As the season enters its final throws momentum is a very important thing. Arsenal had it, but since the international break the positivity they had worked so hard to cultivate has been mercilessly shattered. The worst part about it all though is probably the timing.
While the Gunners have hit probably their biggest hurdle since the opening three games of the season, Tottenham appear to have found their best form of the campaign. There has now been a 13-goal swing in goal-difference between the two sides in the space of just two matches.
Aside from just being geographical enemies, what makes this race for the final Champions League qualification spot so interesting is just how different the two sides are. Arsenal are very much a team made up of the sum of their parts, while Spurs are more based on the talent of individuals.
Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the final third. Mikel Arteta’s side had an xG of 2.35 on Saturday and scored just once. By way of comparison Tottenham’s expected goals in their 4-0 win over Aston Villa was just 0.98 (as per understat).
Across these two games, where the pendulum for the favourites tag in the top four race has swung so suddenly, the clinical edge that Antonio Conte’s side have been able to show in front of goal has made all the difference. Spurs arguably could have lost their trip to Villa Park on another day but were able to win courtesy of clinical finishing by Heung-Min Son and Dejan Kulusevski, showing Arsenal in the process the value of a deadly front line.
With the season now entering it’s home stretch, Arteta again insisted that his focus would be solely on what his team are doing rather than the actions of their rivals. “What happens is we criticise ourselves a lot again,” the Spaniard said when asked what was next for Arsenal in his post-match press conference.
“Get slapped again because we deserve it a lot and we were really poor in the first half and then lift ourselves up. We know this road is taking ourselves nowhere, especially with where we want to be. We have everything to play for in the last eight games and we have to have that energy and visualise the beautiful challenge that we have ahead and not sit back and see what happens.”
However, with the pressure ramping up and an increasingly tense atmosphere at the Emirates showing just how important each point is, Spurs have sent a message to the Arsenal across the past two games. This promises to be a tight race where the extra edge up top could well make the difference.
Xhaka at left-back experiment fails
Albert Einstein famously said “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Last season Arsenal found themselves without Kieran Tierney due to a knee injury for key matches towards the close of the season. This season they find themselves without Kieran Tierney due to a knee injury for key matches towards the close of the season. Last season they turned to Granit Xhaka to solve those problems. It did not work. This season… you get the picture.
When the news was broken by football.london before kick-off that Nuno Tavares had been left out of the starting line-up it did come as a bit of a shock. After subbing him off at half-time during Monday night’s 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, Mikel Arteta had seemingly used his pre-match press conference to challenge Tavares to bounce back stronger. “That was a decision that hurt him, obviously, but he understands that it was for the benefit of the team and he respects that,” the Spaniard said. “Now he needs to react to that situation because he has a great opportunity to learn a lot in that period of his career.”
Instead though it was Xhaka who was opted for again on the left side of defence. In fairness to Mikel Arteta, things aren’t exactly the same as last year when the Swiss international was shoehorned into that position. Back then Arsenal had a clear left-sided bias to their attack, with ‘Tierney and hope-ball’ becoming a running joke among the fanbase because of how reliant they were on the Scottish international’s delivery. This season, 39% of their attacks have come down their right where Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard have struck up a formidable partnership, supported by the attacking runs of Cedric as opposed to just 36% down their left.
This has meant that Tierney has been tasked with playing the more withdrawn, inverted full-back role in recent months, which Tavares simply can’t replicate. The Portuguese international is neither defensively alert enough nor technically accomplished enough to play the position, and given that Xhaka is more proficient in those skillsets, the logic of putting him at left-back is understandable.
After the game Arteta more or less confirmed this by saying he felt more comfortable having the Swiss international in those interior positions where Tavares had struggled so much at Selhurst Park. “We thought that space was going to be there for Granit to use, which it was, but we didn’t use it,” he said.
On paper it looked good but in practice it sadly didn’t work. The Swiss international was caught way out of position for the first goal that Brighton scored and as Arsenal struggled to break their visitors down, it was hard to escape the feeling that the chaos factor that Tavares brings to the left hand side would have been a welcome addition to proceedings. With this in mind, you wonder if more could have been done to accommodate the former Benfica man’s reintroduction into the team by perhaps shifting around the midfield, although we’ll get on to that a bit more later.
The question now with Tavares is whether there’s any coming back for him after this. You would think that when Takehiro Tomiyasu returns to fitness, the defensive solidity he provides could offer more of a platform for Tavares’ return, but by that point the damage to his confidence may already be terminal.
His teammates certainly seem keen to rally around him. When celebrating his goal that was eventually controversially ruled out by VAR, Gabriel Martinelli raced over to the touchline to hug club doctor Gary O’Driscoll and then immediately embraced the Portuguese defender. But having already dealt Tavares the sucker punches of being substituted before the second half in consecutive starts, Arteta may well have provided the knockout blow to the young Portuguese defender’s Gunners career by opting for Xhaka ahead of him.
After such a disappointing 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace on Monday what most Arsenal fans were hoping for was to see their team return to winning ways as they turned up to the Emirates for a rare three o’clock kick off. What they got instead was the return of the dreaded horseshoe of death!
As the Gunners faced up against Brighton’s low block they appeared to begin an ill-timed game of the penalty box is lava. Of the 43 passes they played in the final third on the day, just one went into Robert Sanchez’s penalty area. While the stats will show that Arsenal won the game on expected goals by 2.35 to 0.6, heading into the final 10 minutes of the game, their xG was only 0.34 higher than Graham Potter’s side (as per understat). Up until that point the Seagulls were largely untroubled in open play and ultimately only conceded Martin Odegaard’s strike courtesy of a massive deflection off Danny Welbeck.
