Partey time is over
It had been a good few months for Thomas Partey. Ever since ratings his early Arsenal career a 4/10 the Ghanaian had taken on a whole new lease of life in a crucial role at the base of Mikel Arteta ‘s midfield. The self-chastising that was so prevelant as he tried to force things in those disastrous early December away trips trips Manchester United and Everton were gone as everything now seemed to be flowing.
Having got a run of months together without injury together following extra training sessions on specific muscle groups he appeared to be confident in his body again, while his personal life off the pitch seemed much more stable as London opened up from its COVID restrictions as football.london revealed . He had even scored the crucial goal to help Ghana secure a spot at World Cup in Qatar with a successful strike from outside the box! Could it get much better than that?!
Well on Monday night he found out that the answer was a resounding no. The problem with Partey being so excellent at the base of Arsenal’s midfield recently is that teams have worked out just how important he is to the way the Gunners attack. Liverpool tried to press him out of the game last month, but on that night he was too good. This time around though as Connor Gallagher pressed him mercilessly throughout his time on the pitch Partey could unfortunately not repeat the miraculous feat.
The Ghanaian gave the ball away nine times on the night, and could be seen visually frustrated with himself as the excellent form he had spent months cultivating seemed to suddenly desert him. An attrocious night was ended disastrously as he pulled up injured and was unable to chase back as Wilfried Zaha sped towards the Arsenal box and won the penalty which put any feint chance of a comeback well and truly out of sight.
Speaking after the game Arteta revealed that the prognosis for the injury did not look particularly positive. “I don’t know but he felt something in the same area that he got injured previously so that’s a big concern,” the Spaniard said.
The result on the night will of course sting but as Arteta trudged sullenly off the Selhurst Park pitch with his head bowed, the one thought racing through his mind would have been ‘how exactly do I replace Thomas Partey’? The Ghanaian has essentially been a one-man-midfield in the six role with every offensive build up funelling through his wand of a right foot and finding someone capable of replicating that is going to be tough.
Luckily for Arteta he may have just about found an answer during the closing stages Selhurst Park. Albert Sambi Lokonga views himself as more of an eight, but his coaches have always claimed that he is more of a six and at Arsenal it is no different. The Gunners plan for him to Partey’s replacement in the long run and with his cameo on Monday it’s easy to see why.
In just 19 minutes on the pitch the Belgian managed three progressive passes to Partey’s two as he brought a security in possession that had been lacking prior to his introduction. The question marks still remain over his defensive instincts. Lest we forget that in the reverse fixture at the Emirates in October it was Lokonga’s error in front of the back four that allowed Palace to take the lead. But with Partey potentially out for a few matches, Sambi has shown that he may just have what it takes to step up in his absence.
Arteta’s transfer risk backfires
From the moment the transfer window shut on January 31st it became abundently clear that Arsenal were taking an enourmous risk.
The Gunners failure to make a single signing while allowing six members of their first team group ( Pablo Mari, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Folarin Balogun, Sead Kolasinac, Calum Chambers and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ) to go, meant they had essentially gutted themselves of any depth. Just a couple of injuries and suddenly their squad would start to look very thin.
As Kieran Tierney and Nicolas Pepe were forced to miss out due to illness and injury on Monday night, the gamble that they had taken looked set to backfire. Mazeed Ogungbo and Marcelo Flores are two extremely exciting young talents who could well go on to have careers in the first team at the Emirates, but as Mikel Arteta saw his side put in a first half performance that was by his own reckoning “unacceptable” turning to the bench and seeing those fresh faces staring back at him would not have filled him with confidence that things could be turned around.
There are few positions where the lack of depth is more keenly felt than in the centre forward position. Alexandre Lacazette scored a hattrick against Brentford B in a behind closed doors friendly during the international break, but any chance that he might threaten to bring that form with him into the competitive arena was quickly quashed as he headed over Arsenal’s first cross of the game following a decent cross from Bukayo Saka.
The Frenchman’s record in front of goal is so poor this season that if his hold up play is not on point, as it most definitely wasn’t at Selhurst Park, then you begin to question his value on the pitch. The problem is though, as you look to change things when Lacazette is playing poorly, following Aubameyang’s departure there’s not much there in this Gunners group. Eddie Nketiah wasn’t as poor as he has been in recent cameos and nearly netted a miraculous consolation with his effort from distance that bounced off the woodwork, but the England under-21 international does not offer enough from the bench.
It’s a problem that is keenly felt across the Arsenal squad right now and with injuries to Partey and Tierney, it’s one that could only intensify over the next couple of weeks. When asked about this at full time Arteta was in no mood to talk about what he doesn’t have though, and instead wanted to focus on what he does.
“It’s what we have,” the Spaniard said of his squad’s depth. “We lost Kieran, we lost Thomas now and that’s it. With the players that we have we will try like we’ve been trying since the start of the season. We’ve never had a big squad. We can’t find any excuses and we have to look at ourselves and again myself, I repeat because it wasn’t good enough.”
While Arteta was happy to blame himself for the defeat to Palace, if Arsenal blow such an incredible opportunity to qualify for the Champions League then the verdict may not be so kind. Going into the crunch end of the season with such a thin squad was always going to be a risk, and as the injuries mount up for the Gunners, it’s one that could define their season.
Tavares’ torid time?
The last time Nuno Tavares started a game for Arsenal he was hooked off after just 35 minutes. This time he last 45, so that’s progress right?
Well, all jokes aside it didn’t appear like too much had changed in the Portugal under-21 international’s game in the four months bracketed by his two most recent Gunners starts. Back then against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round positional play was his downfall. Mikel Arteta could be seen yelling constantly “Nuno! Nuno” as the 22-year-old strolled nonchalantly out of position at the City Ground and it was the same again at Selhurst Park on Monday night.
