It wasn’t the FA Cup defense that Arsenal fans had dreamed of when the cup campaign began just two weeks ago against Newcastle. After saving their season under Mikel Arteta, winning the Cup, and qualifying for the Europa League last season, the Gunners exit early with more of a whimper than anything else.
Arsenal won’t be hoisting their 15th FA Cup this year, but if there are a few things to possibly soften the blow or make Arteta’s decision to rotate the squad a little easier to take, let me say: this year’s prize money in the FA Cup has been halved and the winner qualifies for the Europa Conference League, not the Europa League proper so it’s not quite as alluring of a prize. For those unfamiliar, the Europa Conference League will be the third tier of European, UEFA competition that has supposedly been in the work for some time.
The squad rotation was evident right from Arteta’s selection, but it certainly flew in the face of past cup squads Arteta has selected. Obviously Arteta has rotated significantly for some Europa League group stage matches, but he often picks very strong sides in the FA Cup. In fact, two weeks ago, Arteta received criticism for his selection of Kieran Tierney, Mari, and even Aubameyang feeling overkill.
Whether today’s selection was a product of that criticism, the fact that Arsenal had to play 120 minutes against Newcastle which probably played a part in Arsenal’s sluggish performance against Crystal Palace five days later, or this was always part of the plan given the 72 hour turnaround they now have, it was clear most of these players could be termed as “second string”.
The backline defense remained relatively strong, but the reintroduction of Gabriel didn’t quite go to plan. Cedric switching over the left side was quite a bit better than Maitland-Niles’ appearance at left back, but the left side was picked on a few times, including the unfortunate goal Arsenal would concede. Technically, it was an Gabriel own goal, but a shot through Cedrics legs that ricochets off Gabriel and out of Leno’s reach is really unlucky even if it had been coming.
Down the middle and Arsenal’s right is where much of the rotation happened. Xhaka retained his spot because, well, Xhaka always plays, but next to him was Elneny with Willian in front of them. Alongside Willian was Martinelli on the left and Pepe on the right with Nketiah leading the lines. Of the front four, only Martinelli stands out as a player that most fans would like to see play a major role in the remainder of the season given the form the rest have all been in.
Yesterday, that form and inability to cultivate results shone brightly as the rotation struggled to get much of anything going in a first half that was definitely dominated by Southampton. Shortly after the break, Arsenal subbed on Partey and Bukayo Saka —eventually adding Lacazette — but I don’t imagine Arteta loved doing it, nor did the subs have the dramatic effect on the game. Shortly after coming on, Saka was moved to left back which is far from the danger area, while Lacazette only had 5 touches in his 18 minutes.
Partey is probably the only one that had an effect on the match as he quickly demonstrated his ability to control the center of the park and withstand Southampton’s press. His influence and success is probably one of the few positive takeaways from the match as a whole.
Really, this one was lost by Arsenal in the first half when they had no answer for the press. The Gunners’ passing was sloppy and the number of unforced errors kept Southampton knocking on the door before and after they scored off Gabriel’s own goal to take the lead.
It may have been a match to forget, but it is certainly one that Arsenal cannot afford to turn a blind eye to. There were plenty of things to consider and takeaway from it all.
Here are a few I focused on:
The second string squad is pretty second rate
It’s well known that Arsenal are in the process of rebuilding their squad — a job that looks more difficult for Edu and the club by the day, depending on the day. Not only are Arsenal tasked with raising the quality they have within their starting XI, they are tasked with moving on deadwood and bringing in quality that can provide depth and competition. At this point, it’s clear they don’t have that depth.
Go through the list of players that started today — how many of them would you want to see in Arsenal’s starting lineup consistently? I think there are at least four yesterday that find themselves falling down the pecking order. Add in the two Gabriels that are returning from brief stints out and you have a decent amount of weaker links for Southampton to take advantage of — and they did.
Maybe Arteta could fit some of these players into the starting squad and overcome any weaknesses with the rest of the side, but when Southampton named a team pretty close to their full-strength Premier League side, it was always going to be an uphill battle.
Arsenal’s side were second best the whole first half and it wasn’t until Arteta was forced to remove some of those players and plugged in a bit more quality that Arsenal gained more control. There is a long way to go for some of that to come together, but it begins to make you question how many of these players will make it through this overhaul process. Time is ticking for the likes of Nketiah, Pepe, Willian, and Elneny.
