If the Leicester result was one of naivety while United was one of cohesion, last night’s performance felt like an inevitability. after yet another tepid offensive display was compounded by an otherwise-dependable defence caught in disarray.
There aren’t really any excuses either. It was the same team that nullified the same United team that had just beaten Leipzig 5-0 and besides Leno and Willian, nearly every player was well-rested after the midweek win against Molde. It’s also worth pointing out that Solskjær was scolded for thinking an identical approach was appropriate and Arteta was burned in exactly the same manner. Whatever was coursing through their veins last week at Old Trafford was gone and not even an early warning and let-off from VAR was enough to spark some life into the team. In reality, the collective started as they meant to go on.
I say it was inevitable because in recent weeks, there have been a growing number of concerns that needed answering sooner rather than later and they all seemed to come to fruition at once. The innate rigidity was front and centre for Villa’s first as they patiently worked an opening just outside the box – as we’ve seen so many times watching Arsenal – and there was little reaction when Villa found a way in behind. It was a clever reverse pass by Barkley, the kind that Cesc so often used to great effect and Bellerin was well off the pace in closing down Cash. Saka might have been goal-side but in his desperation to make up the distance, it was inadvertently turned in and I doubt anyone would argue that didn’t Villa deserve it.
Just as we can and should commend Arteta when he gets things right, on this occasion I can’t say the same and really struggle to understand why Willian has kept his place in the starting lineup. It’s particularly frustrating after so often hearing his calls for “consistency” – typically aimed at players that don’t currently start league games – while Willian has been lacklustre ever since the opening game of the season against Fulham. It coincides with the kind of rhetoric that I’d hoped was just rival fan hearsay about his uncanny ability to disappear in games and be uninfluential, and there’s often no smoke without fire.
Much in the same way as Mesut Özil’s reluctance to leave London (obscene pay cheque aside), I do wonder if in Willian we have a player who is just content to still be living in London and playing football – prioritised in that order. His ambling attempt to recover possession which ultimately led to the goal, as well as his uninspired midweek performance against substandard opposition would say as much. Part of me wonders whether Willian is one of these players who doesn’t really have the same drive as he once did, given the successes he’s enjoyed in the past and while David Luiz has juuust about been a worthwhile investment, Willian feels like the ghost of Mkhitaryan.
I also can’t help but think back to the kind of language Arteta used when he joined the club and during the pre-season – that everyone would get a clean slate and that people would have to work for their place in the team but this doesn’t feel like a meritocracy.
“Everybody is going to have the same opportunities. They have to show with their performance, their attitude that they are better than their teammates or somehow contributing with what we want to achieve this season.”Mikel Arteta – 27th August 2020 
I spoke on Friday about some of the problems Pépé might be facing, like confidence and its importance for any attack-minded player, as well as some of the systematic limitations. In the Europa League, he’s managed 2 goals and 2 assists in 3 games and regardless of the opposition, there was real class to some aspects of his play. Given Willian’s age and recent performances, I do wonder what Pépé must be thinking about himself when he still finds himself watching from the sidelines.
Beyond that, the same pervasive concerns about our lack of creativity remain and even with an international break, it’s hardly an overnight fix. At the very least, I’m hopeful that he’ll finally give Aubameyang a run of games at centre-forward after hinting at the idea at the end of the month, saying “that’s a very possible thing, it will depend on the games, it will depend on who he’s surrounded with. I think it’s very important to see who is around him and why we’re doing it.”
While it’s a fairly open-ended answer, there’s a clear reluctance to change until the time is right, but there’s also a growing air of stubbornness which he’ll do well to address in the international downtime. In the same interview, he also went on to say that “it was great for him to play on the left because he wasn’t picked up by central defenders – there was more freedom for him to do that”, but therein also lies the problem; other teams have well and truly cottoned onto that by now and just as last season, the vast majority of games (i.e. games not against the Big Six) don’t afford him the same opportunities from counter-attacks to do so.
To make matters worse, this system also starves him of opportunities in said vast majority because he’s so often serving as creator rather than converter. While I take metrics like xG with a pinch of salt, sometimes there’s a place for them:
The elephant in the room is obviously the incumbent centre-forward whose slump continued and now looks almost unassailable, such is the difference to the Alex Lacazette that won Player of The Year. In this sense, it’s really a double-edged problem because not only does Aubameyang suffer on the left, but we have a wasted avenue that could otherwise be filtering chances into Aubameyang were he playing at centre-forward.
It’s also abundantly clear that the issue is well beyond the realms of personnel, with Nketiah’s league cameos at centre-forward equally ineffective because we’ve become predictable and docile. At this point, it doesn’t really matter who plays at centre-forward if it’s not Aubameyang because our other options have never been a convincing argument for the system in the first place.
I sympathise with Arteta because in some ways, he’s a victim of his own success. After inheriting a clown fiesta of a defence and presumably selling his soul, he started making them look like professional footballers again and before the Villa game, we boasted the best defensive record in the league. Until this point, we’ve won games by fine margins and defensive solidarity. The margins are fine because most matches are decided by a select few key moments rather than Wenger’s war of attrition, like Lacazette’s disallowed goal against Leicester or his missed header yesterday, or despite dominating the midfield, only winning courtesy of a penalty against United. Now, we find ourselves erring a little too much on the side of passivity and more crucially, it really doesn’t feel like a good hill to die on.
When it comes to domestic matches, the one-size-fits-all approach has come unstuck and for a change, I’m glad to see an international break and hope it’ll be a useful period of reflection for Arteta.