Part of the reason Arsenal’s full backs have looked so impressive on the whole this season is the carefully cultivated balance Arteta has managed to find between them. In an ideal world the Gunners two wide defenders will operate like a see saw – when one goes forward to overlap and support the attack, the other stay back to drift infield and provide cover.
This worked beautifully when Takehiro Tomiyasu was in the side, as the Japanese international’s centre back instincts suited the system well. It’s for this reason that Tavares looked as impressive as he did when he covered for Kieran Tierney during an extended run in the team in October and November.
More recently the roles had been slightly flipped. With the more attack minded Cedric brought into the side due to Tomiyasu’s persistent calf problems, Tierney was now instructed to defend a little more. It is perhaps only now that we realise what a unicorn the Scottish full back is in that he is both as solid defensively as he is in the final third.
With both Cedric and Tavares in the same side, Arsenal’s full back system was put to the test. How exactly can a seesaw work, when both riding it want to be up in the air? Well on Monday night we got our answer…
In fairness to Cedric he was actually pretty good defensively. Wilfried Zaha – who has seemed to have an extra spring in his step in every clash against Arsenal since his move didn’t work out in the summer of 2019 – was kept relatively quiet on the night as Palace’s main attacking threat came largely down their right.
However, with the former Southampton man in the team the Arsenal attack has developed a right sided bias, and as the Gunners looked to funnel the ball forward to their danger men Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka, Tavares’ defensive instincts were called into question, and found constantly wanting. There was an instance were having committed to an attack down the right Cedric was out position when the ball fell to Tavares in the left inverted space. He had the option to play a simple pass but chose to let off a ridiculous long range effort that instantly saw Palace on the counter.
Arsenal got away with it that time, but for the second goal in particular they were not so lucky as Tavares dropped ridiculously deep and failed to anticipate the equally shakey Gabriel ‘s mistake. Having located the source of the bleed in his back line Arteta moved quickly to provide some stitches by bringing on Gabriel Martinelli at half time and switching Granit Xhaka back to the left of defence but by that point the wound was fatal.
Xhaka does deserve plenty of credit for how he handled the attacking threat of Palace, particularly when the game became more stretched as Arsenal were chasing in the second half, but we know all too well the limitations he has when played in that position. There was an instance around the hour mark where the Swiss midfielder received a poor pass from Gabriel that saw him forced to haul down Jordan Ayew.
After taking a booking for the incident Xhaka then turned to lambast his Brazilian teammate for exposing him with such a loose ball. It’s clear that the 29-year-old does not like playing so far away from the interior of the pitch and who can blame him. After all it’s not his position!
It may be one that he needs to get used to playing though as the early prognosis on Tierney’s injury is not good. “He’s seeing a specialist tomorrow and we will know more the extent of the injury,” Arteta said after the game of the Scot’s knee problem. “The feeling that he had wasn’t positive and what the scans showed either. But we have to wait and see what happens.”
While Arteta may have insisted that the hauling of Tavares was tactical it seems pretty evident that he has major trust issues when it comes to the Portuguese under-21 international. He will surely be praying now that Tomiyasu is back sooner rather than later so he can flip Cedric over to the left back role that he filled often to decent effect last season. If that doesn’t happen pretty soon then we may well be set for a repeat of the attempts to find alternative solutions at full back that plagued the business end of last campaign.
Panic stations as top four race takes a brutal swing
If you were going to panic as an Arsenal fan now is probably as good a time as any. The 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace does not only symbolise three lost points, but with Tottenham’s 5-1 win over Newcastle this weekend, there has now been a seven goal swing in the Champions League race, with Spurs now sitting in fourth.
It’s a pretty bleak weekend for the Gunners who went into the international break feeling in a mood more akin to spring sun that spread across London this weekend, rather than the drab drizzle we got on Monday. Those who are minded to cast their eyes towards the future will surely have noticed by now that the run in for Antonio Conte ‘s men contains a far kinder run of fixtures than it does for Arsenal. The North London Derby which has finally been rearranged for Thursday May 12th now looks as though it will be season defining and the pressure is beginning to mount.
After the game though Mikel Arteta was keen to insist that that is not going to be an issue for his young side. “The pressure has been there the last seven or eight weeks,” the Spaniard said. “We are talking all the time about the race for the top four and these have been putting in really good performances and getting really good results. Today we didn’t perform it’s as simple as that.”
“We have a game in hand still and we need to play,” he went on to add when asked about Spurs specifically. “We know in the nine games a lot of things will happen. We have to play each other, we have to play some big games coming up, we have to focus in ourselves. The problem we had today was not Spurs it was what we did in the first half.”
While anxiety levels may be building in the stands at the Emirates, it’s vital that that sense of trepidation does not trickle down onto the pitch. Arsenal must write this game off simply as a bad day at the office and From the players perspective it seems as though they are already willing to put this one behind them as Martin Odegaard revealed after the match.
“We have to make sure it’s not [damaging]” the Norwegian said. “It’s only one game so we have to make sure the next one we’re on the level we’re supposed to be at. One bad game can happen but we have to make sure it’s only one and strike back and that starts tomorrow at the training ground. We have to look forward.
“We’re all disappointed, obviously,” he added. “It was a hard one for us to take. We’ve played really, really good lately and had so many good games. This one was hard for us. We’re going to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I think it’s up to everybody to stick together. It’s easy to stick together when we’re winning and doing well, so we’ll stick together and fight to win the next game.”
Next up is Brighton who, as the team with one of the worst runs of form in the Premier League right now, feel like the perfect fixture to get up and running in again. Monday night was a bad one for Arsenal, but if they want to be playing Champions League football next season, it’s essential they don’t let it become anything more than that.