Losing in the the North London Derby will always leave you feeling like a bag of shite. Last season, when Arsenal were finding their feet under Mikel Arteta and starting to show signs of righting the ship, it hurt a lot to lose 2-1. Even when I know it gets better and we end up winning the FA Cup, that match hurts a lot.
Losing within the context of yesterday’s match, and what it means within the league, simply compounds the hurt. Like 100-fold. Arsenal will wake up tomorrow in 15th place, having lost another Premier League match, having lost their derby, and having showed little fight against their biggest rival. Gunners around the world will hope this is rock bottom, but fear there being more to go.
The match itself oddly left me with little to say. It could be summarized once again as a match in which Arsenal got “Mourinho-ed”. Everyone knew what Tottenham were going to do, how they were going to play, and who they were going to look to get the ball to. Thats what they did, and it was effective. And Arsenal did themselves no favors in their approach.
The first goal, 13 minutes in changed the opening narrative completely. Arsenal weren’t necessarily dangerous, but they opened the game with a bit more initiative. However, they slightly overcommitted, they didn’t deny access into Kane, they didn’t cutoff Kane’s ability to find Son, and they didn’t close down Son nor stay tight enough to make this wonder strike more difficult. I think Holding it too far off Son, something we saw in the Villa game. Bellerin is scrambling back, out of position, and actually ends up slipping to make a complete hash of it, and no one covers themselves in glory. A few well practiced goalkeeping figures even suggested Leno’s approach to the shot was poor. Not to take away anything from Son, because the shot is picture perfect, but every goal often has two sides to the story.
The goal encapsulated the match. Arsenal knew Tottenham would want to sit deep and look to counter, funnel the ball into Kane, who would look to get the ball to Son, and that’s exactly what they did.
The second goal was hardly better. Arsenal are once again completely caught out. Partey slides into a tackle and gets hurt, Arsenal take off to counter Spurs, and completely over-commit their numbers. From there, Tottenham carryout a quintessential Jose attacking movement to score again.
In very few games do I feel assured the match is over at 2-0. Yesterday, I did. Arsenal have struggled to breakdown teams all year, and here they were facing a team that Manchester City and Chelsea failed to score against, while down by 2. It enabled Spurs to completely clog the center of the pitch, sit in their low block, and deny dangerous opportunities within a formation that included a six-back defensive line at times.
Arsenal were left to funnel the ball into the wings and chose to settle for 44 crosses in the match — food and drink for six defenders to handle. Frustratingly, the second half of the match was equally as bad as the first, just in a different way.
75% if the ball, 7 shots, 2 shots on target — no goals and few real opportunities. To see Arsenal have that much of the ball and create very little was frustrating, yet seemingly par for the course lately. For the second straight Premier League match, a team has essentially given Arsenal as much of the ball as they wanted in the second half knowing Arsenal are hardly capable of breaking them down.
Arsenal find themselves in 15th place, with undoubtedly the most important run of their season coming up. With 6 Premier League matches in the next month, and 8 matches in total, the onslaught of games will determine just how bad it can get for Arsenal. The team may be filled with player issues and not enough quality, but they are certainly past the point where they have more quality than their results. Every Arsenal fan will hope this is the lowest point of the season as Arsenal look to rebound against a Burnley side that just drew with Everton — seemingly not as easy of a match as one may assume.
Although it’s tough to find takeaways, here are a few:
A midfield disjointed:
Throughout the match, especially in the first half, where most the damage was done, the midfield duo of Xhaka and Partey were very disjointed. Xhaka would drop into the backline to add an extra defender from deep while Tierney and Bellerin joined the attack. A decent idea in theory, but it left Partey completely outnumbered in central areas. The last time, Partey struggled that much in the center was versus Leicester City, another game in which Xhaka dropped wide left, Ceballos went wide right, and Partey was left to fend for himself.
I know we have not gotten a lot of testing opportunities with Partey, and we will likely have to wait longer after he injured himself once more, but Arteta may have to abandon the notion that Partey can function completely isolated in the center. The best match for him was when he was partnered by a very mobile and highly intelligent Elneny. Personally, I was a little surprised Arteta didn’t return to that setup, despite it’s struggles against Aston Villa. I thought Xhaka was really poor on the ball and struggled to produce much.
