I’m not going to stoop to the predictable depths of tabloid newspapers with oh so witty jokes about playing in white/being tame – I’ll just say that playing in white made Arsenal look Spursy in more ways than one. They also didn’t look like a serious outfit and they deservedly crashed out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle for the second time in 4 years against Forest. The steely spine was replaced with polystyrene and putty. No Ramsdale, no Gabriel, no Partey or Xhaka and no Lacazette for the most part. It was a perfect example of why it’s not always as simple as “play the kids” if the seniors are dross (and if the benchmark of “dross” is unclear, Cédric is King of Dross, living alone in Dross Castle on the Isle of Dross).
In a few cases, it was a rude awakening for the player themselves, the fanbase and Arteta. Sambi is probably the player I feel most sorry for, because he hasn’t had minutes since November and he had an 18 year old playing his second senior game as a midfield partner. We’ve seen what he can do at Premier League level and I think we’ve made a good signing for the future, but it just goes to show not only what an important position the centre of midfield is in shaping the team’s overall play but how long it takes to really learn the position. It wasn’t even that he played badly, but it was what we lost in not having anything that even closely resembles Thomas Partey. As if it wasn’t already obvious, the decision to loan out Arsenal’s next best midfielder after Partey and Xhaka looks all the more strange (and if it isn’t clear, yes I do think Ainsley is a better midfielder than Elneny). In Charlie Patino, while it was nice for him to get his goal on his debut, he ghosted through the game and needs to spend some on loan to do some growing up. That’s not intended to be pejorative but Jude Bellingham is only 4 months older than him and I think we’ll have to wait a few years to see what kind of player he really is.
Nuno Tavares will probably divide the most opinion. My initial reaction was that it was an excessive and rash decision that could have waited 10 minutes. Unlike many out there, Nuno is a player with a future at the club and it’s humiliating to be substituted before half time against any opposition, let alone one in the league below. There’s a flip-side to that, because he perhaps underestimated the level of the opposition and deserved to have some comeuppance. Ultimately, the fallout depends on the player and I hope Nuno has the wherewithal to take it in his stride and at any rate, the loss isn’t on his head anyway. He may have been careless in possession (and had a go at lobbing Leno) but I don’t think it was any less egregious than some of the things I saw from Cédric (and why on Earth was he allowed to take a free kick?). Besides tightening up the left hand side, I don’t think we substantially improved anything in taking him off and he still managed to finish the game with the most interceptions and if the change was intended to buck the rest of the team up, it didn’t work.
He perhaps most notably became England’s U21 top goalscorer and this has often been used to assert his potential, for reasons I’ve never really understood whenever I’ve watched him. It’s not to look down on players scoring goals for their country but there’s a substantial different between goals at youth level and at senior. What I’m getting at is the player he pipped to this most coveted title is Francis Jeffers and while I would hope Eddie goes on to have a far more successful career than the “fox in the box”, his repertoire is lightweight and that’s precisely why records like this are mentioned in the first place. He didn’t have a bad game yesterday and even showed some things I hadn’t seen before; shooting on his weak foot (from outside the box no less), running at players, doing his best to drop off and help link play. This all becomes a moot point when the one thing he has a real reputation for being good at comes up short in missing Arsenal’s best chance of the game. I’ve never rated him highly and think the club has missed quite a few opportunities to move him on, most notably last summer after Balogun signed a new deal. I understand the benefit of continuing to play him by “putting him in the shop window” but I doubt last night’s performance did much to help inform potential suitors and with only two cup games of the season left, I think his Arsenal career has run its course.
The biggest disappointment was Forest didn’t even have to do much to get the result. They obviously worked hard to frustrate Arsenal and got men behind the ball but besides Spence, there were no standout performers. They were patient and took their chance where Arsenal did not. There are more questions to be asked about what happened after Forest took the lead and Sead Kolasinac’s involvement can only be explained by a motive ulterior to winning this particular football match. That in itself is a dangerous game to play because I’m sure Arteta’s concerns about the depth of his squad had already been communicated and I don’t see much point in short-term sabotage to get his point across. Even in his short time at the club, Arteta has taken a few abstract stances like this that have been difficult to unpack; the undroppable Willian, the endless empty crosses era, everything Özil, playing hot and cold with Ainsley and Aubameyang continues to complicate. On this occasion, his words after the game were at odds with his decisions on the night.
It’s really hurting. It’s a competition that is related to our history and to go out of it today is a big bump.
He’s won the competition himself – at Arsenal – so to come out and say this after the game when you’ve subbed on Kolasinac in the dying moments chasing a lead is back to speaking a load of hot air. I appreciate that the squad is looking threadbare and what we do in January can have huge ramifications on our season but you could argue that Arteta has taken the competition about as seriously as Tavares supposedly had done. If he’d intended to let one of the two cups slide, surely the two-legged tie in an inferior cup against far superior opposition would have been the right call, especially with its proximity to the North London derby. That may be a leap to say he was happy for us to slide out of the FA Cup but some of his decisions were at least defeatist.
It also leaves the camp unsettled ahead of the Spurs game and even with a difficult game against Liverpool in between, I have some concerns about how the squad is going to pick themselves up again. With so much hinging on that result, it’s not exactly going to be a smooth approach. There’s always the chance that ze history will do it’s thing – and we very much believe in the history – but their scare against Morecambe was only a scare and Conte will have a point to prove in his first involvement. A good chunk of that spine will be back, with Xhaka the only uncertainty, such is his style.
It doesn’t feel great to go out from the competition with another whimper but as the French, German, Italian and Spanish World Cup winners of the last 25 years will tell you, it’s not always easy to carry on surfing the wave. I’m sure come Sunday evening one way or the other, this game will still be easily forgotten.