After Saturday’s non-existent showing against Liverpool, there was an expectation – or at the very least, some sense of hope – that it wouldn’t be in vain after Thursday. Despite how that match unfolded, Arteta was at least vindicated because Real Madrid hurt Liverpool in the exact manner which Arteta sought to try; he just so happened to lack a player of Toni Kroos’ quality who could float a 50 yard pass through the eye of a needle.
At any rate, Arsenal were gifted a “kind” draw and were playing at home. The conditions were as good as it gets, as quarter finals of discount European knockout competitions go, besides some self-inflicted squad limitations after Arteta felt the need to give Kieran Tierney yet more minutes and rush Martin Odegaard back from an injury he sustained in the international break. These absentees no doubt informed Arteta’s approach against Slavia Prague, whereby Willian was once again given the reigns to the left wing and Cédric returned at left back.
I have to clear one thing up before I go any further into what Arteta got wrong on the day and how individual moments of madness have once again hurt Arsenal, which is individuals also under-performing. You don’t expect £45m of Thomas Partey to drop a performance like that, underpinned by more wayward passing and shooting, as effortless as he was at times in gliding past Slavia players. You also don’t expect the best part of £50m in Alex Lacazette to do.. whatever that was in a 1-on-1 situation with the ‘keeper. His workrate has been faultless all season, which hasn’t been the case with many at the club – he even engineered the chance for himself – but I really couldn’t believe he did that. The appearance of “running in quicksand” is just about excusable because of that workrate but he still had more than enough time to do the right thing despite the Slavia defender bearing down on him, so why he’s shaped his body like that is beyond my understanding.
While it’s all too easy to toil over the what ifs; what could have happened had certain players that were on the bench instead been in certain situations that unfolded on the pitch and regardless of how crap we looked for much of the game, Arteta still has times like these to point at with frustration. Bukayo Saka was also once again wasteful in front of goal with an equally gilt-edged chance as Lacazette, and despite his meteoric rise into the fore, this is one aspect of his game which has suffered. You can probably chalk that up to being over-worked and under even greater pressure to perform, but he was more clinical when he didn’t have the weight of the team on his shoulders.
That’s where things get difficult for Arteta, because irrespective of the chances missed, none of the performance was pretty. I once again found myself asking questions like “where does this rank against Emery’s ugliest performances” and “have substitutions been outlawed?”. I really, really disliked Emery’s brand of football for the most part and I really, really disliked seeing Willian tamely cross the ball on his weak foot straight into the first defender for the 87th time of the match.
When Arteta first assumed this role and managed to grind out some results by making the team more secure at the back – virtually overnight – it felt like a necessary evil to sacrifice some Arsenal-ness going forward in the pursuit of results. As is abundantly clear, results haven’t exactly been there to fall back on this season and to make matters worse, every time green shoots appear, Arteta resorts to napalming the fuck out of them. Since January, Arsenal’s best performances have come when Aubameyang has been played centrally. He also happens to be signed to a lucrative, long-term contract which carries presumptions about what exactly he means to the team and to Arteta, and serves as an approximate valuation (cough Willian cough cough Mkhitaryan) of the player’s ability. After being sent back out to ply his trade on the left wing against Liverpool, he was dropped from the starting lineup entirely against another team known for playing a high line.
He might have fluffed his half-chance, but his pace was the precursor to his pass through to Pépé, because he gave the defender something to worry about. It’s also disingenuous to say that the efficacy of both his and Pépé’s pace can be explained by Slavia simply being worn out at that point; they’re both fast and they both relish running into space in the final third and can do that at any stage of the game. Saka and Lacazette both had golden opportunities alone with the goalkeeper too, and both failed. It’s a convenient time to do so, but I’ll go on record again in saying that Pépé is our second best finisher after Aubameyang and when he actually gets opportunities in the right area, he’s as reliable a finisher as he was at Lille. It’s not the first time he’s bailed us out in Europe, and the goal had a bit of everything. He timed his run, left the defender in his wake, was strong enough to resist the pressure once he slowed down in possession and the finish was sublime. The pair did that with 12 minutes on the pitch together.
Pépé is a player who continues to be used sparingly, with a unique place in the squad as having a far smaller margin for error than any other player, while Martinelli isn’t far off in this regard. Both come in stark contrast to dear, old Willian, who can seemingly do no wrong because he’s obedient. I don’t know where this unrelenting aversion to flair comes from, but sooner or later, he’s going to have to just throw the kitchen sink at this project and let these players express themselves.
Changes once again came too late, the first being in the 73rd minute with hardly enough time to have an impact, or rescue the tie when the inevitable happened. The less I say about that inevitability the better, but that’s what you get when you play a right-footed player at left back, and Gabriel played his part. Cédric then compounded the error by losing his man at the back post and that was that. As competent as he’s been at right back (that being as far as I’ll go to compliment his performances there), we’re perhaps beginning to see why he was Southampton’s backup right back.
It’s also precisely what we deserved. Arsenal were wasteful, but so too were Slavia. Arteta was punished for once again failing to make changes in a timely manner and he has now left himself with the unenviable task of going abroad and winning to save his skin, as well as Arsenal’s. Even if he manages that, which is far from a guarantee, I still find it hard to see Arsenal posing a threat to some of the more serious outfits left in the competition.
I also found myself wondering how Arsenal would look today had Freddie Ljungberg taken over from Emery permanently. He may not have guided Arsenal to a 14th F.A. Cup, but I find it hard to believe that the league position would be any worse than it is now and even in his short time in charge, we saw glimpses of trying to play football with the shackles off.
I don’t doubt that there’s a good coaching brain in Arteta’s head. He’s worked wonders in some respects and clearly there are still players who buy into some of his mantras because managers have lost dressing rooms over less. Where I have concerns is his inclination to repeatedly make the same, very obvious mistakes. His game management has rarely been convincing, players continue to be misused and played out of position, injured players are being repeatedly rushed back in desperation and meritocracy appears to be lost on him. The match against Slavia was just another notch on the belt of disappointment and self-inflicted misery.