After a fortnight of pointless and poorly-timed internationals, I was eager to see more from the team that fought back from 3-0 down against West Ham.
The team that faced Liverpool had racked up plenty of minutes and air miles in that time, and you never quite know what to expect after an international break. These “problems” weren’t unique to Arsenal, but you’d be fooled into thinking they were with the most abject performance of the season.
Arteta was quick to take responsibility for the loss, saying “they were better in every department. I take the blame, it’s my responsibility. They were the best team by far … they won every duel, every second ball, every challenge. To be fair, I’m in shock. I didn’t expect that one coming“. There comes a point when taking responsibility in such a manner starts to feel like a hollow gesture, particularly when he says he “didn’t see that one coming”, because West Ham did the same thing two weeks ago – the only difference was Liverpool sustained those levels for 90 minutes. That’s not to suggest that Arteta has simply been resting on his laurels these past two weeks and hadn’t done his homework, but the coldness of the performance felt all too familiar.
Theory and Practice
Deploying Aubameyang on the left works in theory. I’ve said it before that Arteta’s a tinkerer – sometimes too much for his own good – and I can see why he would try it again here. With the heart of Liverpool’s defence still on the treatment table, and Alexander-Arnold far happier in the opposition’s half, it looks like an obvious space to exploit. After all, it was the same way Arteta was able to edge past Man City in the semi finals of the F.A. Cup and beat Liverpool in the same fixture last year. Where this theory unravels is simple; Jürgen Klopp is not an idiot. He will have taken one look at that lineup – without Luiz and Xhaka – and seen that midfield is where Liverpool can hurt us, even with James Milner scooting around on a walking frame in his 74th season in the Premier League. Klopp isn’t going to fall for the same trick twice and Arteta’s inability to reinvent what works has been a recurring issue. Instead of slipping in behind, running at the last man, Aubameyang found himself doubling up with Tierney to stop the likes of Salah and Alexander-Arnold doing their thing. Liverpool broke the deadlock because Aubameyang once again didn’t feel like closing down the cross.
I’m prepared to die on this hill, but Aubameyang has never truly looked good on the left wing. His ability to score from there is in spite of the position and teams are savvy to what he can actually do beyond score goals, which is.. not a whole lot. What makes matters worse is if he doesn’t score, Arsenal might as well have played with 10 men. He seems increasingly reluctant to do the hard work he was once happy to do when Arteta first arrived, is an ill-fitted captain when he’s not happy (i.e. not scoring) and was once again culpable in his defensive duties. His captaincy was appropriate last season when his performances were exemplary and he was the star man virtually every time he played, but times move quickly and he hasn’t satisfied these criterion on a regular basis for some time.
That might seem like some heavy criticism leveled at the player, but it’s quite the opposite. He was beginning to show signs of recovery with goals in the league and Europe when deployed centrally where he belongs. If you can’t play him there, don’t shoehorn him in somewhere else where he clearly isn’t comfortable. Him being played out of position doesn’t excuse him failing to close down two crosses in as many games that directly led to goals but it’s asking him to be something he isn’t. It’s a problem exacerbated by his captaincy, because you can’t have a captain that isn’t in the starting lineup every week and taking it from him now is hardly going to help his confidence.
He’s by no means the only thing Arteta got wrong yesterday, but his inclusion exemplifies a wider problem that continues to hinder Arsenal. When things aren’t rosy, there are few in the squad capable of still competing. There are plenty of irritatingly overused soundbites to describe that phenomenon; fight, spirit, bottle. None of them really explain why a team doesn’t bother to show up, or doesn’t seem to care when they concede one, two or even three goals. Unlike West Ham, the fightback never came yesterday and the inability to do so is at least influenced by the opposition, but what it really boils down to is personnel. With the vocal spine and youthful exuberance ripped out in Luiz and Xhaka, Saka and Smith Rowe, there was no one to set things straight on the pitch or inject some life. The exception in Ødegaard, after his high-profile orchestration of the fight back two weeks ago, will have also been on Klopp’s mind, and Liverpool made him suffer. Lacazette and Partey were the only two left to pick up the pieces, and while neither had a bad game, they were the best of a bad bunch.
