Arsenal have won 17 games in the Premier League this season, and in 16 of them have scored first. So, when Southampton made a first-half mistake, Eddie Nketiah pounced and Gabriel Martinelli crossed for Bukayo Saka, it looks very like a sliding doors moment in the cold light of day.
Fraser Forster made an outstanding save, and while I think Saka will rue the finish – he had plenty more of the goal to aim for and could have kept it low – the ball was slightly behind him and on his wrong foot, so he had to dig it out just a little bit.
When Jan Bednarek put Southampton ahead just before the break, I have to say I was worried. Not just because goals are increasingly hard to come by these days, but only once in the Mikel Arteta era has his team come from being behind at half-time and gone on to win the game. That was the odd one out of this season, the 2-1 win over Wolves at the Emirates back in February.
It made the odds even longer, and despite playing most of the game in the Southampton half in the second period the goal didn’t come. We had shots, Forster made some more saves – including one excellent one from a miscued Smith Rowe effort but the lack of firepower in this team has come back to bite us in a big way over the last few weeks.
I won’t lie and say I was disappointed to see Nketiah start up front, although as I’ve said my preference would have been Martinelli, but nor was I happy to see Lacazette absent completely due to Covid. It was a chance for Eddie, but bar one or two moments when he showed some good energy, it was a lacklustre performance from a player who is in the shop window right now due to his contractual situation. I don’t think he’ll have turned any heads and that drive you’d expect from a young player to grasp his chance just wasn’t there.
Some will say the system doesn’t suit our forwards, and maybe there’s something to that, but to me it’s a quality issue first and foremost. There are basic things that exist outside the system that aren’t being done. Movement, ball retention in tight spaces, accuracy of lay-offs etc. In Lacazette we’ve seen a player I think even his harshest critics would admit is capable of much better, go off a cliff in terms of his form and fitness, while Nketiah is the kind of player who will get you goals in early rounds of the EFL Cup against lower league opposition but hasn’t ever shown he can do at Premier League level with any consistency.
This was the risk that Arteta and Edu took when they let Aubameyang go to Barcelona, and they knew we had a problem because they tried to sign Dusan Vlahovic in January only for him to move to Juventus. I don’t think anybody wanted us to splash cash on just any old player, leaving us with someone we didn’t really want and going down that road of players being surplus to requirements with long contracts, but was there not a single player we could have brought in on loan to supplement a key area of the team? January could – if it’s not already – be viewed as a red-letter month in the execution of this project.
This was their gamble, and initially it looked like it might pay off. Now, a few more weeks down the line and dark clouds are forming on the horizon. It is funny how quickly things change in football. Not long ago we were thinking of a bright future, perhaps with Champions League football and all that it would bring in terms of prestige, fun, and drawing power for those big signings we have to make this summer.
Now, top six is a genuine worry. You look ahead and see Chelsea then Man Utd and you can’t help but wonder how, if we couldn’t take a single point while scoring just one goal in three games against Palace, Brighton and Southampton, we’re going to get anything from these ones. Like I said, things can change quickly, but generally speaking most football supporters are pretty realistic, and if you polled the Arsenal fanbase right now, I’d suggest confidence for these upcoming fixtures is pretty low.
As for yesterday, we looked like a team that had no real ideas. At times it felt like the sum-total of our attacking plan was to give it to Cedric to cross it, and let’s be honest, that’s a very poor plan when you have a 5’9 centre-forward competing with three centre-halves and a goalkeeper the size of a giant redwood. It harked back too closely to the days when it was Kolasinac on the overlap for a cutback and if that didn’t work look for Kolasinac on the overlap for a cutback [repeat to fade].
On top of the that, elements of stupidity have been allowed to enter our game. Last week should have been the very last time that Cedric was permitted to take free kicks around the box. Yet twice he was over the ball in good positions and twice he absolutely wasted those opportunities – one with the kind of delivery a hungover Sunday League player would be utterly ashamed of. When goals are hard to come by, set-pieces become even more important and this was dumb.
Saka and Odegaard came close-ish, Pepe had a pop when he came on, but despite what xG might tell you, your eyes remain the best judge of what you see. I saw a team that is struggling, that knows it doesn’t have the players it needs to score goals, and the burden that has been carried for long enough by our exciting and talented 20 year olds has become too heavy for them as it was always going to be.
Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:
I can’t remember a game where Arsenal has played with this team, where they have created and dominated in a game more and better. But the result is what at the end we need to be where we have to be, and if we are not able to do that we aren’t not going to be there – it’s as simple as that. Because you don’t have enough quality to be there, because we have to win football matches and we have to score more goals, and that’s a problem we have at the moment.
You might take some issue with the first part of it, although I think in general we had what Arsene Wenger used to call ‘sterile domination’, but the second part is as true as it gets. We have to win football matches and to do that we have to score more goals.
Quite how we’re going to address this problem now I don’t really know. Maybe it takes a lucky one to open the floodgates or something, but that feels a bit like wishful thinking. The results in the other games yesterday demanded an Arsenal win, but we fell short. The response to the Palace game was to lose to Brighton, and the response to that was being beaten by Southampton.
We all know that no points from those three games isn’t anywhere near good enough, so there’s little to be gained from hammering that home. We are certainly a team who skirt the margins, five of our six wins in 2022 with this squad of players have been by a single goal, and in two of the last three we’ve been on the other side of that. However, there are still extremely important points left to play for, and it’s got to be back to the drawing board for Arteta ahead of Wednesday’s visit to Stamford Bridge.
A season that promised much is now entering salvage territory.