not going to dwell on the first half incident when Ben Godfrey stamped on the face of Takehiro Tomiyasu. We all know that should have been a red card. It’s the kind of decision where the simplest explanation would drive you towards it being corrupt (especially so soon after the Crystal Palace game when McArthur was the most obvious red card of the season – until this one). It was wrong, I don’t understand it – especially in the VAR era – and there’s no doubt that our lives would have been made easier if we’d played against 10 men. But, Mike Dean is gonna Mike Dean, and his inexplicable decision has to be taken in isolation because his refusal to issue the red card is no excuse for how badly Arsenal played last night. I get it would have different, but it wasn’t, so let’s focus on what was.
We were dreadful. Granit Xhaka returned to the team, Alexandre Lacazette replaced Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front, and Kieran Tierney came back in for Nuno Tavares. Arsenal had lots of possession and did nothing with it. When Mikel Arteta spoke afterwards about a lack of penetration, he should look no further than Lacazette whose presence was required at centre-forward but, under the auspices of ‘getting involved’ and appearing busy, could be found as a deep lying midfielder, and even a right back at one point. We needed some kind of outlet, and he did not provide it.
There was a warning just before the break when Richarlison headed home, exposing a increasingly soft-centre from set-pieces, but the goal was ruled out for an incredibly tight offside. That we found a way to break the deadlock before half-time was both surprising and welcome. A Tierney cross from the left saw Odegaard arrive perfectly to guide the ball home with his left foot and put us 1-0 up.
That, along with the manager rallying his troops at half-time with the Tomiyasu incident as fuel for a kind of siege mentality attitude, should have been enough for us to do better in the second period. But it was more of the same. Richarlison had another goal ruled out for a marginal offside. We’re talking millimetres here and on both occasions he took advantage of poor Arsenal defending to ‘score’. His time would come. Arsenal didn’t learn.
Arteta’s substitutions have been an issue for some time, and again he was found wanting. Replacing Tierney with Tavares on 65 minutes felt pre-planned, but I don’t really understand it. It’s not as there’s much in the way of fatigue for KT, perhaps there is a minor injury concern we’re not aware of, but if you can bring a player back who has been absent for nearly three months after a knee ligament injury in which he also broke a bone and play him for 90 minutes, I don’t get this.
Xhaka and Lacazette should have come off. Both of them were huffing and puffing by the hour mark. The Swiss international picked up a yellow card for a classic, clumsy foul, and Lacazette continued to offer nothing up front. We wasted a sub with Tavares, and when Arteta did make an ‘attacking’ change, he brought on Eddie Nketiah for Gabriel Martinelli who, it appeared at least, picked up a knock or was suffering from cramp.
In a game where it was obvious we were going to need more than one goal, the manager’s attempt to add something to our attacking threat was a penalty box poacher who is only effective in the opposition area, and we played him as a left winger. Whatever’s going on with Nicolas Pepe is clearly serious now, but if you’re not going to play him, don’t pick him in the squad. Give the opportunity to an Academy kid or something, because this is just nonsense. There was even the imperfect solution of Aubameyang on the left while keeping Lacazette up front, but this felt like one of those moments when Arteta tried to be too clever by half. A substitution that isn’t made first and foremost for the benefit of the team, but to send a message to a senior player, in this case the captain, and our record signing.
Everton’s equaliser came when Tavares headed a ball infield, and although he tracked Richarlison’s run initially, he switched off when the shot cannoned back off the bar, and was nowhere when the Brazilian looped a header over Aaron Ramsdale to make it 1-1. It’s the third successive away game that the left-back has been found wanting for a goal we’ve conceded. I’m not here to kill him or anything like that, he’s young and I hope he learns, but it highlighted how unnecessary that change was.
Nketiah then missed a golden chance to make it 2-1, heading onto the post after great work from Bukayo Saka. It was an awful miss. Perhaps the kind a player who has hardly played all season makes. With Arsenal needing a goal, Aubameyang eventually came on for Lacazette, but the substitutions cost us once more. In the dying moments of six minutes of injury time, Gomes ghosted past Xhaka who, because he was on a yellow, couldn’t make the foul he needed to in midfield. From there, take nothing away from Gray’s finish because it was superb, but our defending was not strong enough. Ramsdale had no chance.
Remarkably, we had a chance to salvage something, Nketiah did really well, Gabriel did a step-over in their box and Aubameyang had an opportunity to make it 2-2, but snatched at his shot. It was in keeping with his current form unfortunately, and Arsenal’s centre-forward problem is now an increasingly big one. Auba can’t score and the way Arteta managed this game is hardly going to fill him with confidence; Lacazette can’t run and also doesn’t score; and after that it’s Nketiah, Martinelli and maybe Balogun but he’s going out on loan reportedly.
The bigger issue for our forwards, leaving aside their individual flaws and their form, is simply playing in this team. Our football last night was horrible to watch. We don’t make chances, we don’t score enough goals, and for all the manager’s talk about how we have to do better in that regard, he doesn’t seem to have any solution for it. It’s not getting any better. Just 18 goals in 15 Premier League games tells its own story. And it’s not one that makes for happy bed-time reading.
Of the six teams above us in the table now, five of them have scored far more goals. One (Sp*rs) have scored fewer, but look at West Ham on 28 goals and understand why they are where they are in the table and why the mood there is so different. When that’s coupled with defensive frailty, it’s a major problem. If you score at an average of 1.2 goals per game, but in your last three away games you concede an average of 3 goals per game, you’re in trouble.
Football is a game of fine margins, but we make them so infinitesimally tight that the outcomes feels inevitably unconvincing. Last night was hugely disappointing. We saw the worst of this manager, too much of it felt retrograde, like the ‘old’ Arteta we thought had turned over something of a new leaf.
Another thing: this game, this poxy defeat, should not be filed away under the explanation that ‘This is a young team’. It might be, but last night this young team had all the old faults that come with this manager. It’s too much of a safety net for Arteta. Young, old, somewhere in the middle, if you can’t build attacking moves, if you can’t make chances, and if you can’t score goals, it doesn’t matter how old you are. And at this level, you’ll drop points and lose games because other teams – regardless of their own struggles – can do that fundamental thing better than you can.
I said in yesterday’s blog I didn’t want us to be the team that breathed life back into an opposition side that we were struggling, but that’s exactly what we did. Everton’s recent run of D L L L D L L L W has come with a lovely gift-wrapped package and a card saying, ‘Sorry you were feeling so poorly, here are some points from your benevolent friends at Arsenal’.
It’s so frustrating. I spoke about the top three and then the chasing pack in this Premier League season, and these two games were a chance to show that we were capable of being near the top of that secondary group. Instead, it’s clear we’re right near the bottom, and while the gap right now isn’t big, unless we can get our shit together, unless Mikel Arteta can start to produce the kind of football that delivers chances and goals, it will grow and we’ll fall away. We’re closing in on his two year anniversary, and it’s hard to imagine that an issue his team had from day one will suddenly, almost miraculously, get fixed.
Mikel the 8th, once more?
That’s it for this morning. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra for you this afternoon – a bit later than usual. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
Podcast should be out mid/late afternoon or thereabouts, so until then, take it easy.