That was disappointing but hey, we out xG’d them at least! And by a huge margin as well. But the bad news is that they won 18/22 tackles and whenever a team attempts more than 20 tackles against us, our record is 1-1-4. So, I guess it was just not our day.
I hate that I have to be explicit about this: I don’t actually care about the xG or the number of tackles and I don’t think that just because they tackled us a lot that’s why they won the game. Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea didn’t tackle us a lot and they won pretty handily. So, yeah, I’m not crazy*.
The reductionist explanation for this loss is that
- Injuries forced us to play with players who aren’t best in their positions
- Arteta chose to play Xhaka at LB instead of CM he also has persisted with Lacazette in CF who is in a 4 game slump
- The team aren’t actually really good enough
- Some mysterious things keep happening and the players just don’t start very well
- The refs jobbed us out of a goal
Let’s look at each one.
Yes, we have a lot of injuries. It’s true. It sucks. It seems to be something of a curse for us at Arsenal. But it’s also the difference between a team pushing to win the League and one which is hoping to luck into a top four finish. And the bottom line is that we need better squad depth. Yesterday, Arteta started our most experienced MFer at LB while he had a LB – which we purchased this summer as a backup to our oft injured world class LB – on the bench. And I’m going to be harsh on Arteta here – the thing with Tavares is his fault. Arteta is the one who has failed to train the player properly, then played him against Forest, then pulled him after 35 minutes, then played him again where he looked like a player who has never played with this team and who had zero confidence and pulled him again at half-time of that game.
So, partly of his own making, Arteta got the starting lineup wrong. To his credit, he did change the lineup at half time and we looked slightly better but we didn’t really create anything until Arteta went for broke and brought on Pepe in the 80th minute. As an aside, if Tavares had had the game at left back that Xhaka had, I think Arteta would have pulled him in the 30th minute.
As for Lacazette, his last good game seems to have come against Watford. He did score a penalty against Leicester so we can give him that one too if we are being generous. But the point here is that in his last four matches (against Liverpool, Villa, Palace, and Brighton) he has a total of 6 shots and he’s only even had 3 key passes with 0.4 expected assists. If Lacazette’s purpose in this squad is not to score but facilitate and help build play, that’s fine, I can accept that. However, he’s not doing that at the moment and he’s also not scoring goals.
I’m not scapegoating him, I don’t think that this is Lacazette’s fault. I think that this is a slump and that is normal. I also think that if Arsenal wanted to take fourth place, we needed to have some depth at the CF spot and options to bring on. The club – which includes Arteta – chose to get rid of Aubameyang and use Nketiah. The club also tried and failed to replace Aubameyang. And the manager – wrongly in the minds of many folks – persists with Lacazette despite this poor run.
Everyone wants Arteta to play Smith Rowe at CF this week (last week it was Martinelli) and I haven’t a clue as to whether that would work or not (Smith Rowe wasn’t great against Villareal in the False Nein and I think Martinelli was played at CF briefly in one game). But it would involve dropping the club captain, which is something you only do out of desperation. Are we there yet? Maybe.
But we have a manager who is reticent to make big changes and usually only does so when his back’s against the wall. And that’s normal as well. He’s a rookie manager. He’s going to make mistakes. He’s going to have periods where he persists with a setup that doesn’t make sense. Heck, Wenger did it too and he was a very experienced manager.
Which leads us to point three and four which is that the team just aren’t really that good. I can’t argue against that. There aren’t a lot of great players on this team – I didn’t say “none” – and we have no great goal-scorer. Ask yourself how many of these players would start for Man City or Liverpool? I think we have a number who would be backups but almost none who would start. These are just facts.
The club is trying to address this and last summer the club spent tons of money on the defense, which we needed to do, in the hope that we could ride it out one more year with Auba and Lacazette. Auba didn’t work out for us (though he has 7 goals in 8 games for Barcelona) and we couldn’t replace him. So we now have a team that struggles to score goals.
Why have we had two games in a row where we start slow? Well, last time Arteta said that he puts his own hand up and that it was his fault. Today he blamed the players:
It’s not a problem of attitude, for me it was a problem of the approach and the courage that we showed to play and we didn’t have that purpose. I know we didn’t have that intention to attack and step in and provoke the situation that we want to provoke and we’re looking at each other too many times instead of taking ownership and doing what we have to do and you cannot play like that, you have to make yourself count, step in and today we didn’t do it.
If you have just one game or a few players who do what he describes above (which is I guess, craven?) that’s one thing but it looked like a collective problem yesterday which is odd. And it’s two games in a row where we’ve looked disjointed and uncomfortable with a little pressure.
Arteta’s apologists will say that this is what happens when a team are hit by injuries. And also, maybe this is just a blip. Maybe it doesn’t mean much other than that we had a little slip. I’m fine with both of those arguments.
However, it’s also true that Arteta’s iron fist management style and perhaps his version of positional football can lead to these exact kinds of games. He has managed to pick fights with a lot of players that were well liked in the dressing room. He’s also ostracized his backup players as not good enough. He also tends to blame the players after games like this. And he spends a lot of time on the sideline yelling at his players. What effect does that have on the players?
I’m not saying that we have a revolution happening. Like I said above, maybe it’s just a blip. Maybe the team just kind of lost a little bit of steam over the last month. Maybe Arteta’s ultra rigid system is difficult for young players like Tavares to learn and so injuries make it much more difficult for us to play his football.
As for point five, the answer for me is yes. When I first saw the replay of Martinelli’s goal I thought he was obviously offside. However, you couldn’t make a definitive call because the Brighton players were all jumbled and blocked by the keeper. So I think what happened is that the VAR official saw that first frame (the one where it looked like Martinelli was obviously offside) and then went hunting for a frame to “prove” he was offside. This isn’t what officials are supposed to be doing. Is it their job to look for evidence to support their beliefs or are they supposed to be impartial observers? I thought it was the latter but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the whole point of VAR is actually just to prove their beliefs. But even if that’s the case, the frame that they finally settled on was less than definitive in my mind and I think that they got this call 100% wrong.
As for the game and the loss and how we didn’t show up for 80 minutes, it’s probably not just one of the things I’ve listed above. It’s probably all of them. Arteta’s rigid, the team’s not really great, Arteta started with a bad lineup (which by the way he bristled at when asked, lol), we are having a blip, which is caused in part by the way Arteta manages his players and the way that the club bought this summer and was unable to replace players in January. Oh yeah, and the referees absolutely fucked us on that VAR call.
Simple as that, really.
*Not in that way anyway.