Arsenal off the pace
It seems an awful long time ago now that Arsenal were trudging off the pitch after their 2-1 defeat against Manchester City to the sound of a standing ovation from the Emirates crowd.
If there was one word that probably summed up that performance it was urgency.
Everything was quick, focused and precise as the Gunners didn’t give their opponents an inch in what was arguably their best display since Mikel Artetatook over against probably the best team in world football right now.
Just nine days later at the City Ground, it was almost the exact opposite.
From the very start of the Third Round tie against Nottingham Forest Arsenal looked off pace, setting a tempo that was far below that of their hosts.
Perhaps the most common hand signal on the pitch was Gunners players winding their hands encouraging their teammates to up the tempo with Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka all calling for an increased zip to the display.
Perhaps it was the differing personnel on the pitch – Arteta made seven changes from the defeat to City – perhaps it was the rustiness of those selected or perhaps it was arrogance due to the calibre of opposition, but Arsenal just looked tepid throughout, and at no stage did that change.
After the game Arteta somewhat mixed messages by saying his team lacked the urgency needed to progress to the fourth round while simultaneously claiming that this wasn’t due to a lack of desire.
“Really disappointed with the performance first of all,” the Spaniard said. “Not with the attitude. How much purpose we have and what determination we showed to change the game when it’s difficult to play against.
“But more drive, more hunger to win at any cost in every single action. Much more, we were not at our level today”
That is probably an understatement, but as Arsenal prepare for what will be a much more difficult test at Anfield on Thursday night, they will be aware that they simply cannot be so lacking in concentration again.
Having not even been able to make squads for Premier League matches, Eddie Nketiah has quickly become an important players in this Arsenal squad.
The England under-21 international seems destined to leave the Emirates sooner or later given his refusal to sign a contract, but with Flo Balogunheading out on loan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyangseemingly in exile and Gabriel Martinelli showing his best form on the left Nketiah’s job is now to ensure the pressure is on Alexandre Lacazette.
If that is indeed his role in the squad, it’s safe to say on Sunday that he failed to fulfil it.
The 22-year-old was found distinctly lacking when it comes to the deeper link up play that Lacazette has excelled at in recent weeks, while his pressing was non-existent for much of the match.
Perhaps that could be put down to tactics, but the England under-21 striker looked comfortable in his position of back up, rather than someone who genuinely believed he could make a dent on the first team.
Above all though what was lacking from Nketiah’s game was clinical edge.
What he lacks in other areas the Hale Ender is expected to make up for with his deadliness in the box, but having been presented both of Arsenal’s big opportunities in the game, he ultimately couldn’t take them.
There was the header from inside the six yard box after Bukayo Saka’s well placed cross, then there was the effort blast over the bar from a self-fashioned chance in the box that lent credence to those who believe he is incapable of making it as an elite level player at the Emirates.
Rumours of an impending arrival of Fiorentina’s Dusan Vlahovic were not outright dismissed by Mikel Arteta in his pre-match press conference, and Nketiah’s performance will have done little to suggest that the Serbian’s signature will not be necessary.
As the Gunners prepare to enter the back half of their top four challenge it currently looks as though they’re going to do so with Lacazette and Nketiah as their main striking options.
If we’re looking realistically at whether that will be enough for them to achieve the Champions League football that is most definitely on offer this season, then the answer based on this game is probably not.
Midfield crises deepens
As much as it may seem like centre forward is the priority position this January transfer window it is nothing compared to their struggles in central midfield.
When they decided to let Ainsley Maitland-Nilesjoin Roma on loan for the rest of the season, they knew they were taking a gamble by having Granit Xhaka and Albert Sambi Lokonga as their only two senior options in the middle of the park.
Perhaps the only thing the Gunners couldn’t afford to happen for that plan to work was to lose Xhaka for a prolonged period of time. So when it was confirmed that the Swiss midfielder had tested positive for COVID-19 the reality of Arsenal’s paucity of options in midfield became painfully clear.
Charlie Patino was thrown into the starting line up, and although he might of known this was coming for a while given that Xhaka hadn’t been pictured in training since Thursday, the Hale Ender didn’t quite look ready.
He made some nice tackles and was relatively tidy in possession, but tasked with the role of progressing the ball and being the link from defence to attack on the left hand side he struggled.
So with this in mind does Arteta regret letting Maitland-Niles – who undoubtedly would have played on Sunday and probably in midweek against Liverpool too – leave till the end of the season? He claims not.
“No, that decision was made for many different reasons,” the Spaniard told football.london . “First of all because the player was willing to do that.”
Regardless of what’s happened though the reality is that unless Arsenal bring someone in during the January window, there is a distinct chance that they will be forced to go to Anfield and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium with a midfield duo of Lokonga and Patino once again.
The two are undoubtedly talented players, but asking them to cope with such a difficult task in such a difficult set of circumstances is probably too much.
So does this mean Arsenal will look to make additions before then? Well Arteta was slightly more amenable to this idea.
“I want to get the best out of the players that we have,” the Spaniard began but what he added next seemed to be sending a message to Edu and the Gunners board.
“I think it’s clear where we need to strengthen,” he continued.
Bruno Guimaraes of Lyon has been linked, while the idea of Gini Wijnaldum coming in on loan from PSG has been mooted, but neither currently seem close.
After Arteta’s public plea, there’s a chance that could change.
Tavares’ terrible time
There were several poor displays for Arsenal on Sunday, but there was one that was the pick of the bunch.
That honour goes to Nuno Tavares, who lasted just 34 minutes before being hooked off after a torrid afternoon.
The Portuguese under-21 international was perhaps unfortunate in the sense that he was on the touchline close to Mikel Arteta who could see under the microscope each and every mistake and grew more and more seething as the game went on.
Tavares’ role on the day was a crucial one and Arsenal needed him to be on point.
With the midfield lacking in its usual control of possession, ball progression from back to front was going to have to come from incisive possession in the wide areas.
However, the 21-year-old failed to deliver giving the ball away nine times in his brief time on the pitch.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this was his smashed right footed back pass to Bernd Leno that luckily only gave away a corner.
The former Benfica man has looked lacking in concentration in moments during games before but never has it been seen across a whole performance like it was across Sunday’s match.
As he began to panic Tavares’ decisions became more and more erratic. There was an instance after around 20 minutes, where he had time in the box to calmly keep possession, but instead blindly hoofed it clear prompting Charlie Patino to throw his arms out in a mixture of confusion and frustration.
Eventually enough was enough and Portuguese was hooked, throwing his gloves to the ground and ignoring handshakes from coaching staff as he moodily trudged back to the dugout.
After the game Arteta seemed to suggest that this was not something he would hold on by stating that it was purely a decision based on the requirements of the game.
“I understand that,” he said when asked if he had considered the story it would create, “but I have to make the decision to try to improve the performance of the team when it’s not going in any other direction.”
Some will say there were better ways to deal with Tavares and they may be right, but it’s ultimately a fruitless debate to engage in as the decision has now been made. Ensuring the issue becomes nothing more than the storm in the teacup it currently is, will be crucial to making certain that more problems don’t rain down on an Arsenal side that is already dealing with it’s fair share.