I must admit, I wasn’t chomping at the bit at the prospect of football returning behind closed doors, especially when they’re the doors of the Etihad. With the dust from COVID still far from settled, the feeling of prematurity very much got in the way of my enthusiasm, along with the fixture itself. We’ve become somewhat of a free pass for them in the last few years and even with 3 months to prepare, I wasn’t at all convinced the outcome would be any different than usual and seeing the starting lineup very much cemented that belief.
The whole premise took some getting used to, though. The Emptihad – even more so than usual – to the tune of canned atmosphere and the odd pundit littered around the stands. All very strange. What transpired was decidedly less strange.
The oft-used trio of Xhaka, Guendouzi and Ceballos is something I’ve never been convinced of from a balance perspective – they’re all reasonably technical players and can do a few useful things off the ball but the absolute dearth of creativity is something that’s always bothered me. None of them are what I’d consider a typical Arsenal midfielder. That being said, out of the central offering, Hale End’s Joe Willock is the only one who does have a bit of flair and Arsenalness about him but he struggled to find a footing in a game even before it began to effortlessly escape us as City began to turn the screw.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom from the onset; seeing Saka entrusted in a more advanced role, with Nketiah leading the line and Willock just behind was a sign that the lay-off period hadn’t shaken Arteta’s resolve in trusting these players. Before his untimely and costly injury, Mari had also been measured and calm, while Leno had lost none of his sharpness. Tierney also came back into the team and was dependable, if not a little hesitant going forward when given the chance to try and probe City’s back line. While the opening stages were bright, it became quickly apparent that our two warm-up fixtures had done little to prepare us for the kind of intensity of a Premier League game as lethargy seemed to set in around the half-hour mark.
The two injuries probably had a part to play in that, and losing Xhaka especially was always going to be damaging to Arteta’s game plan because he’s so rarely injured. The personnel lost wasn’t so much the issue as was the players who were called in to pick up the pieces. A player like David Luiz has never struck me as the level-headed, focused type, and expecting him to come into a game – even one as lethargic as this one was in the early stages – isn’t something I would say he’s at all suited to. A stark contrast that popped into my head after he was sent off was Per Mertesacker’s cameo in the FA Cup final; silencing doubters and running the show from the back after barely featuring all season. I find myself dearly missing someone like that on the pitch at times like these, as reassuring to know he’s still tinkering away behind the scenes.
The blunder for the first was bad enough – it was the kind of limp, half-hearted approach that you hate to see, like people sticking out a leg to try and block a shot only to see it loop over the keeper. The rain may have caught him off-guard as the ball skidded off the surface but that’s the beauty of concentration. If you’re concentrating, you don’t find yourself in these kinds of situations often. What we already knew before we signed him, is that he is not that kind of player. You can hearken to his experience, his influence in the dressing room, as a beneficiary to the youth and as a leader but whenever he’s on a pitch, there is always the possibility for that kind of blunder and he continues to cost us points.
His 25 minutes were up when he hauled Mahrez to the ground and while I don’t have any complaints with the decision, it was typical that Anthony Taylor missed Nketiah being hauled to the ground at the other end of the pitch – the only difference being City’s defender using both arms instead of one hand to do so. De Bruyne made no mistake and that was 3 points done and dusted for City without breaking a sweat.
Without Leno, we may well have faced the same kind of scoreline we subjected Charlton to last week and with 0 shots on target and only 2 efforts on goal in total, we never looked capable of breaking City down even at full strength. Therein lies the problem, though, because our idea of full strength and those above us is starting to feel like a chasm.
There also comes the question as to whether we should give Luiz an extension. Given some of the defensive omissions from the squad, and despite the seemingly abundant depth we have at centre back, we are limited for match fit, Premier League level defenders. At this point, he’s already been a massive financial loss if you take his utility into account so that gamble lies with the oh-so-capable hands of Raul and Co.
While we’re on the subject, what’s even more maddening in hindsight is the slapdash approach to our transfer dealings, as details have emerged in recent weeks of just how much it’s cost to secure Davíd Luiz’ unique skill set – rumoured to be in the region of £24 million when taking other fees into account. We also have our star player hesitant to sign a new contract, one of our two brightest up-and-comers with only a year left (and neither in a rush to sign) and the biggest whale of them all collecting his pension while not even making the squad. Arteta referred to Özil’s absence as a “tactical decision”, which is eerily similar to the sentiments that Emery tried to peddle on a weekly basis at the height of our turmoil this season.
A far more worrying thought is the parent of these issues is a club that time and again demonstrates a disinterest in allaying this steady decline into irrelevance. The risk of signing a player like David Luiz was obviously weighted but where I suspect it unravels is where this aligns with the club’s actual ambitions. Like Emery’s appointment, he was seen as a stop-gap shortcut to get us back into contention in the form of a Champions League spot and neither has worked out. We now find ourselves in a position where Mustafi is quite possibly our best centre back, which, along with COVID, may just be one of the harbingers of the apocalypse.
Other acquisitions like Nicolas Pépé have been used sparingly and it remains to be seen if he has what it takes to make it here. The same can be said for Lucas Torreira. On the subject of these two, it may be that Arteta is looking to (or has been advised to) carefully juggle the squad to get them through these frantic weeks of congested football but I’m not entirely convinced of that theory given the track record of these two. Time will tell.
The really irksome part about this for me is, for all of the club’s faux-savvy attempts to appear conscientious, it’s hard not to see the club as nothing more than another corporate shill when you consider the hypocrisy of its support for Black Lives Matter but distancing from Mesut Özil’s communiqués on causes important to him and millions of others. It’s one thing to be at your wit’s end with the man as a footballer but this is a fundamental human failure and can’t have helped with his seemingly abject attitude towards football these days.
I’m not sure where the buck stops exactly (although I have my suspicions) – whether it be the Kroenke’s or Raul and Co., but one thing I am still quietly confident of is that Arteta has the kind of mettle that we need to steer us back in the right direction. I always find myself in agreement with what he is trying to do and by all accounts, he is held in high regard by people that actually matter. The question is whether he will be given the time and resources that are absolutely necessary to enable him at Arsenal.