A tame goodbye

If Mikel Arteta was in any doubt as to the enormity of the kind of overhaul we’re in need of, this was surely put to bed after today’s drab and impotent affair. Before the game, he’d made it abundantly clear to the players why he was there:

“I will be in the stands at Everton. I want you to know that I will be watching your attitude, your efforts and body language. I will see what you do when you lose the ball, what your attitude is and what you do when you have the ball.”

There’s no excuses and certainly nowhere to hide from such a no-nonsense statement. Emery was a victim of his messages supposedly not being understood so we’ll soon see how much that holds up. I thought such a declaration, along with it being Freddie’s last game, might have lit fires under some of our under-performers, or even just those looking to impress but in reality, it was another rudderless performance when we were on the offensive.

While Everton were nothing like the side that dispatched Chelsea, they had at least benefited from the “new manager bounce”. Not taking anything away from Freddie, but he doesn’t quite have the same level of imposure as Duncan Ferguson, what with the convictions for assault after an on-pitch brawl and having apprehended and hospitalised multiple burglars. On the day though, they were dragged down to our levels of mediocrity, which perhaps goes some way in explaining how we managed to come away with a clean sheet. Christmas miracles…

Freddie’s last entry (for now?) was another show of faith in our youth, though somewhat borne out of necessity as Saka once again came in for the injured Kolasinac. Still, it was the first time we’d started a league game with three teenagers since 2007 and the youngest starting eleven in the league since 2011.

In reality, it was all a bit dull. A complete lack of movement, quality and creativity in the final third left us with only one attempt on goal in the 44th minute. Arteta’s interim role as overseer seemed to have little change in urgency or eagerness to impress either.

For what it’s worth, although they found plenty of time and space, Everton never troubled Leno in the first half and it was the sort of game that neutrals walk away from feeling like it just stole 90 minutes of your life. We’ve reverted back to being a “second half team” for much of the season and I hoped for their sake and ours this would be the case again, both for a send-off and thanks to Freddie and to give Arteta a small foundation to work from. In reality, besides a shinned effort from Aubameyang that was well saved by Pickford, we never came close.

What we got was an away clean sheet (what even are those?) after, by our standards, quite a solid defensive display. Granit Xhaka even tried to throw a spanner in the works in the dying moments with a chipped back pass to Leno with several Everton players bearing down on him but thankfully the German was as surefooted as ever. It’s times like that with Xhaka where the only thing that springs to mind is this:

A real hand-in-mouth moment that might have cost us on another day and I’m sure Arteta was just as baffled.

In fairness to the rest of the team, it was probably one of our best defensive performances of the season. We didn’t afford them a single shot on target, players were putting their bodies on the line to make blocks, we were clearing the ball quickly and generally didn’t look quite so chaotic.

I usually try and avoid naming names, except for the obvious suspects who seem to enjoy making fools of themselves but as there was so little to talk about, the game at least was a way to evaluate some of our squad as the reins are passed over once more.

The first name that springs to mind is Reiss Nelson. I really thought he’d press on this season after impressing in the Bundesliga, to the point where he’d be at the top of our list of “best youth prospects”. In reality, he’s struggled to make an impact this season and is quite far down the pecking order. Ineffective in open play, wasteful from set pieces, I would like to see him take another loan spell, perhaps domestically on this occasion – and somewhere he is guaranteed playing time. He has plenty of good qualities but compared to some of our other youth players, he’s still lacking a certain something.

Granit Xhaka is one whose days are numbered, I feel. I’ve spoken at length in the past about the target on his back and a degree of scapegoating but after reports of his open desire to leave and the dust still settling after his on-field outburst, his performances are still far too inconsistent. While we lack experience in midfield, a January departure as Arteta arrives may be a fitting agreement for a player who just isn’t right for the job he’s being asked to do. As a player, Arteta was the polar opposite: assured in possession, level-headed (mostly) and we anchored a reasonably successful team around him. The only thing the two have in common is they’re both on the slower side, with Arteta’s technical proficiency being the decisive factor. How much sympathy he’ll extend as a manager remains to be seen.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Calum Chambers are two players who have quietly improved in recent weeks. They’ve both struggled to define themselves, not necessarily through fault of their own but rather their malleability and (relatively) better conditioning than their counterparts. For the time being, Arteta will have no option but to continue playing them but I would like to see some semblance of consistency in our defence if we’re to have any chance of replicating the defensive performance we saw today.

Mesut Ozil, the problem child, continues to be a problem. The reason for his exclusion was as blunt as it gets, and Arteta will do well to continue Freddie’s strong stance on such a matter:

“He walked off, took his things and kicked them. I said at Arsenal, that’s not how we behave. Mesut was injured but I would not have picked him for the squad because I want to make a stance that that’s not what I accept from an Arsenal football player.”

With any luck, the rumours about his proposed loan move to Fenerbache will come to fruition.

He’s spoken at length already, both prior to and after his appointment, about the kind of football Arteta will demand. I don’t know about him, but I don’t think we have the personnel to do that right now. Although some of the up-and-comers might have it in their locker, they haven’t been coached how to yet and there’s plenty others who we know definitely don’t. The immobility of the midfield and lack of creativity are perhaps the biggest challenges that may give him more than a few sleepless nights.

The consolation of the manic Christmas fixture list will at least give Arteta plenty of opportunity to get to grips with the realities of this squad’s shortcomings. Whether he’ll be given what he needs in the January transfer window remains to be seen. Burned before, KSE may point to Emery’s fate after a summer many touted as a success in the transfer window but Arteta can’t be tarred with the same brush.

Onto Bournemouth on Boxing Day and another fresh start.

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