It has been a week to forget for the Gunners as Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal suffered two painful defeats, giving local rivals Tottenham the upper hand in the race for Champions League places.
The ‘Gunners’ have already exceeded the expectations that most had for them at the start of the campaign, accumulating 12 more points at this stage than last season. While mathematically they’re still in the hunt for a top-four finish – they’re still just three points behind Spurs with one game to go – looking at their remaining games doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence, so there’s a sense that their challenge is beginning to unravel.
The team’s inexperience was always a concern, as was how they might be affected should they pick up two or three key injuries. But on Saturday, perhaps more than anyone else, it was the coach who showed that he is still a little wet behind the ears.
Arsenal were rocked by news earlier in the week that Kieran Tierney will miss the rest of the season and subsequent examinations showed Thomas Partey’s injury sustained at Selhurst Park on Monday is more serious than initially thought.
Having implemented his style of play throughout the season which for the most part has seen the team perform better, Arteta could not afford to further upset the balance of the team. There is not much a manager can do when dealing with forced change other than try to limit its effects. But he chose to overcomplicate things, overthinking everything.
Nuno Tavares was expected to be named in the starting XI at left back. After all, he was hired to replace Tierney and he did it competently early in the season. His form lately has been questionable, but surely Given the absence of Partey in midfield, Arteta couldn’t afford to further weaken that area by using Xhaka as a winger, right?
Xhaka’s experiment at left-back has failed in the past, most notably during the Europa League semi-final loss to Villarreal last season and the result this time was no different. Furthermore, the Swiss’s absence from midfield left Albert Sambi Lokonga tasked with running the midfield alone; it was painfully obvious, even before kick-off, that this selection weakened Arsenal in multiple areas.
Brighton’s first goal from a ball falling into the area normally occupied by a conventional left-back, and like the second when the ball was clipped towards the edge of the penalty area, Lokonga’s lone figure could not follow the trail. The Brighton Runners.
The shake-up also resulted in Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe having to play slightly different roles than they had grown accustomed to this season, so it’s no wonder we saw such a disjointed display.
By the time the team news was announced and began to circulate on social media, the general consensus was that Arteta had taken a big risk. He would have thought long and hard about it and briefly explained his reasons for doing so at the post-match press conference. But given how poorly his side performed and the clear problems caused by his decisions, there’s no hiding that the Gunners boss has to own this one.
Whether the result will prove costly in Arsenal’s quest for a comeback place in Europe’s premier competition remains to be seen, but back-to-back defeats and a lack of reliable coverage raise an important question: are the Gunners ready to return to La Liga? of Champions next season? ? Maybe not.