Well, that wasn’t pretty. Not only did we get resoundingly beaten by a team who competed better than we did in a decisive first half, we lost a couple of players to injury whose absences are going to sorely test an already very thin squad. We spoke about there being some bumps in the road along the way, this could prove to be a significant pothole.
The pre-game absence of Kieran Tierney was unexpected and unreported, but by kick-off there were unconfirmed reports he would need surgery on a knee injury picked up on international duty where he played 90 minutes of both Scotland’s friendlies. Thanks for that lads. He’s due to see a specialist today with the manager admitting preliminary scans are not promising.
It meant Nuno Tavares was called in to deputise, his first start since the FA Cup game against Nottingham Forest when he was hauled off after 35 minutes. This time around he made it to half-time, but was found wanting for both Palace goals and when the manager spoke afterwards about the need to compete in the duels, I’m sure those moments were on his mind.
For the first, I think he might have been given a foul if he’d actually jumped for the ball instead of meekly ducking under it. The deflection saw Mateta’s eyes light up as he loafed the ball beyond Aaron Ramsdale. For the second, he assumed Gabriel would make the interception and when he didn’t, he was flat-footed, nowhere near Ayew who fired beyond the Arsenal keeper to make it 2-0. It would be unfair in the extreme to say he was the only weak link but while Arteta said it was ‘tactical’ to bring him off at the break, it doesn’t augur well for his immediate future and it’s especially problematic in the wake of the Tierney injury news.
As I said though, Tavares was far from alone in terms of the level of his individual performance. Players who we know are capable of much better, like Thomas Partey and Martin Odegaard, were so far from their best it was absurd at times. Passes going miles astray, the ball rebounding off them when usually the first touch is so secure. Gabriel looked like a man hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since his new arrival, and Ramsdale looked uncharacteristically jittery with the ball at his feet.
Up front, when he would occasionally find himself there, Alexandre Lacazette is a significant issue to this team now. It’s right to acknowledge there was a period in recent times when he was effective at dropping deep and bringing others into play, but Palace had him all worked out last night and Joachim Andersen had the easiest night of his defensive life as we were left without any serious presence up front.
It’s an issue Mikel Arteta needs to think very seriously about now. Lacazette doesn’t offer any goal threat, his lack of pace and mobility make him easy to defend against, and the lethargic nature of his performance was even more frustrating as he spent the Interlull at home (so to speak), so had no physical demands made upon him bar a training game against some Brentford kids. It is surely only the lack of an obvious upgrade that sees him keep his place, and it could well be time to think about Martinelli in that role.
The Brazilian came on for Tavares at the break, Xhaka moved to left back, and in terms of possession we were far better. There were chances too. Smith Rowe shot at the keeper then saw one brilliantly blocked; Odegaard fired wide when he should have hit the target; Nketiah hit the bar as we took off a full back to get as many attacking players on as possible; Saka forced the keeper into a save and maybe should have had a penalty; but as Partey signalled the injury and the need for him to come off, Palace broke forward. We let Zaha run with the ball, Gabriel should have made the foul higher up the pitch, and Odegaard hung a clumsy leg out and the Palace man went down. Penalty. 3-0. Game well and truly over, if it wasn’t already.
In truth, it was easy enough for Palace who won the game in the first half because they were more competitive than we were. We had some individuals who were well below par, but collectively we were a step late for most of that first 45 minutes. As we’ve often said, if you do that at this level, you are likely to get punished and that’s exactly what happened.
Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:
We were late to every ball, we were soft in the duels and we didn’t earn the right to play, and when we did a little bit we were sloppy on the ball. We didn’t have any dominance or sequences of play when we could take control of the game and we conceded two poor goals as well, so overall it’s unacceptable. We need to put our hands up, apologise, regroup, and tomorrow is a new day and a new opportunity to prepare for the game against Brighton.
If the one game at a time mantra applies to the ones we win, the reality is we have to do the same for the ones we don’t. As frustrating as last night was, and it really was, we have to immediately compartmentalise it and get ready for the next one.
This is not our first rodeo when it comes to performances like that this season. It reminded me a bit of the Everton game. This was worse overall, and how we contrived to lose against them that night still blows my mind despite how poor we were, but just in terms of the overall performance I think there are similarities. We then responded well to that defeat, winning the next five games in all competitions (4 PL, 1 EFL cup).
However, this isn’t just about dusting ourselves and getting everyone ready for Brighton. We’ve got a couple of pretty serious problems to deal with. Partey was poor last night, but has been a major player in the recent good form, while what we do at left back has to be a serious consideration. I don’t know if you can trust Tavares, and I know for sure that his presence is something the opposition would absolutely look to exploit based on his last two starts. He’s a young player, someone Arteta kept some faith with earlier in the season, but given how vital every game is now, the risk factor with him is high.
Of course you then have to offset that by shifting someone else to left-back. If Tomi is back maybe you can flip Cedric. Xhaka has done it but it’s far from ideal. At this point, your guess is as good as mine, and clearly the manager has a lot to think about over the coming days as he prepares for the next game. Injuries affect all teams, but they feel more impactful at this point of the season, and especially when your squad is already pretty thin in the first place. It was always going to be a risk, now we have to find a way to cope.
On Sky afterwards, Arteta called for a positive response, saying:
We have to know this is not good enough for this club and it’s an opportunity to see our unity and if you are on the boat. When everything goes well, everybody wants to be there, now jump on the boat and gives us a hand.
And look, sometimes you lose a game, sometimes you just don’t perform, but what Arteta has to ensure is that this is, as I said above, a bump in the road, a blip along the way, and nothing more. There’s scope for a bad performance and a bad result, there’s just no room for a poor period of form at this point of the season. Let the training ground postmortem begin.
Right, let’s leave it there for now. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra later on this morning 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.