A problem that has been glaringly obvious for some time. Unburdened by international duty, a well-rested Dani Ceballos partnered Partey and saw his trajectory enter Stuka territory. Outright fear has been evident in some individuals this season and apparently, even a weakened Liverpool side was enough to do the trick. In Ceballos, there is a professional footballer that was good enough to be signed by Real Madrid and Arsenal. He has an eye for a pass, can play in tight triangles and can slip the press but yesterday was comfortably his worst in an Arsenal shirt and leaves the idea of signing him permanently after two sporadic years unpalatable. Doing even the simplest things wrong, like taking heavy touches, short and wayward passing and being dispossessed are more often associated with tiredness, whether that be mental or physical. In his case, there’s really no excuse for that kind of performance and Elneny was the only player available to replace him.
Elsewhere, Guendouzi and Torreira are two investments deemed surplus to requirements, while Joe Willock went closer to home to experience a different fight (and turn the screw on José). That’s three very different players that have been given loans for one reason or another. The unexpected loss of Granit Xhaka, whose otherwise seemingly indestructible body was undone by illness, shouldn’t be enough to completely break the functionality of the midfield but the options available and the tactical changes made by Arteta did just that.
Losing Kieran Tierney to injury in the one position with no actual cover is equally demonstrative of just how frail the depth of the squad is and while the club’s failings in the transfer market for the last five years and beyond is a tired and tedious subject, Arteta continues to struggle in finding workarounds. Cédric at left back is far from the player we’ve seen at right back, and while Liverpool were wasteful prior to Tierney’s injury, I’m also not surprised they broke the deadlock and put the game to bed down Arsenal’s left flank.
The natural segue to this issue is asking whether the results and performances accurately reflect the limitations imposed by the squad. As of today, Arsenal lie in 10th place and the three teams above all have a game in hand. If we’re talking about progress, as much as youthful green shoots and periods of free-flowing football lead to temptation, results are the bottom line and Arsenal have regressed even since Emery by that metric. The only chance of distinguishing between the two in terms of results would be for Arteta to go one step further in the Europa League, and judging by the last two ties in the competition, that would be a tall ask.
Within the confines of the match, the real question is whether the aforementioned absentees being missed enough to warrant such a lowly performance. Liverpool had already stopped their recent rot with two wins and two clean sheets in a row but Arsenal finished the game with an xG of 0.09, 0.06 of which was attributed to Pépé’s header that would have been ruled offside had it gone in anyway. It was also the 7th time in the last 13 games where Arsenal have failed to score at home (@Orbinho), which is nothing short of embarrassing and unacceptable.
Defensively, dominant as Liverpool were, I once again find myself taking issue with individual errors. Aubameyang’s failure to close down the cross was one thing, but 5’10” Diogo Jota was able to win a header against Holding and Chambers. That doesn’t take anything away from the delivery, which was sublime (Gareth Southgate is an imbecile and England will never win a major tournament with him and his stupid waistcoat at the helm), but it’s not the first time Holding has lost an aerial duel to someone at a height disadvantage. Until Liverpool broke the deadlock, I thought he was actually having a good game.
He’s clearly a player who thrives with his back against the wall, and given his comparative ability to Luiz on the ball, Arsenal were always going to lose some front-footed-ness with Holding in his place. What I can’t really understand is how he’s able to deal with players like Diego Costa but struggles – even aerially – against players nipping at his ankles and moving quickly in and around the box.
Leno’s contact might disappoint him but given how close it was, it’s understandable that he wasn’t fast enough to keep it out. I take more issue with the barn door he presented between his legs for Salah, and his distribution throughout left much to be desired. Gabriel’s sloppiness was the catalyst for Liverpool’s third and that was that.