Arsenal get pinned early with no answer for the press
This goes back to the first half of the match. Things got better when Partey entered the match in the second half, which is a testament to what he is capable of bringing Arsenal, but from the very first whistle, Arsenal were pinned deep into their own territory without a way out. Playing out of the back was very sloppy as they looked to play through the lines, Southampton’s press forced errors and looked rampant, and yet again, Arsenal didn’t have an answer for when a team swarms and shuts down options out from the back.
We have seen Arsenal struggle against Liverpool, Manchester City, Leeds, Aston Villa a little bit, and teams that can get a hold early and establish their pressing game can cause Arsenal sides a lot of problems. Things have gotten better lately and certainly Smith Rowe and some some of Lacazette’s play has helped relieve the pressure, but Nketiah and Willian could not help Elneny and Xhaka early in yesterday’s match.
It may be a non-factor when Arsenal play their more regular Premier League team, but if Arteta wants to play out from the back Arsenal can’t afford to have games where they get stuck back there. Southampton created a lot of problems, exacerbated by Arsenal’s poor play, but it never allowed Arsenal to establish enough possession in dangerous areas and gave Southampton the ball in very dangerous situations.
Even as a backup 10, Willian just won’t do
I actually expected Willian to come out and perform. It’s becoming well-known that Arsenal are coming close to sealing a 6-month loan of Real Madrid’s Martin Ødegaard which is a move that will see Willian fall deeper down the depth chart at yet another position. With that in mind, I thought we would see Willian come out and shine. Why? I don’t know. Competition does that for players at times.
We did not. There were a few moments that look alright from Willian, but when you compare him to Smith Rowe, the stark contrast between a true attacking midfielder and a technical winger that can play some attaching center midfield are clear. Everything Smith Rowe looks to do is quick, deft, and finished off with movement to keep himself in a dangerous spot to get the ball back, make the run in behind, or draw a defender to create space.
When on the ball, Willian often takes extra touches, is a bit slow to release and move, and once he does complete the pass he stands and watches. He struggled to navigate himself into positions to get on the ball against Southampton’s press often enough early, and it wasn’t really until Partey came into the match and forced Southampton to reconsider how frequently they press, that Willian was able to do much. Even then, it simply wasn’t good enough.
No one is quite sure what Arsenal are going to do with Willian, but Arteta and Edu are barreling toward the point where they need to admit the transfer was a failure and try everything they can to make amends for it — if that is even possible at this point.
Arteta’s selection adds pressure for Tuesday
Arteta opted to rotate his squad with a Premier League matchup against Southampton clearly becoming the priority. Winning the FA Cup is nice, winning silverware is fantastic, but winning the award isn’t quite as lucrative nor does it get you into the Europa League proper starting this year, so the incentive is lessened.
I don’t think it is hard to wrap your head around that thought process and believe that Arteta is looking at the compact table and knowing he needs to find a way to keep Arsenal moving upward. Arsenal are 6 points behind 5th place Tottenham and the upcoming run of tough matches will define what is possible for this team.
Arsenal’s next seven Premier League matches are: Southampton, Manchester United, Wolves, Aston Villa, Leeds, Manchester City, and Leicester City. Not to mention, they will have their two Europa League matches against Benfica during that difficult spell. Against those seven teams this year, Arsenal have only managed 5 points. That won’t be enough to satisfy the fans and it would effectively end Arsenal’s domestic campaign ambitions.
Arsenal need to find a way to take at least 10+ of the 21 possible points in those seven matches — and even that might not quite be enough — but it starts with a win on Tuesday. That not only gets the tough run of fixtures off to a good start, it continues Arsenal’s good league form and justifies the decision to rotate specific players.
It’s going to be an interesting finish to the season. The closing of this January window could prove to make this finish even more interesting. Whether Arsenal will have much to play for until the last day or not could be contingent on what they manage to do for themselves in these coming days.
It’s never fun to bow out of a cup, especially a cup the club has won fourteen times and currently is defending, but these seasons often come to points where tough decisions have to be made. This was a tough loss to take, but Arteta and Arsenal need to prove it was a necessary evil by learning from it and keeping their good form in the Premier League and upcoming Europa League.
Next up is Southampton again with a HUGE 3 points on the line for Arsenal.