Arsenal’s return to football was always destined to be a tough game. No one knows how the fitness of the team is, the technical play is rusty, and the game in hand happened to be against Manchester City – away. For a ninth place Arsenal squad, losing an away game against Manchester City would not have been shameful, but the diabolical fashion in which it actually occurred is certainly enough to make fans fume.
Almost 24 hours after Arteta made a sincere call for action by identifying the growing gap between Arsenal and teams at the top, and speaking matter-of-factly when he said it would continue to grow if Arsenal did nothing this summer – that gap was on clear display.
Arsenal were thoroughly beaten, seeing only 33% of the ball with 0 shots on target. Even at the end of the first half when the game was still 11v11, Arsenal only saw 35% of the possession, managing to create two shots.
There is much of the game that is tough to comment on. When Xhaka got hurt in the 5th minute and was replaced by Dani Ceballos, a major portion of Arteta’s gameplan left with it. Then to have Pablo Mari pull up with a hamstring injury in the 20th minutes, and also need replacing by David the Luiz, everything had changed.
It was a young, bold lineup selection for Arteta and one that was likely going to take full advantage of the 5 substitutions at his disposal to change things up, but Arteta had that taken away from him when two of his available subs were used and it meant he would need to use his remaining 3 subs at halftime or all at once, as per the new “five subs on 3 occasions plus halftime” rule.
So, what went wrong? …besides everything.
There is no doubt that Luiz’s face was plastered across the headlines last night and will continue to be today. In the pregame, there was suggestion that Luiz was unhappy to not have been selected for the starting lineup, but Arteta would be forced to call him into action when Pablo Mari went out with injury.
From there, Luiz made two major mistakes that will essentially be pointed to and blamed for Arsenal’s loss. He did manage to offer a long ball option that was needed given the lack of space our midfield had, but with an error leading to goal and a penalty in the box that saw him receive his marching orders while putting City up 2-0 with an extra man – he made himself the villain of the night.
For the first error leading to goal, De Bruyne played a pass that seemed to have skipped off the rain-soaked turf awkwardly, but hardly an excuse for a defender not to get his body behind. It is exactly the type of mistake that people talk about when they criticize Luiz for being prone to mental mistakes. It came in added time of the first half right as Arsenal were about to go into the half tied, which would have been a decent accomplishment.
To follow that mistake up with a second, 5 minutes into the second half, would seal his and Arsenal’s fate. A long ball from City’s keeper Ederson was nodded into the path of Mahrez who chested it past Luiz and into space. In an attempt to get back on the right side of the attacker, Luiz clumsily pulled him down the box. It’s the type of mistake, Arsenal cannot afford from their veteran leaders, and yet both are mistakes Arsenal are all to familiar with from the center backs.
To Luiz’s credit, after the game he came out, by his own choice, to speak to the media and openly declare the evening’s result was his own fault. Not Arteta’s, not the younger players, his. Obviously.
Interestingly, he claimed his own indecision surrounding his contract and future not being settled during the suspension break as a mahor factor in the evening’s result. Not entirely sure what to make of that self-defense, but it did combine with Arteta stating that the evening had not changed his opinion on Luiz and what Arsenal should do about him. Luiz’s contract will expire before his next opportunity to play, given he will be suspended at for the Brighton match at least. After being told by his agent Kia Joorabchian to wait before accepting anything, it’s not decision time for Arsenal.
A young midfield overrun
The lineup was young. It was very bold from Arteta and seemed to put an emphasis on workrate.
Leno, Bellerin, Mustafi, Mari, Tierney, Guendouzi, Xhaka, Aubameyang, Willock, Saka, Nketiah.
When Xhaka went down, Arteta was forced to put on Ceballos, I imagine, in a very unplanned position. To put him in the double pivot with Guendouzi is something that removed a lot of the stability in the center and Arsenal struggled to get the ball into anyone’s feet under the press of City. Even in moments where City weren’t aggressively pressing, but sitting in to conserve energy, the movement from anyone to show themselves and receive the ball was non-existent.
It was at this point that having more experience in the side would have paid off. It was clear their movement off the ball to free themselves was not good enough and Arsenal were left to settle for long balls from the back to skip the lines and attack down the wings. Arsenal were always likely to use the wingers for their attacking, given the attacking talent they have in their wings, but for an Arteta team that wants to get on the ball, they struggled to build much of anything.
At the half, we saw only 61 combined touches from the front four – 14 (Saka) 13(Willock) 13(Auba) 21(Nketiah) – and a Joe Willock that was relatively invisible. When he was on the ball, he seemed rushed or his technical ability failed him as he left multiple passes short or sprayed crosses long causing players to alter their movement to get on the end of it. With only 16 accurate passes (5 in the oppositions half) and 0 chances created, it was a tough evening for the promising youngster that looks to get on the ball, be dynamic with it, and run at defenders.
He certainly was not alone in his struggles, but the level of play seemed above his head which is a worrying sign for Arsenal fans set on him being ready to take over for Mesut Ozil. Ozil was not even selected for the side, which is a telling story within itself, but for a player praised by coaches for off the ball movement, we hope Willock can pick up some of what Mesut does, in training.
Willock and the midfield were far from the crux of the struggles, but the young midfield was incapacitated from start to finish, again, showing that gap and need for some serious investment for the future.
It was the first game back, and it was against arguably the most capable team, on their day, in the league — which is a tough ask. So, were there any positives from the performance?
It should be pointed out that two people acquitted themselves quite well. Bernd Leno again proved why he is one of the best keepers in the league making a handful of great stops including multiple one-on-one saves in the first half to keep it level 0 – 0. We can question what it says about the state of Arsenal that Leno has played incredibly, and they still conceded 3 goals and lost, but credit where credit is due – Leno made a lot of great saves.
There was little he could have been asked to do about the point blank volley from Sterling for the first, the Penalty take from Kevin De Bruyne for the second, nor the third when the ball bounced off the post and fell right into the lap of an onrushing Phil Foden. In fact, on the third goal, Leno seemed to have gotten a foot to shot of Aguero in another one-on-one situation to push it onto the post and nearly managed the double save.
The other person that was a strong revelation was Kieran Tierney. Arsenal have not gotten to see much of him this year because of injuries, but when faced with a tough task in his first game back he played very well. He was strong into tackles, good at standing up attackers, and strong with the ball at his feet. Composed enough to find feet when under pressure and shrugged off multiple tackle attempts from City defenders.
He even managed to look sharp at the center back position after Luiz was sent off and Arteta was forced to slide him inside and place Bukayo Sake at the left back role. Here’s to hoping he can stay fit, stay healthy, and continue to show supporters and Arteta what he can bring to the side as the future left back.
For fans it was a night to forget about, for players it was a game to remind them they need to put their head down and work toward the weekend when they go to Brighton, and for the board it was a blunt example of the gap that Arteta has warned them of. Action will need to be taken in some capacity if they want change. Brighton on Saturday.