Familiar problem dogs Arsenal
It’s easy to say this in hindsight, but this result had been in the post for some time now as far as Arsenal are concerned. They had been handed a get out of jail free card at Elland Road last week, and although the Gunners still maintain a monopoly over top spot in the Premier League, this weekend at Southampton, they came up short.
In many ways the game followed a familiar pattern for Arsenal. Mikel Arteta ‘s men have tended to fly out of the blocks this season and this was no different as Gabriel Jesus, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka all went close to opening the scoring in a superb opening 20 minutes. Eventually their hunt for an opening goal was rewarded as Granit Xhaka executed a near carbon copy of his right footed half volley against PSV on Thursday night only this time with Ben White being provider of the clipped right footed cross.
At this point it appeared as though three points would inevitably be making the damp trip back up the M3, but with victory firmly in their clutches, Arsenal began to play with their food. Passes started going astray, pressing became more lax and a St. Mary’s stadium that had previously been resigned to defeat, suddenly began to believe.
Tailing off after a fast start is nothing new for Arsenal this season though. In the opening 15 minutes of matches they have totalled three expected goals, but curiously between minutes 16 and 30 in games that has dropped to just 2.4. What was different this time however, was their inability to pick things back up again after the break.
Traditionally the Gunners have come out pedal to the metal at the start of second halves this season, but on Sunday they failed to ever really get out of first gear. Sensing more of an opportunity Southampton began to come out of their shells a little more, and while Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side hardly had Arsenal against the ropes at any point, it would be a lie to suggest that Stuart Armstrong’s equaliser hadn’t been coming by the time it arrived in the 65th minute.
“I think we stopped doing all the simple things right,” Arteta told football.london when asked to explain his side’s rapid drop off “The distances on the ball positions were too far, we gave too many simple balls away in very dangerous areas without much pressure and that didn’t allow us much continuity like we had in the first half. Then you are more tired because the game becomes more open and there are more transitions and you are fatigued.”
In many ways this was a performance reminiscent of the first half of last season, where Arsenal formed a habit of starting well in games, only to almost immediately retreat after getting in front. There were games such as the 2-0 victory away at Leicester, where following this pattern of beginning at full speed left them with just enough in the tank to run to victory on fumes, but there were plenty of other occasions such as the 2-2 home draw with Crystal Palace where it didn’t work out. It appeared the Gunners had grown out of the pattern this time around, but across their past two league matches, it does appear to be rearing it’s ugly head once more.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of its resurgence on Sunday though, was that Arsenal simply gifted the initiative to Southampton, while Leeds fought hard to win it back. Had the winning the run come to an end at Elland Road last week most fans would probably have been able to come to terms with the fact that the Gunners had lost to a better team, but the self-sabotaging nature of its finale at St. Mary’s is arguably why this feels so much like a defeat. There are plenty of mitigating factors that we’ll delve into a bit more as we go on, but if Arsenal are to maintain their form then stopping the return of this kamikaze penchant for ceding the control in matches they go ahead in is going to have to be a priority.
Of course there’s a chance that the tail off in form would not have been so costly if Arsenal had found a way to be less profligate in front of goal. Their were plenty guilty of spurning great opportunities on the day, but perhaps the biggest culprit was Gabriel Jesus.
Another barren day at the office for the Brazilian means his scoring drought has now extended to four matches since his goal against Tottenham on the return from the international break. On Sunday he had three presentable chances to put the game to bed for Arsenal, but failed to take a single one of them.
What’s concerning for Arsenal is not necessarily the fact that he’s missing the chances individually. After all it’s a famous adage with strikers that if they keep getting into the right positions then eventually the goals will come. Instead it is the psychological affect that such a cumulative impotency in front of goal might have on the former Manchester City man.
With each passing chance he looks to be growing more and more frustrated with himself and perhaps this is denting his confidence in front of goal. If you contrast the conviction he had when it came to taking chances at the start of the season it feels night and day. Take that impudent chip that opened his Premier League account for Arsenal against Leicester and it’s difficult to imagine Jesus having the confidence to attempt such a strike now.
There could well be some accentuating circumstances that are contributing to the seemingly increasing pressure that Jesus is putting on himself to start scoring at this very moment. He will be all too aware that it is just four weeks until the World Cup begins in Qatar and having been left out of the Brazil squad in the last international break, the 25-year-old may feel like he has a point to prove. The importance of getting on the Selecao’s plane out to Doha cannot be understated for Jesus, who has a personal score to settle with the World Cup after being brutally criticised in his home country for failing to net as Brazil’s number nine in Russia 2018.
When asked about the lack of goals for Jesus after the game at Southampton, Mikel Arteta was inclined to point to his generally self-critical character as the reason for his frustrated demeanour. “I’m sure today he will be disappointed because he had the chances to put them away,” the Spaniard said in his post-match press conference. “Knowing Gabi, he’s disappointed when he scores two goals and could have scored three or four, so he can do that.”
These high standards are exactly what we have praised Jesus for adding to Arsenal all season, so it’s important to note that this is not a criticism of the fact that he’s getting frustrated with himself for not scoring, but rather an attempt to explain the heat that the Brazilian may be feeling at this particular time of year. With five years of working with Pep Guardiola under his belt though, you would back Jesus to have the mental fortitude to rediscover his goal scoring touch very soon
Tierney vs Tomiyasu rolls on
We’ve reached a stage with this Arsenal side where it is relatively easy to predict the starting XI from game to game. Mikel Arteta is notoriously stingy when it comes to giving out team news, but as things stand the only real point of debate is over who plays at left back as Oleksandr Zinchenko continues to recover from a calf problem.
