It’s always a disappointment to be knocked out of a cup, especially when the FA Cup has become synonymous with the club’s recent successes. I recently wrote about the emerging gulf between our two squads and where a late injection of quality was enough to overcome Newcastle, it wasn’t today.
It was always going to be a gamble to make 7 changes while retaining enough of the A Team to get a result. Gabriel’s return to the team after a positive COVID test was the first roll of the dice, and besides his reintroduction, the team selection devolved to “players who are underperforming” and “the rest”.
With the Europa League group stage over, there are no more kind fixtures to make a name for yourself or salvage your reputation. Having a break from the spotlight has helped players like Lacazette to have a breather and rediscover some form but it’s failed to energise the likes of Willian, so at times like this, we find ourselves playing damage limitations. With the same fixture in the Premier League just around the corner on Tuesday, it was a clear enough message from Arteta that the FA Cup tie was not his priority, unlike Hasenhüttl’s if the strength of Southampton’s lineup was anything to go by.
The disparity between the two was the difference, with the decisive first half once again dominated by their metronome in Ward-Prowse. Although their match-winner was fortuitous after a double deflection, it was their just deserts from a period of sustained pressure. The only consolation was seeing the immediate impact Thomas Partey once again made to central midfield, which will no doubt be a far more competitive affair on Tuesday.
That being said, I don’t think Arteta got the most from his changes on this occasion. We’re beyond the point now where Saka should be shoehorned into any position just to get him on the pitch; he should be played in his best position and others should be shoehorned in around him, because he wasn’t able to influence the game enough in a less advanced role, even though he was later switched to the right wing. Partey made a noticeable difference in bringing back control to the midfield but without more of a focal point to feed into, the spark never came. That in part, was thanks to Willian, Pépé and Nketiah all making it to the 90 minute mark and between them, it was too much baggage.
I’ve made my position on Willian clear enough and I’m neither surprised by his inclusion nor his performance. Players needed a break and he’s become a rudderless stop-gap in the space of 6 months, so he at least did that job. Pépé delivered a performance like any of his other non-Europa League performances this season; easily dispossessed, caught in two minds, wasteful and yet still capable of producing chances. It’s fair to question how other players might have taken the chances he created; his quick-thinking freekick looped over Marteinlli’s shoulder and was a difficult finish on his weak foot, while the ball through to Nketiah was weighted well enough that he didn’t need to take a touch but his poked effort was denied.
I do wonder how he’d perform with a stronger lineup, because I still believe there’s a player rattling around in their somewhere. He has technical ability, whether it’s the weight of his pass or the way he strikes the ball, and he clearly has an eye for openings. He’s just so often let down by indecision or his timings that he’s not able to demonstrate that often enough. Like Nketiah, he also frequently finds himself struggling with the physicality at this level and there’s only so long you can get away with that – especially when players like Smith Rowe and Saka have already made the leap.
Such leaps also apply to end product, and while Nketiah was setting each and every youth tier alight with his goal-scoring, despite an abundance of opportunities, he’s not delivering. His loan spell with Bielsa didn’t quite live up to expectations and despite scoring on a few occasions, he wasn’t able to usurp Bamford, who has coincidentally been able to make the jump to Premier League standards. As he enters the last 18 months of his contract, decisions need to be made and I did wonder whether there was more to Arteta’s midweek comments on him than meets the eye.
After already ruling out a January loan away, he said of Nketiah: “His development in a year for his position, compared to any other striker his age in Europe, you won’t see many that have played that many minutes.” While “development” is vague enough to make an argument one way or another, I would argue that Nketiah’s development and future at the club has actually stalled because he’s not been able to show consistency or end product despite the opportunities given to him. This may have been sincere from Arteta, but I did also wonder if he was trying to garner some interest before his contract becomes too much of an obstacle. It’s even stranger given the fact he shares the same agent as Balogun, which would surely have them at loggerheads because whatever happens there, it’s highly unlikely there’s futures for both at the club. It’s even more disappointing because besides Martinelli, there’s a clear path for a vacancy in the not too distant future in a forward position but as of yet, the pair haven’t been able to find it.
The afternoon also spelled a rare blip for the centre-back pairing, with neither looking assured. Gabriel won’t have much time to settle, and may even be dropped again for Tuesday, but he’s at least got minutes under his belt again and don’t think the performance will be much of a setback.
With one less cup commitment, Arteta once again has more to answer for and with any luck, his decision will be vindicated by a win on Tuesday but even with more rest to key players, it’s a tall ask and Hasenhüttl will be expecting a stiffer challenge. As far as the strategy of our season goes, there’s one less opportunity for European football now and while our domestic hopes aren’t completely dead in the water, I do wonder if it’ll be another year of real focus on winning the Europa League. No small feat.