Did you expect it? Are results like these becoming the new normal as you adjust your expectations of what Arsenal are capable of? You wouldn’t be alone if you thought so.
Over the last two months, Arsenal’s matches have developed this rinse and repeat, routine to them. Talk about the importance of it, be upset that Willian is in the side, 90 minutes of pretty poor football, a loss, capped off by a press conference from Arteta asking for patience, suggesting it wasn’t as bad as it seems, and that Arsenal had chances to win.
Arteta was even asked about the “Groundhog Day” feeling that is forming around matchday:
“Yes, but the opponents are not generating anything. We lost against Burnley without them generating a single shot on target as well. This is how teams win a lot of games in the Premier League and at the moment we are not going to generate 15 or 20 chances against blocks like that, it’s not realistic. When we have done accurately enough to finalise those actions, there is a bad combination. Sometimes it’s that we play with 10 men, the other week was obviously an own goal, today we obviously conceded an own goal. It’s a lot of things happening at the same time and when that happens then it is difficult.”
The opponents may be different, the methods may vary, but the results are same. And as Everton handed Arsenal a 7th loss in their least 10 Premier League matches, I can’t help but continue to think, “good teams find ways to win, bad teams find ways to lose”.
For the most part, the lineup I predicted Arteta would select in the prematch blog was right on. A 3-4-3 formation, Luiz in to replace Gabriel, a central midfield pivot of Elneny and Ceballos, and Nketiah and Pepe getting another chance to find consistency. What I didn’t guess was that the left wing would be occupied by Willian as Aubameyang was left out with a “tight calf”. It’s clear that Aubameyang is who Arteta was talking about when he said, “We have a few doubts. Obviously we cannot tell you who but we have some doubts for tomorrow, yes.”
What’s interesting is that it’s unclear how much of a negative effect his absence really had on Arsenal. One could assume that it inevitably makes a difference, and you could argue that chances would fall to him rather than someone else like Willian, which is a huge difference, but Arsenal tallied 13 shots including 10 in the second half. None of them were on frame is the second half, which has happened before, but working 13 shots is above Arsenal’s average for the year.
However, goals on a Rob Holding own goal and Yerry Mina header bookended a Nicolas Pepe penalty giving Everton all three points. Perhaps what is most frustrating is the fact that Everton walked away with the win after playing relatively poor. Arsenal hardly forced Everton to do anything all that special to beat them. It was a nice header, but the defending at the front post was pretty poor. And it’s unlucky, but the cross wasn’t that devastating of cross. It just comes off Holding and into the net. After that, Everton didn’t force themselves to really hunt the game and get more. They sat a bit deeper, content to let Arsenal have the ball. They sat in more of a back five, picking and choosing when to break out and get forward. Yet, Arsenal couldn’t do much with their opportunities once again. The xG tells a similar story.
Everton had a 0.8xG to Arsenal’s 1.4xG. It shows a team that has bad fortunes to an extent, but it also shows a side that has conceded two early goals off two half chances, which feels like ‘Arsenal’ more and more these days.
It’s a seventh loss in their last 10 Premier League matches for Arsenal, it’s 15th place with the pack moving further and further away, and it’s nearly time to reassess what is even possible to get out of the season and what that should mean for tactics and selection.
Similar to the ‘déjà vu’, ‘Groundhog’s Day’ notion, it’s yet another match where we learn very little about the side without beating a 15th place, dead horse, but here are a couple.
Regardless of the lineup, there is a right-sided isolation issue
When the lineup was announced, and it became known that Aubameyang was missing from the side through an injury concern, my mind went straight to Nicolas Pepe. He was in the match, he was looking for ways to prove himself, and playing alongside Nketiah and Willian, it seemed clear that he would be the dangerman for Arsenal. In looking to replace the finishing and attacking threat of Aubameyang, it seemed like Arteta would cater around getting Pepe involved.
