“Hello, Gooners,” he says in the sort of flat, somber tone one associates with the greetings you hear at a funeral…
I’m only playing. Sorta.
Arsenal lose 1-4 and exit the Carabao Cup. It was another poor Arsenal display, but I said it was a match in which Arsenal had “nought to lose, all to gain”, and I do stand by that. That doesn’t take away from the fact that it was a very frustrating 90 minutes to watch, but in the context of Arsenal’s struggles right now, bowing out of the EFL Cup in the quarter-finals hardly adds to the misery.
It was a free shot, a free hit. An opportunity to test out a few internal solutions and mesh whoever Arteta could dream up. Aside from a few individual performances, or one, I would say it was a completely missed opportunity for Mikel.
Maybe it’s a harsh criticism given the fact that Manchester City hardly played that rotated of a side. Any team with Mahrez, Jesus, Silva, Fernandinho, Rodri, Laporte, and Dias is hardly that rotated of a team. Or maybe that’s just what it looks like when a team is complete and capable of competing in multiple competitions in a season. Quality in droves.
Since Manchester City selected such a strong side, it’s possible Arteta felt he couldn’t play a side of youth players and send them out for slaughter. But the side he selected was some kind of gross mishmash of testing youth, first team players, and poor veterans that most the fan base have unanimously decided need to go.
Runarsson, Kolasinac, Gabriel, Mustafi, Soares, Ceballos, Elneny, Maitland-Niles, Martinelli, Willock, Lacazette
One has an easier time going through that side and selecting the few they do want to see. It leaves Mari, Smith Rowe, and Balogun on the bench, and Azeez and Chambers out of the squad.
Which brings us to probably the most controversial or upsetting part of the whole lineup. It was a huge mistake for the club not to register Saliba for the Europa League that also leads him to no time yesterday. We can go in circles about the fact that Saliba was intended to be loaned first during the normal transfer window, and then during the domestic window, which produced an awkward timeline.
The close of the transfer window, followed by the Europa League squad registration due date, then the domestic transfer window closing. Regardless of the awkward timeline, it definitely falls on the shoulders of the club to recognize the situation and respond. The solution was not to do nothing and curb Saliba’s growth for 5 months while he scavenges for time with the U23 side.
I understand that Saliba takes up a non-homegrown spot which makes registering him and then loaning him out, as intended, a waste, but then you as a club need to guarantee he is in fact loaned out. James Benge mentioned that Arsenal had suitors in the Championship for Saliba but a deal couldn’t be agreed upon. I’m not aware of where the sticking point was, but Arsenal needed to get beyond that point and get that deal done. It has cost Saliba a lot of time in terms of growth, it has affected his affection for the club, and it’s fair to worry that there may be repercussions down the road that were completely avoidable.
Flash back to yesterday. Arsenal are in a match where they are not bound by registered squads and their mistakes in other leagues don’t matter. Arteta can give Saliba minutes, if he wants. He did not.
Immediately my mind goes to, “well, if Saliba is set to be loaned in January as suggested, you don’t want him to get hurt”. Could be, fair enough. But the selection of Mustafi, a player who has already established he is leaving in January or the summer — why? Why not someone like Chambers whose future may be with the club?
You can go on and on about the oddities of the squad last night. It was a Frankenstein eleven, it missed the mark on learning things about the team, and that makes the 1-4 drubbing all the harder to take. Had we lost this way, but seen Smith Rowe, Balogun, Martinelli, Saliba or Chambers, Maitland-Niles in the midfield. you would shrug and say, “bad loss, bad goals to concede, but we can take these five things away from it.”
You can’t say that today. No one learned anything they didn’t already know about Mustafi, Kolasinac, or Lacazette; you probably learned very little about Joe Willock, deployed as a winger but asked to tuck in; and you likely simply confirmed a few things about the midfield pivot of Ceballos and Elneny.
Arsenal conceded cheap chances, poor goals, and in a match where they had nought to lose, all to gain — they gained nought as well.
Before we head into a tough matchup on Boxing Day with Chelsea, let’s look at a few takeaways from the match. Warning! They are a bit grim.
Arsenal are conceding goals easier and easier
The official xG has not come out yet for this match, at least not in the usual places I check, but we can assume that Man City over performed. The first goal, Elneny leaves Zinchenko allowing him to get wide while Soares is occupied. Soares is too slow to close down Zinchenko as he gets to the endline to cross. Mustafi’s positioning is awful to deal with the ball and he has let Gabriel Jesus fit right in between him and Gabriel M inside the six yard box. Finally, Runarsson does a poor job being on his toes and ready to get off his line and contest for the cross.
The second goal is obviously a complete blunder from Runarsson again. A free kick from Mahrez from just outside the box is hit right at Runar who sees it into his hands, through his hands, and into the net. It’s terrible goalkeeping, obviously, but it’s also set up from Gabriel giving away a free kick in one the most dangerous spots. Still shouldn’t be a goal, but had Runar made the save, it would have been a small let off.
The third goal, City are offsides. There is no VAR so it goes unchecked, but I have to wonder if VAR is changing the way linesmen watch their lines. He is a good half-body offsides, the flag should go up, but it wouldn’t if there were VAR. The linesman would just let VAR take care of it afterward. Is that causing problems within competitions where refs have that mindset but there isn’t help? Even knowing VAR isn’t around, refs will have changed how they view the game to accommodate the video support. Maybe I’m clutching at straws, but it should never be a goal and it was one.
