Yesterday was a nightmare day at The Emirates. Unlike the Leeds match, Arsenal won’t have a red card to point toward as justification, and they won’t have a point for consolation either. This makes three straight Premier League performances that could contend for the label of “worst under Mikel Arteta”, and that is reason for worry.
“Well, it’s a frustrating night again. Losing at home is painful,” said Arteta after the match. “It’s the third time in a row, for different reasons but at the end of the day, in the first half Wolves had two shots on target and scored two goals.”
“We had I don’t know how many entrances into the penalty box, how many crosses, chances and situations with more or less efficiency, with more or less quality in the final ball but enough for sure not to lose the game or even win it.”
It’s a pretty optimistic outlook on the match to be honest. I mean, a lot more optimistic than anyone watching the game from a fan’s perspective will have felt after the game. Maybe it’s what a manger feels he has to say in this situation. Convey the reminder to the masses that Arsenal are hardly a finished product. Not only that their overhaul is far from complete, but that the projects have really just begun.
We can sit here as fans and say, “We are Arsenal Football Club, we dont finish below 6th. We win titles and top 4 spots”, but those days are very possibly on pause for a bit and it’s an outcome that’s been put off and kicked down the path for as long as possible. Through band-aid purchases, an unbalanced, weaker Premier League that offered easier points, and helped somewhat by of the brilliance of Arsene Wenger we managed to think about the short term only and get away with it.
Well the day of reckoning for the club as a whole has probably been coming and it’s now closer than ever. How Arsenal respond now, and in January, will simply determine how much it hurts along the way.
It’s hardly just the performances that are going wrong for Arsenal at moment. Forms are dipping, or reaching rock bottom in some cases, injuries and fatigue are taking their toll on the side at the wrong time, and Arteta revealed after the match that he doesn’t believe Thomas Partey will be back in the lineup anytime soon to really kick a guy when he’s down.
“I don’t think he [Partey] will be with us in the next few games,” said Arteta when asked about the importance of Partey, “but still, we’ve been missing a lot of players. We have many different issues but I don’t like to use that excuse.”
He’s right to not use it as an excuse. Why? Because it’s hard to believe Partey would have even been the difference maker. Partey is a fantastic player, he is someone that Arsenal can absolutely build their core around during this overhaul, but he and 99.9% of the world’s players will not provide this Arsenal team a silver bullet solution.
This brings us to the largest and most daunting takeaway from yesterday’s match against Wolves, harshly confirmed over the course of ninety minutes.
In a weak-link sport, Arsenal have multiple weak links
Within sports, there are two classifications sometimes used to separate and describe: weak-link versus strong-link. Weak-link sports are ones where a team is, essentially, only as good as their weakest players – think football and in strong-link sports, a team is only as good as their best player, or the best players have the most extreme effects on a team’s success – think Basketball.
Why basketball is a strong-link sport should be fairly obvious. With only five players on the court, the amount of touches on the ball and thus opportunities to drastically change the game is very high. By having the best player and giving them more touches, they have more share of the ball, more chances to score, and can make up for a weaker teammate.
Now we know in football that a phenomenal player can absolutely be the difference maker. How many times have you watched Messi or Ronaldo take over a game during their career? Look no further than Maradona’s 1986 World Cup if you need further proof of what the best player in the game at the time can do for a team. But we are also talking about three of the best players to grace the game.
Football gets qualified as a weak-link sport because there are so few opportunities score and star players are limited in the amount of touches they get to influence a match. With eleven players spread out on the field, a team’s best player often has a limited amount of time on the ball. The outcome is that the mistakes of weaker players cause much more devastation to the result of the game, disproportionate to what a star can routinely offer — especially over a long period of time like a full season.
Sticking with one of the names above, I think Messi with Argentina may be a good example. While it’s certainly oversimplifying their issues in international events, having the greatest player in the world in Lionel Messi often only gets them so far. He has successfully carried them on multiple occasions, but games in which they come up against a more complete side, often sees Messi and Argentina struggle.