This was far from the case. Pepe was stranded out wide, he was isolated on the touchline, he was rarely seen taking up central positions and Arsenal’s attack and positioning continue to an offense unwilling to work their right side into the action.
I can admit that Pepe was poor on the day and poor with his chances. He got his goal from the penalty spot, but 42 touches, 0 dribbles, 1 shot, 0 duels won — he was bad. But how much support was he afforded? An occasional run or overlap from Maitland-Niles, but when he is that far onto the touchline, he is asked to do a lot of work to become dangerous. It’s a waste.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles has earned his right to stay
It’s been a hard fight and a long time to wait, but Maitland-Niles has worked his way into Arsenal’s starting lineup. He got his first shot because of Bellerin’s one game suspension, but against Everton he retained his place. It was clear after this performance against Everton that Maitland-Niles should continue to retain his place in the starting lineup.
He was present up and down the pitch, he offered attacking support, defensive support. He relieved pressure from the back, he was tidy with his passing — 92.9% accurate — and he won the foul inside Everton’s box.
Looking at his heatmap you can see a player doing what he can to support Pepe, underlapping to get involved centrally at times, and stile staying defensively responsible.
I believe it is still fair to have some questions or concerns about him maintaining this level of play should Arsenal switch to a 4-back system and he is asked to play as a true right back, simply because he has not seeing a lot of him at that position, but given Bellerin’s poor form and Niles’ two excellent performances, it should be his to lose. He was one of the few bright spots throughout this match.
Arteta’s views on the match are… interesting…
Arteta on the performance:
We controlled them really well, the counter-attacks, apart from a few moments where we lost the ball inside, which is impossible to control. Then we started to look more and more dangerous in the final third, attacking this low block in front is complicated and we generated a lot of situations but they didn’t end up in big chances.
Sometimes the cross, sometimes the last action or the shot and the conversion rate has been really low and is something that we must improve dramatically. And then, when we need a little bit of luck, we hit the post or we have some big chances and we don’t put them away.
At the end, the reflection is a little bit similar to the last few weeks. You are better than the opponent, you dominate the game and usually when you are under this pressure and this position in the table, you get battered by teams. It’s not the case. I see the spirit in the team and how they try and how they are willing to do things the right way and I’m gutted for them as well because they needed a result and I think we played a game that we had to get something out of.Mikel Arteta
It’s an interesting assessment because it’s hard to feel like it’s true. Arsenal conceded two pretty easy goals in the first half and it seemed like Everton was capable of coasting through. I’ll admit that Arsenal look a little bit better in some of the stats after the game than it seemed during the match, but to say the Gunners dominated the game doesn’t sit well.
Did I expect him to come out and lay into the team for being poor? No, perhaps not. But saying Arsenal dominated the match and were unlucky “similar to the last few weeks” is inaccurate and slightly worrisome when you consider the 7 losses in the last two months.
Does this mean that this is the same message players are getting in the locker room? No, probably not. In fact, it’s a bit of a Pep Guardiola classic to be really pleased or proud or content with his team to media but lighting people up with critiques behind closed doors. However, as the sharks circle and more and more fans clamor for his removal, a message after the match that aligned with what many saw, feels as though it would have gone over much better.
I can’t help but ask, is this truly how he is viewing the last two months? Is this why there are so few changes from match to match? It feels overly content with the team and that is very unsettling.
Arsenal now have to play Manchester City in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday and Chelsea on Saturday back in the Premier League — two very tough matchups. Tuesday’s lineup will be very interesting and should look a lot more like Arsenal’s Europa League side. Will we see Saliba in the starting eleven? Unless they know he is 100% out the door on loan in January, I certainly hope so.
After that, Arsenal enter a run of games that will need to take max points from to push themselves away from relegation fears.
- West Brom
- Crystal Palace
Getting 12 points in those four games wouldn’t put them back into contention from much, but it would likely put them out of relegation’s reach, which is a weight off the shoulders of many. Grim times, stay well. Manchester City prematch blog coming your way!