Before we recorded the podcast yesterday, I re-watched the first half so I could take a closer look at Nuno Tavares’ performance. Watching the game live, I thought he was poor – that bad back-pass to Bernd Leno left a big stain on my perception of how he played.
Second time around though, I didn’t really see why he was deemed so bad he had to be hauled off before half-time. There’s a stat going around about how he gave the ball away 9 times, but bar one loss of possession on the halfway line, it’s difficult to tally that with what I saw. There were some passes which didn’t quite find their target and I suppose they count against him statistically, but nothing genuinely abysmal. Nor did I see a lack of effort, which I could 100% understand culminating in that decision. When he needed to get back, he got back.
Inside the City Ground on Sunday, James was sitting on that side and wasn’t at all surprised that he was taken off. The unknown factor here is what he was being told by the manager who was on that touchline, and how he was responding to that instruction. We know Mikel Arteta has a tendency to micromanage at times, and it could well be based on that as much as what he did or didn’t do with the ball.
I’m curious to see what happens next. I hope this could be a storm in a teacup kind of thing. The squad is light enough as it is, and we can’t lose any more players. Then again, I thought that might be the case with the Aubameyang stuff lately, and look where we are with that. It’s worth pointing out that when he did have a run in the side this season, Tavares looked promising, and even when he made a couple of mistakes against Liverpool and Man Utd, Arteta kept faith with him when he had a better player in Kieran Tierney waiting in the wings. So, fingers crossed the frustration felt by both manager and player is confined to the very short-term and we can move on and put this behind us.
I wonder too if the 90 minutes and some of the other performances might play a part in how this plays out. Arteta has always said mistakes aren’t really the big issue, it’s how a player responds to them. There have been worse performances in the past under Arteta than Tavares against Forest (in fact both Cedric and Holding ended up being way worse on the night and both were culpable for their goal with some tame ‘defending’); there have been players who have made mistakes that were far more costly than Nuno’s back-pass; there have been outbursts and behaviours that were more disrespectful than some gloves being thrown on the ground in a moment of complete and understandable frustration. So, let’s see how this plays out, and hope that a squad which already needs a boost isn’t hit with another absence.
Speaking of boosting the squad, whatever happens, it’s unlikely to go down before the weekend and almost certainly not going to happen before Thursday’s Carabao Cup semi-final first leg. How ‘strong’ we are in midfield will depend almost entirely on Granit Xhaka’s availability, and his Covid status. Will he be out of isolation? Will his latest bout with the virus have had any impact on him?
We can all look at midfield right now and see the glaring weakness. There is literally no depth. Once you go beyond Xhaka and Sambi, you’re having to make decisions which are less than ideal. You either use a young player who isn’t quite ready, or you shift some other pieces around to try and fill that gap. The return of Emile Smith Rowe might well be useful in that regard, giving you another option at 10 if you want to drop Martin Odegaard deeper.
It is relatively temporary though. Thomas Partey’s Ghana lost their opening game at AFCON, they play Gabon on Friday, then Comoros on Tuesday. It’s possible he could be back by the time we play Burnley. Obviously it’s far from ideal, but when it comes to the transfer market this month, I don’t think midfield is anywhere near as urgent as striker. Partey will be back, Elneny will be back, but as it stands we have a big problem up front.
As Sunday showed, Eddie Nketiah is not the answer. Alexandre Lacazette has done some good work in recent weeks, but simply doesn’t score enough goals. Aubameyang’s situation doesn’t look good. Flo Balogun is off to Middlesbrough on loan, perhaps as early as today. That leaves us with Gabriel Martinelli who, I think, can offer us something there, but it’s too much of a burden to place on a 20 year old.
Right now we sit in fourth place and the possibility of a top four finish is there. It will be tough, and it will depend on a huge collective effort between now and May. However, as much as we’ve shared goals around of late, I don’t think it’s possible to secure a top four finish without a striker who scores with some kind of frequency. As I mentioned the other day, Lacazette has has taken just 12 shots all season in the Premier League. It shows that he can’t combine some of the effective link-up play with the main job of a centre-forward, and unless we can address that, I think we’ll fall short of the finish necessary to bring back Champions League football.
I know it isn’t an either/or situation when it comes to bringing in a striker or a central midfielder, but for me the clear priority is the former. Goals are the currency which drives football success, and right now we don’t have enough threat in that area. With a schedule that won’t now be affected by FA Cup football, there’s a relatively clear road between now and the end of the season, and adding the firepower could well be the difference between top four and not.
If you haven’t had a chance to listen yet, the Arsecast Extra is below. Till tomorrow.