There has been so much that was good about Arsenal this season, in terms of how we played, game management, spirit and character, and all the rest. None of that was evident in yesterday’s 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest.
The team was strange. Beforehand, Mikel Arteta spoke about how some players hadn’t been able to train much this week, and perhaps that influenced his selection. It’s also possible that last week’s 3-0 defeat to Brighton demanded something different from him because of how poor we were that day, and different is what we got.
When the line-up dropped an hour before kick-off, I assumed it was Granit Xhaka at left-back which, although not ideal, sort of made sense if you ask him to replicate some of what Zinchenko does. Instead it was Thomas Partey at right-back, Ben White back to centre-half, and Jakub Kiwior outside Gabriel at left-back. Then Partey shifted in-field, inverting the system we’ve used a lot this season, but in a completely ineffective way.
I saw a fair bit of ‘Let’s try Partey at right-back’ stuff when we were considering how to cope with the absence of William Saliba, but suffice to say it’s not something I’d be keen to see again. Even the back four, as hotch-potch as it was, wasn’t necessarily bad defensively, it just made us narrow and imbalanced. Everything we did came down the right hand side, but Partey wouldn’t or couldn’t overlap, in part due to the way Forest set-up, and we horseshoed our away to dominant possession stats with nothing to show for it.
Forest’s goal came from a mistake by Martin Odegaard who gave the ball away in midfield. They took it forward, a slightly overhit pass came to Taiwo Awoniyi who ‘scored’ the luckiest goal of his career when Gabriel’s sliding tackle saw the ball bounce back off the striker’s shin and beyond Aaron Ramsdale. Careless, unfortunate, whatever. There was, much like in the Brighton game last week, plenty of time to react. Again, we didn’t.
We finished the game with 82% possession, and just three shots on target. If you can’t remember Kaylor Navas having to make a good save, it’s because he didn’t have to. We were sterile, passive, almost lethargic. Passes that would normally be played into the path of a teammate dribbled behind them so we’d have to check, take a touch, and then go, allowing Forest to stay organised in their five at the back formation which denied us any space.
We’ve seen this season that this is a team with craft and invention, with sharp movement that can undo defences like that, but not yesterday. The manager tried to change it with subs. Kieran Tierney and Eddie Nketiah came on and did very little, at least the former put in a couple of crosses. Fabio Vieira was next, he did even less. On yesterday’s blog I tried to find a positive spin for Vieira and Emile Smith Rowe as Arteta talked about players we need to get more out of. The fact that our number 10 didn’t get on the pitch at all in a performance like this makes me fear the worst for his future. Not even a Hail Mary ten minutes at the end. It looks bad for him.
Maybe we could have had a penalty when Gabriel Jesus was hauled back and ended up being booked for being fouled (I think it might have started outside the box though), but as much as that might have sparked something in us, we can have no excuses for that kind of performance. I know what people say about having nothing to play for, and I am sure the disappointment of recent weeks has been acute, but it was a limp way to hand the title to City once and for all. I wanted us to make them work for it, and I get it’s not the biggest issue because of how likely they were to go win it anyway, but I found it annoying. I’ll get over it, but you can only feel how you feel, and that game yesterday irked me.
Afterwards, the manager said:
It’s a really sad day and there are a lot of difficult emotions. Obviously because we lost the game and we lost the championship after 10 and a half months fighting for it. I know that we have built an illusion, enthusiasm and belief that we could go all the way and win it, and we fell short. So congratulations to Manchester City, they’re the champions and they deserve to be the champions. They’ve done it for 38 games and we haven’t been able to do that. That’s it, and from my side I apologise because we have generated belief that we could do it, and at the end the team wasn’t able to do it, and that is my responsibility.
There was an interesting snippet too where he said:
When you come to April and May, you need 24 players that are available, fit and playing at their best, full of confidence and ready to go. For many reasons, we haven’t had that. Then there are key moments in the league that define whether the moment goes there or there, and we didn’t have those margins going on our side. I think that’s the reason that we lost it.
There were shades of last season when you looked at the bench. This time last year players like Zak Swanson, Alex Kirk, Salah-Eddine Oulad M’Hand, Omari Hutchinson, and others made up the numbers on our bench. We fell short of a top four finish because of a lack of depth. Yesterday, it was Reuell Walters, Mauro Bandeira, and Armario Cozier-Duberry. Players who I hope can develop and make the breakthrough, but who aren’t ready yet. When you add an Emile Smith Rowe who is deemed unusable by the manager, that’s 50% of your bench, and you just can’t have that.
If there’s a lesson from how this campaign has petered out, it’s that we need depth, depth and more depth. It was what cost us last season, it cost us this time around too, and there’s a ‘fool me once’ element to how we need to approach this. I know it’s easier said than done, but the solution isn’t advanced calculus. We don’t need Good Will Hunting to solve the complicated equation on Edu’s squad building chalkboard. You know, I know it, and the manager knows it too.
Naturally enough, there will be analysis and debate about how Arteta has managed during this difficult part of the season. If there’s rightly been plenty of praise for what went right, criticism of what went wrong goes with the territory. What I would say is that I think he has demonstrated the capacity to learn from it, and put in place solutions.
I’ve seen a lot of discussion of his team management this season, and you can boil it down to this: He took an ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach when we were winning, and you can understand that. It’s just that when it got broke, he couldn’t fix it, or didn’t have the resources to fix it, at just the wrong time. I also think there were games where we could have performed better even with some of the issues we’ve had, and that’s something he’ll have to reckon with. He takes the responsibility – his press conference is littered with him saying exactly that so he’s not hiding from it, but when our momentum was halted we never really got going again.
The reality is, unless you finish top of the table, there are always going to be recriminations and things you can do better. That applies to every team beneath Man City this morning. If you’re second and came close, you have to find the margins which improve you further. If you missed out on top four, on Europe altogether, finished mid-table, or even ended up in the bottom three, your challenge is to identify the weaknesses, address them to the best of your ability, and make progress next time out.
We have one game to go. I’ll be there next weekend to give this team its flowers, because they have entertained and excited us for most of this season, and they deserve the plaudits and the love which will be a part of that process of improvement. Maintaining that connection, it’s a two-way street – and a powerful one as we’ve seen often since August – but the lessons for Arteta, Edu et al are stark ones this morning. That’s how it goes at this level, and it’s their job to learn from them.
I think they can.
Have a great Sunday. Back tomorrow with an Arsecast Extra.