Yesterday was one of the few Arsenal matches I will miss watching live this season. Maybe I should miss more of them considering the things I miss, skip, or do to curate my schedule as neatly and nicely as I can around kick off times. But it left me to watch yesterday’s match after the result was known and the dust had settled.
It’s a little bit of a surreal feeling, mostly an experience where you ask yourself why you’re bothering to do it a few times over, but it’s an odd feeling to watch the match having already gone on Twitter to read the fury and sadness and see the frustration and peacekeeping, while being left to wonder “what the fuck has happened there?”
I was able to see the lineup when it was first announced and noted it was strong. In yesterday’s blog I wrote that we should expect a strong selection and that it might actually be one of the strongest lineups we have fielded in the competition. I believe it was and yet the whole thing failed to really come off.
I wrote before the match that this decision Arteta was making to not wholesale rotate in order to win the group — at least to the extent in which this thinner squad can wholesale rotate — was a decision that would be judged in two phases: short term results up to the World Cup break and long term returns if Arsenal were able to be rested and electric later in the season. Results like last night will have plenty of people, myself included, nervous about the short term.
With 28 points in their first 11 matches, everyone would like to see Arsenal maintain their level of results and, at the very least, give themselves a nice cushion heading into the break before a shrouded back-half of the season. When I talk about the short-term judgement of this decision, I am referring to the now five matches straight in which Arsenal have felt subpar and may lead to further slumping. Maybe this is us experiencing the still-too-large gap between this young side’s floor and ceiling of play, but if it slips further and affects the Premier League campaign and Arsenal lose to Nottingham Forest, it will be hard not to suggest Arteta should have risked the Europa League a little more to keep his players fresh.
On the evening, Arsenal felt pretty stumped and beat by PSV Eindhoven. I know Arsenal still got their 70% possession, and they outshot PSV, and produced more xG, but Arsenal didn’t feel better. In fact, 5 of their 15 shots came once they were down 2-0 and PSV conceded ~72% of the ball for the remaining 25-30 minutes. No, Arsenal looked like they were able to knock the ball around but really incapable of asserting any semblance of their dangerous dominance.
And yes, PSV countered and used that space, but that’s hardly something to hold against them. They were dangerous in doing so, they created good chances, if not many, and Arsenal were reprieved three times when PSV scored and then were deemed offsides before conceding two goals. Now, all three calls were correct, but the second one was a horror show of individual and team defending of their area. Offsides is offsides, but it wasn’t the stout backline we have seen most the year. And for the first time this year, I finished watching it and felt like Arsenal were really, truly beat on a day.
It was worrisome. It IS worrisome. And the statement I made yesterday carries on: Arsenal get to decide how much this match affects them. If they want to continue like this, they will slide. If they want to heed the call and wake up, they could propel themselves forward with a bit of bite and race toward the finish line of this first section to the season.
Nottingham Forest on Sunday now carries a whole lot more weight in my mind, and it doesn’t sit well that Arsenal are in a position to have to play an extremely strong side midweek once more to try and ensure they win the group.
With that, here are a few more additional thoughts and notes from yesterday’s loss:
Saliba and Holding might not be a fit
When it comes to defenders, it’s easy to get stuck on individual greats and not remember their partners. When it comes to finding a good formation, a center back partnership stands to elevate your squad or create a weak link for exposure.
We got a glimpse of the Holding-Saliba, LCB-RCB, pairing for the first time against Bodø/Glimt and it looked uncomfortable. Against PSV at the Emirates, Arteta returned Holding to the right side to pair with Gabriel and the pairing looked more confident. Yesterday, they returned to Saliba and Holding, and it looked susceptible and poor.
I can understand why Arteta wants to cater to Saliba’s strengths, but I wonder if it’s better in these situations to aid the weaker of your two links and give preferential favor to Holding by keeping him as the right center back. It’s clearly a position he is more familiar with, and in a weak-link sport like football that is important, made more important by an already rotated side. If it’s not possible to play Holding on the right because Arteta believes Saliba isn’t a match for his left-sided role, then maybe the duo just are not a fit.
Control vs passive
If there is an aspect of Arsenal’s game that has improved immensely from last year to this year, it’s their ability to possess the ball. This year Arsenal have the 4th highest possess averages in the Premier League and have had multiple matches with well over a 60% share of the rock. It’s great to see, it’s better to watch, and it opens a lot of doors for Arsenal’s attacking growth. However, in recent games we seem to be getting treated to a visual representation of the difference between control and passive.
Arsenal had 70% of the ball last night, created a few good chances, but it was another evening of walking away wishing on the few good chances, instead of drooling over the multitude of chances, half-chances, and quarter-chances. It felt like Arsenal were comfortable in retaining the ball, comfortable in moving it through the back, but didn’t have the ideas, gas, and wherewithal to puncture the PSV block.
When I think about a team with control, which Arsenal have shown a capability of doing, it’s a team that is willing to knock it around and move but is lying in wait for that opportunity to pounce. It’s the team that is possessing to stretch a defense, but could turn it all up and notch and reck the defender across from them. It’s those teams that walk away with a composed 2-0 win, but everyone comments on how they could have score two or three more. Thats the dominance and control everyone wants to see, if anything because this team is capable of it. We have not in the last five matches now.
End product missing
For a team that scored 23 goals in their first 9 Premier league matches, the nosedive in production is concerning, and a little inexplicable. Certainly Arsenal were scoring more than their xG suggested they should be, but their numbers demonstrated a team that was creating droves of chances, taking lots of shots, and getting their reward.
Form ebbs and flows, but between a dip in chance production and a lack of end product finishing, Arsenal have been left to try and scrape by with 1-0 wins. Relying on that, as we have sene, is difficult and unpredictable. It’s hard to win a lot of games, especially on the road, when you only score one win. We have done it, but as nice as “one nil to the Arsenal” is, I don’t believe anyone wants this team to become that side in that side… in that aspect at least.
For a player that started hot, Eddie hasn’t really claimed his opportunity to put a stamp down on the Europa League group stages. Instead of reassuring everyone they could rely on him when it came time to rotate — a statement he was making earlier in the season — he now has people questioning whether Arsenal are in need of a second striker signing as soon as January.
Arsenal have seen where their level of play falls too when they don’t have that quality front man to help bring others into play and score their share of goals, which raises the nerves moving forward. Arsenal need to get that duo on the scoresheet, firing, and raising the energy levels.
All in all, it was an unpleasant evening and the failure to gain the single point needed with the strongest side Arsenal have put out in the group stages to date makes it all a bit worse. Compound that with the questions that people are now going to ask about Arteta’s decisions around player fatigue and rotation and it gets a little worse. PSV were never going to be a pushover side when it came to defending their turf, but they also are a side Arsenal should have been capable of getting a result against, even a draw, with the team they put forth.
Bad evening but Arsenal have to find a way to break their slump and get three points this weekend. Hopefully a match (and win) in front of an Emirates crowd with lift spirts and energy levels.