I have to admit that I’m still angry. It wasn’t just that Arsenal lost, it was that we were comprehensively outplayed – again – by Patrick Vieira’s team.
Right from the start Arsenal looked like a team who couldn’t come up with an answer to Palace’s pressure. Time and again, players were easily pressed into making a bad pass or turned into a cul-de-sac where they were tackled off the ball. And for most of the first half, we resorted to long-balls to no one.
It’s been a fact for a long time that Arsenal struggle when teams press them. What Arteta was able to do successfully in the last year or so is make it so that the opponent cannot or will not press. I’m still not sure how he did that (other than the normal way: speed of ball movement and player positioning) but what I do know is that if teams press Arsenal, they can get joy. When a team gets 45 or more successful pressures on Arsenal, they have won 4/8 matches, drawn 2 and lost just twice (Burnley and Southampton). Palace did this both times they played us and only dropped points the first time because of a last-gasp goal.
The second half was nominally better. Arsenal had two chances – one from Smith Rowe and one from Odegard – but depending on who you ask, those two chances weren’t really that great. Opta scored them as “big chances” and 538 has Arsenal’s xG at 1.3. But Statsbomb (via fbref) put the Arsenal total xG for that match at 0.8. The latter matches much closer to how I saw the game. I remember the two chances in question and at the time didn’t really think they were big chances. And most of the rest of our shots were very poor, because we struggled to even get the ball up the pitch, until well after they had already scored two goals on us because of their pressure.
The bad news here is that many of the teams remaining in our run-in have pressed Arsenal this season. Brighton (next up) secured a 0-0 draw on 45 successful pressures. Southampton lost 3-0 to us but they had 47 successful pressures. Chelsea beat Arsenal with 48 successful pressures. Man U had one of the worst pressing performances against Arsenal all season, so that game should be there for the taking, but somehow we always seem to manage to cock it up against Man United. West Ham are also a low pressure team. Leeds under Bielsa were a crazy high pressure side and still are (they had 91 pressure regains against Southampton on Saturday). Newcastle pressed us a lot last time but failed to win the ball back. Everton are a mess so I’m not worried about that game. And while Tottenham are kind of a low pressure side, I expect that they will come after us, especially in midfield.
The point here is that Arteta needs to figure something out, and fast.
Arteta’s excuse will be that he’s missing his first team fullbacks. There’s some merit to that. Fullbacks are critical to modern football and it’s clear that Tavares is not up to the task and it’s been clear to me since about his first game that Cedric will have a lot more bad games than good ones. But the problem with that excuse is that these are the players that we have. We can’t buy new guys and we can’t promote from within. So, we need to find a way to play football with the guys that we have.
I would also point out that these are the players that this management team purchased. Lokonga*, Tavares, and Cedric are all going to need to be played in the final 9 matches of the season. And Arteta needs to get the best out of them.
And I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think Arteta has it in him. He took Tavares off at half-time, which I guess showed some restraint from the last time he hauled Tavares off in the 35th minute against Nottingham Forest, but which probably signals the end of his Arsenal career? Or not? I thought that the 35th minute sub would be the last time he played for Arsenal but I guess I was wrong and maybe I’m wrong again. But Tavares played like a player with zero confidence yesterday and was so far out of step with the rest of the squad that I wondered if he’s even been practicing with the team. And somehow Arteta either has to integrate him back into the team or find someone to take his place.
But who can Arteta play there? Saka? We can’t really play Xhaka in that position because we need him in midfield to help Lokonga (if Partey is injured). Or do we go to a back three and play with wingbacks? It’s a tough problem and I don’t have the answer, I just hope Arteta does.
The bottom line here is that I’ve been saying all along that we were going to struggle to get top 4. I know what the stats say and 538 still has us beating Spurs to that spot by 1 point but the way things look today, with injuries and given the way that we played yesterday, I’m still predicting 5th place for Arsenal.
Even if you disagree, and that’s fine, I think we would all agree that we cannot have another performance like the one we had yesterday. We can’t even have another half like yesterday.
With that loss yesterday and the poor performance we have made it very difficult to get 4th place now.
*I’m not saying he’s a bad player, but rather that he’s going to need to be played now that Partey is out.