Translate this into Arsenal terms. Which team stands head and shoulders above the rest in the minds of most Gooners? The Invincibles. Run through that lineup in your mind and find me the weak links. Then pull up Arsenal’s current roster and do the same.
How many did you find in the side that went undefeated in the league? How many did you find in just yesterday’s starting eleven alone?
What’s being exposed time and time again is that Arsenal have many weak links within the side, and on any given day, or any given moment, their mistakes or poor play can swing the momentum of a match.
Yesterday, against Wolves, it seemed like Arsenal were missing their midfield completely. And based on average positions, they essentially were!
Look at the gaping hole in the middle of that park! Arsenal’s three midfielders on the day? 28, 8, and 34. I mean WOW! Look at the spacing between them and the complete lack of cohesion. That’s a Premier League midfield?
Dani Ceballos is deep right. He was asked to a play a similar role to the one Elneny gets tasked with. Drop to the deep right to help the progression allowing Bellerin to get up the field, and the backline to shift left, but Elneny then gets himself back into the midfield and involved in the play on the next level when they time is right. It’s something Ceballos didn’t figure out well against Leicester City and something he struggled with yesterday.
Xhaka… Xhaka’s average position is BEHIND GABRIEL’S!! That should almost never be the case. You can tell me that Xhaka was asked to fill into the backline as well, help the defense, but I’m not sure that was a strict ask from him today. He’s simply not getting involved forward, at all. He’s slow on the ball, very negative with his intent, and truly was a weak link in a poor team performance.
Willock. As you can see from his positioning, he is so far to the left. He has essentially vacated the middle of the park, which raises a question. Why would you go out of your way to add an extra attacker to influence the middle of field only to have him wider than Saka and looking to overlap for much of the game?
There is no action going on from Arsenal in the central, danger area, and there really hasn’t been all year.
Why do I bring this up? Undoubtedly Partey helps this issue. He replaces on of the three midfielders, takes up a very central position, and the way he plays is filled with positive intent. But he can’t make up for all of Arsenal’s weak-link players, he simply replaces one of them.
Add in Aouar. Is it fixed? Probably not. Things get better, aspects improve, but the weakest link shifts to either the third midfielder or the second center back that is paired with Gabriel. Or would it shift to one of the wingers in Willian? The fact is, in a sport where team’s are only as good as their weakest link, Arsenal are filled with weak links.
Is Arteta getting the best from them? Right now, no. It’s impossible to look at the current production and play and say, “well this is the best we’ve got”, and that is certainly a burden that falls on his shoulders. We saw him get much more from this side toward the end of last season. That may be a more accurate denotation of “the best this side has got”, but that came within a 3-4-3 that showed it was hardly the long term solution.
All of this brings us to a pretty sobering feeling. If Arsenal are stuck this season looking for internal solutions to their problems, we are in for a season a lot like the first 10 matches.
“This is our level today” said Mikel after the match. “We can beat anybody but we can lose as well because the margins are so minimal. We want to start to score more goals, obviously. The mountain is a big one to climb.”
This is our level today, and he’s right. Maybe not exactly the level we saw on the pitch against Wolves, but certainly Arsenal’s volatile level of play over the last three months. It shows a team that is inconsistent in their results, predictable in their play, struggling to cover their weak links, struggling to produce, exposed by their mistakes, and dragged down by the gaps in their side.
Arteta is certainly not faultless and at some point the crosshairs will justifiable eye him up if there is little change, but as the Premier League grows more complete, more competitive, and difficult matches now exist within the table – top to bottom – it’s the weak links and missing core that devastates this Arsenal side. They were exposed against Wolves, dominated by Leeds and Aston Villa, and will only be solved once comprehensively replaced.
Football is a weak-link sport and Arsenal have far too many weak-links at the moment for consistent competition.