Monday, January 24, 2022

Nottingham Forest 1-0 Arsenal: Dismal Gunners get exactly what they deserve

Match reportPlayer ratingsManager reaction

Mikel Arteta and his players have received plenty of plaudits lately. Even after defeat to Man City, most could see the positives from that performance and were prepared to give them credit for the way they approached the game and the character they displayed.

So, on that basis, it’s only fair today to be as honest and forthright about what we saw last night at the City Ground. That was absolutely dismal. There was nothing positive to take from the game, the way we played, the inability of the manager to address the problems during the game or even at half-time, and to crash out of the FA Cup at this stage is a huge disappointment.

I know there’s a school of thought that we have bigger fish to fry, and with the team sitting in the top four right now, I can understand that to a small extent. However, we’re not so comfortable in that pursuit that we can afford to throw away the chance of silverware that easily, and some FA Cup ties between now and May isn’t exactly going to lead to massive fixture congestion.

There were players missing because of AFCON, Folarin Balogun and Granit Xhaka were absent because of Covid, while Takehiro Tomiyasu and Emile Smith Rowe were absent because of calf and groin injuries respectively. That meant a full debut for Charlie Patino, and while I don’t want to dwell too much on this, last night was evidence that he’s just not quite ready. This isn’t criticism of him, let me be clear. He’s only 18, and this experience will be beneficial, but there was a complete lack of midfield control. Again, it’s not his fault, but we were lacking in that area.

I know there will be a lot of discussion about Nuno Tavares and the manager’s decision to take him off during the first half, but I can’t help but wonder if the bigger issue is our decision to let Ainsley Maitland-Niles leave on loan before this game. As I said the other day, I found Arteta’s openness to his departure commendable, and although I don’t think he’d have made all the difference last night, it meant that we ran the risk of having to use a player before he’s quite there, which was the case with Patino. Sure, Roma wanted the deal done, but we’re not here to give Roma what they want and maybe a post-Forest loan would have been just as good for them, and certainly better for us.

The withdrawal of Tavares after 34 minutes is one of those which divides people. If a manager thinks a player isn’t doing what he wants, particularly when he’s on the same side and in earshot/communication with him throughout, he’s perfectly entitled to make a change. Yes, it’s embarrassing for any player to be taken off in the first half, but the left-back was having a stinker and I think he wanted Kieran Tierney to give us more down that side.

Unfortunately, he didn’t really do that, and the Tavares change looks harsh after 90 minutes because there were others on the pitch who stayed on and did worse. The step down from our ‘first team’ to back-ups was evident yesterday. There’s a world of difference between Tomiyasu and Cedric. I read this weekend that Atletico Madrid are interested in him, in which case we should send him there immediately and ask no questions as to why on earth they would want him. Similarly, where Gabriel has been so solid this season, Rob Holding was an absolute mess. I think he’s capable of better, but that was by some distance his worst ever game for us. Tavares didn’t get the full game to be as bad as both of them, so that early change appears to be more pointed than it actually was.

Whatever Arteta said at half-time didn’t work. Arsenal were slow, ponderous and lethargic. If the players deserve criticism for the way they played, the manager deserves it for the way he failed to elicit any kind of response. I felt he should have changed it half-time, Lacazette for Patino would have made sense with Odegaard dropping into midfield, but I guess even when that change happened, it made little difference.

We offered almost no threat, but a fine Saka cross created a great chance for Eddie Nketiah, but he got his header all wrong with just the keeper to beat. He looked like a player whose mind is elsewhere, and while we have many questions about what to do with our striker situation, he isn’t any kind of answer for me.

Forest’s goal was so horribly pathetic but nigh on inevitable. Sambi lost the ball in midfield, there was a shout for handball which would have probably been VARd in the Premier League, but the real issue is the inability to play a routine pass out to the left wing. They went down our left hand side, Holding made absolutely no attempt to stop the cross, while Cedric’s poor position when the ball was turned over was coupled by a half-arsed attempt to get back goal side of 33 year old Lewis Grabban who turned the ball home to win the tie. You knew that was that, because we could be still out there now playing against no men and we’d still not have scored.

The final indignity was the introduction of Sead Kolasinac for Cedric when we needed a goal. What on earth was that? Maybe it was a ‘Look at how little I have to work with’ message to the board, but you could make the very same point just as well by throwing on one of the young attacking players like Omari Hutchinson or Mika Biereth and at least given yourself an outside chance of scoring. Baffling, bordering on insulting.

Afterwards, Arteta said:

We weren’t good enough on the day and we are out of the competition which is really disappointing. We have to apologise for that.

It’s really hurting. It’s a competition that is related to our history and to go out of it today is a big bump.

The final thing I’ll say is this: I don’t think it’s possible to fully compartmentalise this performance and this defeat by saying the most important thing we have to play for is the top four. If you can play like this against Nottingham Forest – albeit with players missing etc etc, you can play like this against anyone, and if that happens in the Premier League the result will be inevitable.

As I said at the top, there has been plenty to be encouraged about lately, and while I don’t think we should lose sight of that, we shouldn’t ignore how bad last night was either. The FA Cup was a chance of a trophy this season, and it’s gone. I’ll be as pleased as anyone if we can make the top four but unless there’s a marked improvement in our next league game – away at that lot, for the record – we’re going to struggle to make that a reality. There is a separate discussion to be had about the strength of the squad and the need for additions, but that can wait.

Well done to Forest, who now get a home tie against Leicester. For Arsenal, a cold hard slap of reality and with two massive games coming up this week, it has to be put right quickly.

Right, let’s leave it there. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra later on, so 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.

Pod should be out by lunchtime. Until then, take it easy.

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