Naturally, when a 47-year home record is repeatedly mentioned by a commentary team, you know the jig is up. That’s just how it goes. The weekend’s results weren’t all bad, with the yearly Invincibles debate being put to bed on Matchday 6 this season after last season’s scare but that’s where the good runs dry.
What we got was a familiar performance and an all too familiar villain, yesterday’s tepidity is threatening to manifest itself into something decidedly more ugly because until this side’s glaring vacancy in the creativity department is addressed, Mesut Ozil’s insufferable “footballing reasons” omission talk isn’t going anywhere.
It was a textbook case of plan execution from Brendan Rogers and Leicester, and while Arteta was understandably aggrieved at our disallowed goal – which no doubt would have changed the entire dynamic of the game – this kind of performance wasn’t new. It’s made all the more frustrating because it was telegraphed for all to see, and the naivety was our undoing. While that may be an excuse for the collective, it doesn’t excuse Shkodran Mustafi who, for all his qualities, is a player that will always switch off and will always cost you points.
Pundits were quick to praise Leicester for the execution of the goal but the simple fact of the matter is, if Vardy is tracked properly, there’s no danger. Gabriel, a 22 year old Premier League debutant can see the danger. Everyone else in the footballing world can see the danger. But Shkodran Mustafi, a player who’s played in the same division as Jamie Vardy for 4 years and who was even made aware of the danger by his junior counterpart’s frantic pointing did not. I don’t think Xhaka or Tierney cover themselves in glory either and there’s questions about our defensive line and naivety in getting drawn out but the buck stops with Mustafi on this one.
There’s a problem there, though, because for the buck to stop with Mustafi, we also would have to have done everything in our power to make our dominance in the match count for something.
I said after Thursday’s performance that “no one really takes risks besides our standout performers and it’s all very predictable” and it was more of the same. The only real adventure shown in Leicester’s half was shown by our 33 year old centre-half who – despite leaving the pitch through injury in the 47th minute – finished the game with the most attempted passes in the final third. In typical David Luiz manner, this was epitomised when he inadvertently blocked one of Aubameyang’s shots because he’d bombed forward into the box.
It was made even worse by how often we gave the ball away with misplaced passes. It would be actually be palatable if these turnovers came from risky passes or some cute 1-touch football on the edge of the box but for the most part, it was all a bit routine. And when we did create passes, it looked something like this…
There are more question marks over Aubameyang’s continued isolation on the left wing, as he went 5 games without a Premier League goal for the first time in his Arsenal career. There’s only so many times you can watch a player of Aubameyang’s abundant goalscoring ability cross the ball on his weak foot before you start grinding your teeth. It’s natural to circle back around and point to the fact he’s scored on plenty of occasions from the left wing but you would be hard pressed to argue it’s optimal.
As far as I’m concerned, this “compromise experiment” has run its course. Despite Lacazette’s position as our most prolific goalscorer this season, his lead-lined boots and reluctance to convert chances that others perhaps would leaves me seriously questioning his future. In the not too distant past, under Emery’s first season he was our Player of the Year; a lethal and tenacious finisher with the slightest sight of goal. He was a joy to watch and I felt confident whenever he found the ball in the box. The difference now is night and day. The alternative is Eddie Nketiah who doesn’t strike me as someone ready to the lead the line, provided Arteta’s indignant pursual of this approach continues.
That leaves us with one option. Just the one, and that’s playing a centre forward who thrives on space and goalscoring opportunities the chance to actually do so. Instead of shaping us from the ground up (which he’s done a fine job of already), he needs to divert his attention to the tip of the spear because at the moment, we’re coming at teams with a spoon.
Aubameyang isn’t the only one suffering, either. For all his frustrating tendencies like running into dead ends and failing to beat the first man with set pieces, Nicolas Pépé is a player who finished the season strongly, with a stand-out performance in the F.A. Cup final, who then found himself essentially usurped by a 32 year old brought in from a rival team. Willian didn’t have to fight for his place, he walked right into the team and I can’t help but wonder what kind of effect that would have on his confidence. Confidence is everything in the final third and if we want our “flair” players to deliver, they need to be given opportunities to prove themselves on a regular basis.
Besides the effects such disruption has on the individual, the same can be said for the cohesion which develops between players who play together regularly. Pires, Bergkamp and Henry. Salah, Mané and Firminho. It’s understandable to see some tinkering when things aren’t working but a prerequisite of that is to see the wood for the trees when the problem is systematic. Luckily, Arteta has already done more than enough to demonstrate his ability to exact change in a short timeframe with limited resources but I don’t think this is a quick fix.