Takehiro Tomiyasu has been the man in possession of the starting position over the past three matches and with each passing game the decision is starting to become more controversial. Initially the decision to bring the Japan international in against Liverpool ahead of Kieran Tierney appeared to be a stroke of genius as he was able to shut Mohamed Salah out of the game. It appeared that this would be a one-off call, and in the weeks since Tierney has revealed that Arteta explained it to him as such. But across the previous matches against Leeds and now Southampton, Tomiyasu has stayed in possession of the left back spot, creating questions over the Scottish international’s place in the squad.
There are reasons why playing Tomiyasu there does make sense. The Japan international is incredibly two-footed which makes him well suited to playing the inverted role that Zinchenko specialised in during the early parts of the season. As well as offering Arsenal an option in the build up, it also provides Granit Xhaka with the freedom to get forward more. You could argue that without Tomiyasu covering behind him, the Swiss midfielder may not have felt at liberty to attack the box in the manner that he did for his goal against Southampton, and you could probably also make the case that if Tierney had been playing then Xhaka would have found himself spending most of the game playing a deeper role to enable his teammate to attack aggressively down the left flank.
However, across matches against Leeds and Southampton, Tomiyasu has failed to convince in possession. While his ambidexterity is a useful asset, cutting infield from the right to switch play with your left is very different from being forced to pass down the line with your weaker foot when pinned up against the touchline. football.london was sat near the Southampton analysts in the press box and from their communications down to the touchline it was clear that they had identified Tomiyasu as a trigger for their press.
With Tierney in the side, this is no longer an issue. Looking at this game specifically, you feel as though his vigorous running down the left could really have caused some problems for the cumbersome Lyanco who was playing out of position in the absence of Tino Livramento and Kyle Walker-Peters. This proved to be the case as he came on and nearly assisted a winner for Martin Odegaard.
On top of that though Tierney has shown last season that he can do the inverted role if needed. While Tomiyasu missed much of the second half of the season with calf problems, it was Tierney who drifted infield to enable Cedric to attack at will down the right in support of Odegaard and Bukayo Saka before being ruled out with an injury of his own. Sure, the Scot is not as slick in possession as Tomiyasu, but he is certainly a diligent enough defender to play the role if required.
Tierney doesn’t seem like the type to kick up a fuss, but as he watched Tomiyasu struggle for the second week in a row in a position that probably should be his in the absence of Zinchenko, you can only imagine the frustration he must have been feeling. Again, this is not a criticism of Tomiyasu who is versatile and able member of this Arsenal squad, but just because playing the Japan international at left back worked against Liverpool, this does not necessarily mean it’s going to succeed every time Mikel Arteta tries it. There are games where Tierney is the better option to play the position, and Sunday’s match with Southampton was certainly one of those.
Arteta’s rotation comes under the microscope
A criticism of Mikel Arteta in the past has been a failure to influence games from the bench. If you were looking at Sunday’s match you would probably have to concede that that would be a fair one.
The Spaniard made three substitutions on the day, all of which arguably carried some questions around them. The first being to bring on Kieran Tierney made sense for the reasons we’ve already outlined, but after Ben White had been having such a good game going forward, taking him off instead of Takehiro Tomiyasu felt an odd one.
Then came the decision to bring on Eddie Nketiah for Gabriel Martinelli. The Brazilian had not been at his most influential as the game went on, but once Nketiah came on it was curious to see him shunted out to the left wing. This was exactly what Arteta had done in midweek against PSV and when asked to explain it by football.london he had said it was to “change one thing instead of two.” That perhaps made sense from the start of a game, but in match where Arsenal found themselves chasing a goal, you wonder if playing Nketiah in more of an orthodox pairing with Gabriel Jesus like he had done so successfully when the Gunners came from behind against Fulham earlier in the season might have been a more impactful switch.
Finally the switch to take off Martin Odegaard for Fabio Vieira was the one that probably raised the most eyebrows. In fairness to Arteta he would hardly have intended for Vieira to have been as ineffectual as he was, but taking Odegaard off at that moment felt like an odd choice. The Norwegian had created a fantastic opportunity for Nketiah moments before his withdrawal and as others around him allowed their standard to drop he battled hard to keep them high across the team, and could be seen yelling at Gabriel Martinelli on one occasion to drop back into position to help the team when the Brazilian switched off and stayed too high at a set piece.
Of course, criticism of substitutions can only be made to a certain extent because we are not at liberty to the information that Arteta has about all his players. It’s certainly possible that fatigue from Thursday’s midweek win over PSV could have played a part in his changes and as Arsenal struggled to rediscover the high standard of the opening 20 minutes at St. Mary’s that certainly looked to be the case. Speaking after the game though Arteta was keen to avoid using tiredness as an excuse.
“We have the same that we had a month ago, two days ago and the same as what we’re going to have next week,” he said in his post-match press conference. “I don’t like to have any excuses. In the second half, we could have played much better, and we could have won much more comfortably than we did, and it’s completely down to us. I think the team looked really fresh at the start. I put it more down to the way we played. We should have played better in the second half.”
The Spaniard has been keen to point out that his players will need to get used to performing at a high level every three days if they are to succeed in the Champions League and the Premier League as they all want and he certainly has a point when it comes to that. But with Europa League qualification now secure, you wonder if he’ll be more tempted to rotate heavily when his side travel to Eindhoven this week. In the absence of Emile Smith Rowe, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Mohamed Elneny, Arsenal’s squad depth is being pushed to the limit in a way that Arteta hasn’t really had to deal with so far. The way he manages the alterations he makes over the coming weeks could well be crucial to determining how long the Gunners continue fighting at the top of the Premier League.
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