Last night’s defeat was a fitting end to an utterly forgettable season. That performance had been brewing for weeks, if not months, with Arsenal stumbling through every stage of the Europa League knockout stages before falling at the penultimate hurdle. I’ve been saying every step of the way that there would come a time when current levels wouldn’t suffice because teams improve and margins tighten as the competition progresses. On the night where Arteta really needed to put his money where his mouth is, his team was unable to rise to the occasion, save for a 5 minute period of pressure early in the second half. This came as a huge surprise given his convictions that emerged after the game.
We are devastated. We had so much enthusiasm and desire to be in that final.
It’s all well and good coming out with these sentiments when the horse has already bolted but at this point, it’s all just a bit hollow. With the exception of one or two players, I didn’t see desire or enthusiasm – I saw fear, players that were out of their depth and an approach that was easily dealt with by a manager Arsenal sacked 18 months ago. The biggest injustice is the ease at which Villareal were able to keep Arsenal at bay, in their “fortress” – a fanciful term used by Arteta back in October. 4 shots on target across two legs of a European semi-final. I’m not sure what’s worse, that Arsenal played with an unproven “false 9” in the first leg, or that they had more attempts on target with this system than playing at home in the second leg with a recognised centre-forward.
In some ways, I wonder what good an F.A. Cup win in his first season really did for Arteta’s development. It’s not like the win was down to luck; Arteta’s tactics in the semi-final and final were largely responsible for the success. It propelled him from head coach to manager before he’d even had a full season in management under his belt. From there, an unsettling pattern emerged of someone who was adamant they always knew better. The undroppable Willian phase, the “30 crosses a game from deep” phase, the Aubameyang winger phase, Willian and Smith Rowe False 9s and a tome of poor substitutions that culminated last night in the most egregious of them all (including Ceballos’ lack of only last Thursday). Aubameyang making way on 80 minutes for Lacazette, having just hit the post, for Nketiah to then come on 10 minutes later and imbalance the team in much the same way as Aubameyang and Lacazette would have done anyway. Nketiah, a player who is almost certainly leaving the club in he summer, then repeatedly made silly fouls and closed the game out nicely for Villareal. I couldn’t make sense of it.
Arteta was also quick to point to extenuating circumstances, saying “we’ve had so many players injured. Too many important players that help to define the game.” Losing Granit Xhaka in the warm-up was an obvious loss, and it’s clear by now that his personality is a more valuable asset than his utility as a player, especially at left back. With David Luiz sidelined and Aubameyang likely still recovering from what was by all accounts a terrible bout of malaria, Arsenal were essentially leaderless (since the latter has primarily led by example rather than in the vocal sense anyway).
I still refuse to believe that their absences were responsible for losing a two-legged tie against Villareal. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Arsenal have failed to score on 10 occasions at the Emirates this season. 19 goals from 17 home matches. How many times have Arsenal been nullified by a supposedly inferior side this season?
Home and away losses to Aston Villa, Everton and Wolves. A home loss to Burnley. A home draw shared with Southampton, Crystal Palace, Fulham. The first season in 25 without European football.
This was another match where it was clear as day that our only chance of getting something from the game was a piece of individual brilliance from either wing, if our long ball distribution was anything to go by. The half-chances that fell to Aubameyang were unfortunate; on another day, one of them may have found the net. That doesn’t change the fact that the service he received was non-existent and he was able to muster those chances in spite of the quality behind him. Besides Smith Rowe and the occasional flash from either wing, I didn’t see any real footballing quality on the day, which was exacerbated by certain players finding new depths. Hector Bellerín may have created some of Arsenal’s clearest openings in the second half, but the first half saw him give the ball away more than any other player and his days at the club look numbered. Thomas Partey, a man seemingly expected to act like some sort of footballing Vishnu and handle the midfield all by himself was a ghost of the well-oiled machine that was instrumental in the win at Old Trafford.
Arsenal are now faced with an unprecedented decision to make, based on parameters that have changed since Emery’s departure. The regression in the last year is obvious, all other extenuating circumstances aside. Arsenal are in the same boat as everyone else and if Arteta wants to point to injuries as an excuse last night, the squad has fared far better than most Premier League sides this season and they find themselves in 9th.
The belief that this downturn is a necessary evil before our fortunes improve depends on the considerable assumption that Arteta will improve. Emery is an established manager with actual credentials and he was sacked for less. Ultimately, it looked like Emery lost the dressing room because the players ground to a halt on the pitch and last night looked eerily similar.
The only discernible difference is Arteta has some previous with the club, which points to a pitiful romanticism at worst and wishful thinking at best. I’ve already made my stance on KSE clear in the fallout of the ESL and Arsenal’s cascading fortunes on and off the field are a consequence of the inaction and incompetence that exemplifies their time as owners. The question that remains is whether this systemic rot includes Arteta. A cursory glance over to our South London rivals will do no Arsenal fan any favours right now amidst their progression into the Champions League final. The last straw in Frank Lampard’s tenure was losing to lowly Arsenal and his career has been equally entitled in terms of landing a top job in management without merit. They went for a serious option and Chelsea are now looking like a completely different side. I don’t condone their ownership model, and the ruthlessness that Abramovich has shown over the years makes little to no sense when you consider the fate of Di Matteo, who was sacked shortly after winning the club’s first ever Champions League. Not for one second am I calling for Arsenal to hop on board the manager merry-go-round because it’s a ridiculous way to run a football club, but there is at least some merit in looking elsewhere for inspiration and reassurance when considering Arteta’s suitability.
I was on board with Arteta for a long time and there was so much to like at times. An F.A. Cup win in your first ever season is almost unheard of and I wanted the “Arsenal family project” to work out but I feel like that ship has now failed because there are simply too many red flags. His once-inspiring words that always pointed to the right things and a clear understanding of our problems have been replaced by Willian’s face etched into my brain and Arteta’s Zoom press conferences where he uses words like “dominate” after a 1-0 loss at home. I worry he’s too smart for his own good, emboldened by trust placed in him by people that don’t know any better. His coaching staff have no clear role when it comes to matches, which is the place it really matters and Arteta’s relentless insistence in going against the grain to keep face simply reeks of pride and arrogance. Last night, the tone was set in the opening minutes and besides some brief respite in that second half flurry, the game careered beyond us in predictable fashion. This was the chance to make things right and in failing to do so, I’m inclined to say his time is up.