Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Newcastle 2-0 Arsenal: Sub-par Gunners fall at the final hurdle

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Whether or not you thought 5th would be a good finish for Arsenal at the start of the season, it’s impossible not to be profoundly disappointed this morning that we have more or less secured that given the context of last night’s game.

We needed to win to go back into the top four but in truth this never looked like the kind of performance that would generate three points. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. A young-ish team overawed by the occasion? A side impacted too heavily by injuries and absences? A team that lacked the right guidance from the sidelines? Maybe all of the above.

“It’s extremely disappointing that Newcastle were 10 times better than us and fully deserved the match,” said an almost shell-shocked Mikel Arteta on Sky afterwards.

“The performance was nowhere near the level we had to play if you want to play in the Champions League. We had nothing in the game.”

The idea that it was because we had young players was dismissed by Granit Xhaka, who said:

If someone isn’t ready for this game, stay at home. It doesn’t matter the age, you can be 30, you can be 35, you can be 10, you can be 18. If you’re not ready or you’re nervous, stay on the bench, stay at home, don’t come here. We need people to have balls, sorry to say that, to come here and play. We knew this game was maybe the most important for us but with a performance like this, its not acceptable.

I’ve seen a lot of chat about these comments, and they sound harsh, but I don’t think he was exempting himself. How could he? He and Elneny were the experienced hub of the team and we got the most passive versions of themselves from start to finish. It’s really hard to understand why it was so poor but Newcastle were well up for it – surely not something we were surprised by given it was their final game of the season and they’d all been given a lovely shiny flag to wave around – but we just couldn’t cope. Didn’t cope. Didn’t have the composure.

At the back it seemed clear Ben White wasn’t 100% fit, Gabriel defended manfully but he looked a little off the pace too, and we lost Takehiro Tomiyasu to a hamstring strain in the first half which led to the introduction of Cedric – the equivalent of taking off one of your shoes and putting on a slipper filled with broken glass.

Further forward getting the ball was a struggle and making progress with it when we did nigh on impossible. Martin Odegaard was barely in the game, but he received just 2 passes from Mohamed Elneny all night and only 4 from Xhaka. I can’t say Thomas Partey would have been the difference maker on all levels, but he was a big miss last night. Smith Rowe looked a shell of himself, Saka and Nketiah had some moments, but from back to front we looked individually and collectively well below par.

The fact it was 0-0 at half-time gave me some vague hope. A rocket in the dressing room at the break, a better second half, nick a goal and see what happens. When I write that down, it doesn’t sound good as the way to win a game like this, although you’d take it any way it came. Their first goal, a lot has been said about the foul throw (I don’t really think it was, or at least no different to the myriad foul throws you see in every Premier League game these days), but the subsequent defending was poor. Cedric is pulled out position, Ben White should probably go across but I suspect he was managing his hamstring throughout this game and that impacted his decision making there, and his desperate lunge saw him stud the low cross beyond Aaron Ramsdale.

Newcastle’s use of a concussion sub gave us a chance to make three second half changes as we pushed for goals. Gabriel Martinelli came on but taking Nuno off meant he was often too deep on the left hand side and I don’t think we deployed him as well as we should; Alexandre Lacazette touched the ball just 9 times in over 35 minutes on the pitch; while Nicolas Pepe’s cameo verged on risible. I know he’s barely played this season, but I still think we should get better than that.

As for their second, the defending is tired, Cedric plays Wilson onside for the chance which fell to Guimares to seal the game for Newcastle, another frustrating goal to concede when there was going to be a lot of additional time. If we’d nicked one, who knows? But you have to do that hard part first and let’s be honest, we could be still out there with the Newcastle players tucked up in their beds and we wouldn’t look like scoring.

Ultimately, I think this – scoring goals and having genuine presence up front – is the key issue for this team. Of course the recent injuries to Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney hurt, Tomiyasu’s long absence was harmful too, and it doesn’t help when key players are nursing muscle strains to get through games, but goals are the sauce you need and we just don’t have enough threat in that regard.

When you look at our ‘main’ players in that regard, and what they’ve contributed since January 1st the stats are stark:

Gabriel Martinelli: 1 goal in 19 (and it’s 1 his last 21 appearances).

Emile Smith Rowe: 2 goals in his last 18 appearances in 2022.

Alexandre Lacazette: 1 penalty in 18 appearances, no goals from open play.

Bukayo Saka: 6 goals in 20 appearances.

Eddie Nketiah: 4 goals in 20 appearances, he didn’t score in 18 of those 20.

If you want to add Martin Odegaard to that list, although I’d consider him less a forward than the others, it’s 3 goals in 22 appearances. On that basis, it’s kind of incredible that we were even in the hunt for a top four place.

And with that the spotlight turns back to January and the failure to add to the squad after the departure of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. I don’t feel much like going over that decision again, it’s been done to death at this point and the water is very much under the bridge at this stage, but choosing not to bring anyone in was always going to be a risk and I think we’re now seeing it is one that backfired.

The pursuit of Dusan Vlahovic, whether you consider it realistic or not, was acknowledgement of our need. I absolutely get the mindset of not spending big on a player that we’re not 100% on, we’ve done that too many times in the past, but there had to be someone out there we could have brought in loan who could have given us something. For whatever reason, January was about slimming down and in truth I don’t think we’ve really missed anyone who left (perhaps AMN for his versatility) … but we absolutely missed the gap Aubameyang left (and, in my opinion, Aubameyang himself but your mileage may vary on that one).

I’m sure that Arteta, Edu, the board, and the owners, knew that January was a gamble, so they have to have been prepared to take the consequences of that, and as it stands, it looks as if it’s Europa League, not Champions League next season. There is, of course, the very outside chance of a miracle on the final day, football has ways of surprising you, but the odds are extremely long.

I’m anxious not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when trying to analyse this, because I do see things that I like, I see a team and players I can get behind, but this morning it’s hard to look beyond last night as a huge opportunity missed. Some will see it as failure, and I understand that. When the stakes are that high and you put in that kind of performance, whatever the mitigating circumstances, sympathy will be in short supply. It was the kind of display which raises questions and scratches old wounds, no doubt about it. This wasn’t a heroic effort which just fell short, it was a horrific one which saw us fall flat on our faces.

I think we’ve done well to get ourselves into this position, but when the pressure was on, we didn’t have what it takes. Not just in terms of character, but quality/depth within the squad, and that’s where the focus should fall on Mikel Arteta, and Edu in his role as Technical Director.

For some this will be the best chance to qualify for the Champions League in years, and I think that’s fair. However, I don’t see why it has to be seen as the only chance. We can improve this team and this squad in the summer, the Thursday/Sunday grind is not markedly different from the Weds/Saturday one if we had CL football, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that some of these young players will learn a lot from this season.

The nuts and bolts analysis can wait for another day, I think. We still have one game left, and there’s a whole summer ahead for introspection. For now, I can only stew in the disappointment and frustration of last night. I said above football has ways of surprising you, but also ways to punch you right in the guts and that’s what this morning feels like. It hurts because it mattered so much, and right now the salve of the fact it mattered this late in the season isn’t helping too much.

Right, that’s it for now. James and I will be recording an extra Arsecast Extra a bit later on. 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 before lunchtime. Until then, take it easy.