Arsenal’s match rolled into the 74th minute of what had proven to be a frustrating affair against Aston Villa. An early mistake was dispatched incisively, and Arsenal were made to pay for looking as though their midweek loss was still mentally taking a toll on their confidence.
The Gunners had controlled more of the possession, but they had struggled to find that stroke of creative genius to break Villa’s defense, or the final piece of quality to result in many chances on goal.
Arteta was looking for answers. Looking to change things up and really go for it. Arsenal needed a response from their loss to Wolves and they needed points before heading into a run of games including: Leeds, Benfica possibly twice, Manchester City, and Leicester.
Mikel looked to switch to a 4-3-3 formation and have Granit Xhaka anchor the midfield after Partey picked up a muscular injury. A switch that, in and of itself, was exciting for Arsenal fans. Arteta has made it clear that his goal would be to reach a place in which a 4-3-3 is not only possible, but the go-to formation for the Gunners. The problem has always been the personnel at this disposal.
Did the loan signing of Ødegaard take Arsenal one step closer, or at least offer Arteta the option of switching to one in specific scenarios? Everyone was about to find out.
What people won’t have liked is the way Arteta went about it. With Martinelli and Dani Ceballos on his bench, Mikel returned once more to the man that has done him no favors this season — Willian. On trotted Willian for 16 minutes. Off walked Willian after those 16 minutes. He did a little of this, a little of that, including having two shots blocked, but I don’t think many will have felt he injected much of anything into the match with this play.
Arsenal went on to lose 1-0. It was disappointing and the substitution was certainly used as a stick used to beat Arteta. But that’s what Willian has become for Arteta — and even Edu to some extent — a player that was brought in this year, has clearly shown an inability to be a difference maker for Arsenal, yet continues to get opportunities not granted to other players.
Willian has proven without a doubt that he isn’t a player that can perform at a level worthy of starting matches, and hasn’t affected matches when he comes on as a sub, aside from a few “he wasn’t awful” appearances. He shouldn’t be coming off the bench in matches Arsenal are pushing for an equalizer or winner.
Arteta has made statements around the fact that Willian is a player who could make a difference if he finds form. Well, there are a few of those players at Arsenal right now, and that’s a rather obvious statement. Dani Ceballos helped contribute to Arsenal’s late success last season when he produced some of the best misfielding numbers in the league. If he found form he would make a difference. Gabriel Martinelli is a youngster who has showed a keen ability to get on the end of service and put it in the back of the net. If he found form he would make a difference.
Fans were upset to see Willian come off the bench, they will continue to be upset to see Willian come off the bench, and they should be upset to see Willian come off the bench.
Now, I am not saying a coach should fashion their decisions based on fan reactions — they shouldn’t. But Arteta’s continued faith in Willian during this period of time has reached a point where it adds fuel to the fire for those that are suspicious of Arteta’s potential. Considering that thee assessment of his potential currently lies with his ability to learn from mistakes, adapt his game, gain experience, and grow — it’s understandable that people are growing weary of Willian’s presence and leery of what it means for their supposed future manager.
Who are they as fans hitching their support to? A manager with a 41% Premier League winning percentage that continues to put his faith in aging veterans that show no signs of rewarding him for his trust?
A harsh viewpoint to take of the man that has done a lot more for turning this team around and putting it in a much more sustainable place, but it’s frustrating to see the same mistake made over and over and over again.
“A man is judged by the company they keep”, or so the saying goes. In football terms, the company a manager keeps are those he turns to time and time again. The names associated with his tenure as a manger, for better or worse. The names they are praised alongside when the going is good and the names attached to the rocks hurled at them during the bad times.
As Arsenal likely begin to settle into the mid-table position that their 10 losses generally results in, and Arteta puts together plans to get the most out of what remains in this season to demonstrate continued growth until the very end, separating himself from mistakes like giving Willian minutes is the the better look. He will still have to shoulder some of the criticism for the signing to begin with, but hold your hands up Mikel and take that heat. It’s a lot easier than dying on the hill next to Willian hoping he comes good this season.