Arsenal 0 – 1 Southampton.
Well that was a disappointing performance by the boys and sadly we are out of the FA cup very early on. The draw was unfavourable with having to play first Southampton and then Wolves if we had been successful today, and both were away games too. I was hoping for a strong line-up but Arteta made a whopping seven changes from our victory against the Barcodes. By doing so, he showed us that the league is his priority this season. But who could argue that the team he put out could not have been victorious today? On paper it was a more than decent team, even against an almost full-strengths Southampton, and I think that by putting out this ‘second string’ team (except for four regulars) Arteta made a statement to the BOD too: the wider squad is not as strong as you may think and I need some more players (and please try and sell a few to partly fund these).
For me the biggest disappointments were the lack of cohesion between the players and the rustiness of many of them. Big Gab tried to compensate for his rustiness with mad application of his duties; as a result he was all over the place during the first half. Martinelli was an eager beaver as we have become used to but there was no sharpness and connection with his fellow players today. Willian did not lead our attack as we should expect from him and also looked a yard short. Pepe blew hot and cold but luckily got a bit better in the second half.
It really looked like the whole team played together for the first time and that cost the Gunners the game. The Saints did not impress other than with their strong discipline and positional play. They created a few half-chances and had a lucky bounce of the ball for the goal that beat us. But they were the better team simply because they played like one, and Arteta has to wonder whether it would not have been better to play his first team with say just three or four changes instead. Momentum is important for us and a win is a tonic that lasts at least four days. I think I understand why he is prioritising the league: even winning the FA Cup would not be enough to compensate for a poor league finish this season; and Mikel will be judged by us, the BOD and the media mostly on how he will finish in the league. Let’s be honest about that. Not that I expect us to finish in the top four, or maybe even in the top six, this season, but during this traditional year Arteta will have to establish a clear sense of progress and a very strong base (system of play, team cohesion and performance culture) to build on next season. We simply have not got the squad depth and cohesion to do well in more than one or two major competitions this season.
The FA Cup and UEFA Cup are great prices but they also distract from the big plan: making Arsenal a top four team again as soon as reasonably possible. Yet I cannot deny that I am feeling a bit low tonight and that the boys have disappointed us.
Player ratings are hard to do as ultimately football is a team sport and an individual’s performance is affected by those of his team mates, and Arsenal did not play like a team today. I must also add that the way the pitch was half in very bright sunshine and half in a dark shadow did not help me in making a good judgement about the players’ performances. I am going to put all the players into three groups: Below Par (5), Just About Okay (6), Okay Plus (7).
Below Par: Eddie, Martinelli, Willian, Big Gab, Bellerin.
Just About Okay: Elneny, Xhaka, Holding, Soares, Leno, Laca, Pepe.
Okay Plus: Partey, Saka.