This would suggest a lack of incision in midfield and if you’re looking for explaining factors behind this, it’s difficult to look too much further than Thomas Partey. Albert Sambi Lokonga came under a fair bit of scrutiny after the game on social media for his display at the base of the midfield in the role the Ghanaian has played recently. The Belgian failed to make a single progressive pass, and his more timid approach in possession arguably contributed to the below-par performance of the first half that Mikel Arteta was keen to call out in his post-match press conference.
“For me it was a problem of the approach and the courage that we showed to play,” the Spaniard said. “We didn’t have the purpose, I know them and we didn’t have that intention to attack and step in and provoke the situation that we want to provoke and we were looking at each other too many times instead of taking ownership and doing what we have to do. You cannot play like that. You have to make yourself count and step in and we didn’t do that today.”
In fairness to Lokonga though, Partey’s is a tough act to follow. There arguably isn’t a team in the league who wouldn’t struggle having lost the Ghanaian at the minute. If you compare him to the two other best ‘sixes’ in the league he asked to pull off Houdini-like manouevres to escape the opposition press far more often than Fabinho is by Liverpool, and has comfortably more defensive responsibility than Rodri at Manchester City.
Without him Arsenal are obviously a worse side, and it does not seem as though Lokonga, at just 22-years-of-age, is ready to assume that much responsibility. This leaves you wondering if more could been done to offset the Belgian’s limitations in the middle of the park.
Sambi has played a decent amount of football already this season, but for the most part it has come in a double pivot. When Granit Xhaka was out injured earlier in the campaign, the former Anderlecht man came in to replace him at the base of the midfield alongside Partey and impressed there. Now that his return to the side was necessitated by the Ghanaian’s thigh problem surely it made sense to restore him to the side as part of a partnership rather than on his own?
Instead though Xhaka was out playing left-back, due to Mikel Arteta’s inability to trust Tavares as we’ve already established. Lokonga’s underwhelming display shows yet another reason why this didn’t work, as without the Swiss international in the interior role, Arsenal’s passing was way below some of the tempo we’ve seen during the impressive run of recent months.
When asked about switching to his preferred 4-3-3 all the way back in December 2020, Arteta stated that to pull it off his team required a lot of “specificity” in every position. With Partey and Tierney no longer available for the foreseeable future, he simply no longer has it.
It’s of course admirable that the Spaniard wants to stick to his principles and avoid taking a backward step by defaulting to the 4-2-3-1 of the past, but by his own admission that’s now impossible. With Champions League qualification at stake for the first time in half a decade, the hope has to be that he will be more pragmatic in the remaining games of the season.
Another game, another blank for Alexandre Lacazette, whose goalless streak from open play passed the 20-hour mark as Arsenal lost to Brighton. As was the case on Monday night, the Frenchman was non-existent despite the fact that the Gunners were chasing the game.
Those who defend Lacazette will point to the facilitative role he plays for the rest of the team despite not offering much in front of goal. “Laca’s contribution to the team in many other ways has been phenomenal,” said Mikel Arteta in the build up to this game. No player in the Premier League has more assists since he took over the captaincy on December 12th, and the impressive form of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli is in no small part down to that.
However, in recent matches it does seem as though teams have rather worked him out. Against Crystal Palace, Patrick Vieira revealed that he had instructed his centre-backs to target Lacazette to ensure that he was not given any time in between the lines. The Palace boss clearly is not the only manager to have pursued this tactic, and without space to breathe on the ball, Arsenal’s No.9 has effectively been nullified as a linking force.
On Saturday he managed just eight passes in the entire 100 or so minutes that he was on the pitch, a paltry return for someone whose function in the side seems to be to assist others at the minute. So if he’s not linking play for the rest of his teammates, what exactly is he bringing to the side?
Well it certainly isn’t goals as we already established. This would surely feel like the right time to drop him, but Arteta seems determined not to scratch that itch. “That’s a collective issue,” said the Spaniard when asked after the game whether he was worried about the lack of goals for Lacazette.
Perhaps the lack of alternatives is the reason he is persisting with the Frenchman. In this 4-3-3 system that Arsenal are playing, Xhaka’s move to left-back means Emile Smith Rowe has to slot into the left sided eight role, and the England international’s switch there means Gabriel Martinelli has to be played out on the left, effectively taking the two most viable options for changing things out of the equation. Nicolas Pepe could of course be started on the left wing and Martinelli moved up top, but again Arteta seems unwilling to try this.
The other orthodox No.9 at the club is Eddie Nketiah, whose record in front of goal in the Premier League is even worse than Lacazette’s. In fairness to the England under-21 international, while he missed his two big chances after coming on as a sub on Saturday, he did at least manage to muster more of a threat than the Arsenal striker who has managed just four shots on target since Christmas.
Big games are coming up against Chelsea and Manchester United, and you feel at that point the attacking plans do need to be more or less set in stone. Prior to that though there is a match against Southampton who let in six to Chelsea while the Gunners were toiling away against Brighton. Ralph Hassenhuttl’s side would therefore feel like the perfect guinea pigs for any tweaks to the centre-forward position that Arteta wants to make. The alternatives may not be convincing, but Lacazette’s ineffectiveness surely can’t be allowed to continue unchecked.