Finally, City’s fourth goal comes from a short corner where two city attackers slot themselves in between Mustafi and Soares, again in positions where Mustafi is useless. Laporte scores it.
It’s nice crosses for goals number one and four, but Arsenal have made it so easy on them, which is becoming a trend. Everton scored 2 goals on .8 xG, Burnley scored 1 on .9 xG, Tottenham scored 2 on .5 xG, Wolves scored 2 on 1.4 xG. It’s a lot of teams starting to out perform their xG. Some may look at that as a run of bad luck, but when it becomes a trend, you have to look at the ease in which Arsenal are conceding good chances. It’s becoming a major worry for me.
Runarsson ain’t it
When Arsenal sold Martinez for £20m and invested only £2m back into a replacement, you knew it was a calculated risk that Leno would stay healthy and be the man between the sticks.
Inaki Cana Pavon, Arsenal’s GK coach, was familiar with Runar, his price was low, and that was enough. “Low expense, low expectations — stay healthy Leno.”
It’s not the best plan, but it maybe wasn’t the worst given Arsenal’s need to invest in other aspects of the squad. However, as we saw last night, it probably hasn’t panned out. Runarsson was shaky with his hands, rough with his distribution, terrible at shot stopping, and even his feet were bad — an aspect of his game that was supposed to be good. A modern keeper, they said.
Well, I think it is apparent that at age 25, he just might not be a legitimate backup. Where was he scouted? Well… chances are he wasnt. Brought in by the coach since Arsenal have no scouting network. A whole other can of worms to save for another day.
Arsenal will likely need to look at moving Runar along or demoting him to a third-string keeper — usually a job held by academy kids to not take up a homegrown spot. Arteta will have to think on how to handle that now, so add it to the growing list of projects.
Martinelli IS it
From the very first whistle you could visually see why Martinelli is as beloved as he is with Arsenal fans. My immediate thought when he came on versus Everton, and again last night, was “Oh, that’s what workrate up top looks like.”
The kid has an incredible engine, an instinct to know when to hunt down lackadaisical defenders and keepers and when to reserve his energy. When Arsenal are in possession, he rarely stops his movement. He is buzzing in an out of pockets of space, threatening to get in behind, hunting after loose scraps, and it led to his assist for Lacazette.
My mind is already buzzing with ideas for him slotting in alongside a central Auba, or maybe he is central for a left wing Auba. Where do we slot Saka now? It’s actually one of the better problems to have and seeing him come back from such a serious injury and immediately cause those problems is a welcomed sight.Is it too far to hope that he sets an example for the rest of our attackers?
Watch Gabi. That is how you buzz about and cause problems. The kid is amazing, his energy is unquestionable, and seeing him post “feeling fine and ready to go again” after picking up a hefty knock is a serious weight off every Gooner’s shoulders. He probably won’t save Arsenal’s season, but it’s hard not love everything he produces.
Midfield Pivot is a pivotal pain point
Yesterday was the third straight match with Ceballos and Elneny in the midfield. It is also the third straight match in which Arsenal have had no midfield presence. Is it entirely on them? No, one could argue that they are often overrun and outnumbered in the center of the park, but one thing has become apparent — neither of them can be THE guy in the midfield.
When Elneny has been great this year, it’s when his role is to balance out a player that is commanding the midfield. The obvious occasion is against Manchester United when he provided fantastic balance and freedom for Partey. However, when asked to expand his game and command the midfield, I think he struggles.
Likewise, Ceballos has looked more lost in the last three matches than we have seen him in his last two seasons with Arsenal, including his early struggles last season. Between how Arteta is instructing them, the leash that he has put on Ceballos, the defensive shield our backline requires, and the deep sitting position they seem to take up — it’s a very poor combination. What it’s leading to is an immediate reintroduction of Granit Xhaka after his three match suspension, which hardly feels better.
Grim tidings, scant options, but what else is there to do while Partey in out with injury? At the very least, Arteta needs to find ways to move their starting position higher, possibly introduce AMN to the midfield which caused City some problems yesterday, and try to inject something different. It was a terrible midfield display, but it really shouldn’t be too surprising. The duo have been poor against Everton and Southampton, why would City be different?
Those are the takeaways to consider. Those are the thoughts on a terrible match. We concede too easy, we still don’t have a midfield if we don’t have Partey, if Leno goes down we are in a lot of trouble, but, hey, Martinelli is still pretty special.
Chelsea up next in a match that does matter. Possibly more important than the result against Chelsea is how they set themselves up for the run of games that follow. Arsenal are at the point where they need to readjust their season expectations. I’m talking, readjust to accept that finishing somewhere between 8-12th place is where the side belongs. But to edge away from relegation to that mid table mark, they have to win 12 points against Brighton, West Brom, Crystal Palace, and Newcastle.
I mean, if Arteta wants to keep his job, he probably has to take 12 points in those four matches. It’s hard to look ahead when today is so miserable, but try to remember sports teams go through stretches like these. The best January signing Arsenal can make is a sporting director that can step in with real experience and knowledge because the club as a whole is in trouble that even a new manager can only change for a bit.