He had by far the most passes and touches of anyone not in Arsenal’s backline, doubling most, yet it yielded no shots, no created chances, few dangerous moments. He is inherently cautious with the ball at his feet, he doesn’t turn with it, and I find myself looking at the amount of touches he gets enviously, wishing they were falling to almost anyone else in the attack. Arteta needs to solve his midfield issue, and ensure that it retains its shape. For me that starts with finding a better partner for Partey, and now a replacement for Partey. Maitland-Niles?
Two fluid systems may be one too many
For the better part of a few months, Arsenal have been attempting to tactically carry out a system that sees them make pretty major adjustments to their formation and shape as possession changes. Not that the notion of altering shape when you have possession is that odd, nor strange, but Arsenal seem to struggle to yield consistent results doing it.
The reason Arsenal look to such a complicated system is that it allows their better players to be involved on both ends of the ball, while covering for their weaker links, but if you listed out each movement in a bulleted list, it would probably start to get pretty long (keeping in mind they have seconds to transition in and out of this WHILE retaining possession):
- Xhaka drops into the backline
- Tierney overlaps to the outside
- Saka gets up into the attack from the wingback role
- Aubameyang tucks in central almost becoming the striker
- Lacazette now drops into the hole and operates as a ten
- Bellerin gets involved in the attack by pushing up
- Bellerin and Willian work together so one stays wide and one tucks in, often an underlap from Bellerin
- Backline shifts to accommodate Xhaka
- second midfielder helps create the shield on the counter
Possession lost. Undo it and drop back into defensive shape.
This is just off the top of my head. It’s not that teams are incapable of doing this, but Arsenal seem to stretch themselves in their attempt. Not enough numbers get into the attack quick enough to be effective, too many numbers get overcommitted, or possession is lost too quickly for anything to get going.
It was noticeable that Tottenham, a team now on top of the league, had one idea, one notion, one route, and they were good at it. It wasnt over complicated, it wasn’t too clever for their own good, but it was effective and efficient. It couldn’t help but feel as though Arsenal could adopt some of that notion to their game. It does depend on a little more freedom and a little more trust in players to make plays, something I’m not sure Arsenal players have earned, but it seems a way to keep your shape and prevent conceding goals like today’s, possibly while maintaining the midfield shape from takeaway #1.
I’m not one to gripe on and on about team selection. In most games there are a lot of things I like, a few I’m not a fan of, but generally believe the players are still capable of better than they show. Recently, it has certainly seemed that Arteta’s faith is placed in players not returning the favor. Be it Willian’s routine selections and routine struggles, Xhaka in the midfield, Bellerin or Holding who struggled against Tottenham, Lacazette who put in a hard shift, but hasn’t produced much end product… there are a lot of weak-links in the side.
Add to that a bench that, in my opinion, didn’t offer Arteta a lot of opportunities to flip a game on it’s head. It had players that fit certain specific scenarios in a variety of ways, but none that felt like they could come on and really change things. I found it odd Reiss Nelson was missing, but really, I find it most odd that with such a bloated side subs likes that are hard to find.
Arsenal ended the match with Nketiah, Lacazette, and Aubameyang on the field. Three strikers. They could have played for another 90 minutes and not scored. Arteta is going to have to do some internal thinking and reinvest his faith in a few different players until some of his now standards start to perform.
Running out of ideas and solutions
One of the most frustrating aspects for me as a fan, is that it feels like Arsenal are running out of ideas for internal solutions to their problems. They can’t make major changes until January, but there are far too many games in between now and then to just sit on your hands. Yet many of the ‘solutions’ have seemingly been exhausted, haven’t panned out, or are unavailable through injury or suspension.
Maybe this is part of the cause of the overcomplicated feel, but ideas are starting to feel limited. What are we left with? “Try AMN, try Nelson, try this person, try that person, try, try, try.” I get it, but it does start to feel very desperate. When the rebuttal to those solutions is often, “it can’t be worse”, you level with yourself exactly where you’re at, and that is in a trying place.
After this match it seems clear that Arsenal are a 3-4-3 team, whether fans like it or not. Maybe it is time to keep the ideas simple, but I for one am beginning to run out. We have moved Auba central, dropped some poor players, given Pepe a run, tried Willock… the list goes on and will continue to grow. That’s sports. But many are approaching a real feel of throwing darts at a board to see what sticks.
Frustrating, infuriating, sad, and disappointing day. The type that no one wants, but is seemingly becoming all too familiar. Arsenal will play another midweek match to buoy spirits, but given they have only followed a Europa League match with a win once, it’s hard to feel overly confident. Take care of yourself Gooners, and remind yourself that is gets better. These are the days that a supporter is tested. Down the road is when we will be rewarded.