Another ‘week of three games’ saw us win emphatically against Leeds, draw against Benfica – when we deserved more – and lose narrowly against Pep’s Northern Oilers. What it tells us is that we continue to be a team in progress; that we are not yet a team that can perform on a high level all the time. The problem is that after such a good performance against Leeds our hopes, and with that our expectations, are raised instantly. And then they come crashing down when we lose to the league leaders at our own home of football.
I don’t think we should feel too bad about not winning and also not about our performance. After playing in Rome on Thursday, our second game of the week, we were just not going to be able to put in a 200% team performance needed to beat Man City in their current form. Yet it was a hard game to watch. The team selection did not work. A rusty Tierney and Holding were caught napping early on, and before we knew it Arsenal were one goal down. After that the team played with good organisation and discipline but this came at a cost. We lacked fire in the belly and our passing lacked both precision and determination. It was like looking at 11 players who had their drinks spiked.
Tierney – who cannot be spiked because he is from Wishaw, Scotland – and Holding came into the game pretty soon and produced good performances for the remainder of it. In fact, Kieran was our best player in the first half with his unstoppable drive forwards. The inclusion of Pepe did nothing for the team and I was also disappointed with the combo of Xhaka and Elneny. Mo looked rusty to me and was chasing the game a lot, and Xhaka was pressed back too much by the excellent MC midfield. Odegaard was clearly finding his feet and Auba struggled to keep hold of the ball or produce a half-decent pass. We looked disjointed when we attacked and that was the only thing I found really disappointing.
We let the baby blue Mancs dictate the tempo and were not able to hold on to the ball for more than a second. This made us look poor going forwards even though we managed to keep them from scoring again.
Still, we know that Arteta is working on the team and he had to make some changes from the last two games. Mikel knows that he cannot afford to make more than one, maximum two changes to the ‘core-11’ as things stand. It just leads to a drop in performance straightaway. It shouldn’t of course as all players who started yesterday are good enough to give the league leaders a game all right, but Arteta has too many players who are good but do not really fit into the way he wants the team to play. Players need to be comfortable with the ball in tight spaces, have a good first touch and pass it well. We have a number of those players but the likes of Auba, Pepe, Bellerin and a few others – some of them currently on loan – just do not cut the mustard. That does not mean they are bad players but for Mikel and Arsenal a bespoke system of football is key to success, and in our first eleven we just cannot carry too many who are not good with the ball in tight spaces. On Sunday, we played too many of those sorts of players (Mari and Elneny are okay but not great either – they are squad players).
Arteta had of course no choice as our coming game against Benfica is a must win game and he needs the likes of ESR, Luiz, Big Gab, Ceballos, Soares and (hopefully) Laca to be fully fit and ready for the fight. Gradually, he will be able to build a team with the right sort of players – and oh boy did we miss Partey yesterday – so we have a squad that can perform well in all three games of a week like this.
If we take the long perspective we can be confident that Arteta is on the right path. Well I am. I am loving what he is doing with the team even though it is hard to take in some of our performances at times. I say now is the time to support Mikel and give him a contract extension. Sign him up for five years BOD!