Familiar problem dogs Arsenal
In hindsight, Arsenal’s loss was inevitable. The Gunners were given a free pass at Elland Road last week, but they fell short at Southampton this weekend.
Arsenal’s performance was mostly predictable. Gabriel Jesus, Martin Odegaard, and Bukayo Saka all nearly scored in the first 20 minutes for Mikel Arteta’s side. Granit Xhaka scored Arsenal’s opening goal with a near carbon copy of his right-footed half-volley against PSV on Thursday. Ben White provided the clipped right-footed cross.
With victory in their grasp, Arsenal began playing with their food. St. Mary’s Stadium, earlier resigned to losing, began to hope as passes went awry and pressuring slackened.
Arsenal’s slow start isn’t new this season. In the first 15 minutes of matches, they’ve expected three goals, but between 16 and 30 that drops to 2.4. This time, they couldn’t resume after a pause.
On Sunday, the Gunners never really got out of first gear after halftime. Sensing an opportunity, Southampton began to come out of their shells. While Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side never had Arsenal on the ropes, Stuart Armstrong’s equalizer had been coming.
Arteta told football.london, “We stopped doing the easy things well.” “Too many basic passes were made in dangerous locations without sufficient pressure, hindering our continuity from the first half. The game grows more open as transitions increase, making you exhausted.”
This was similar of the opening half of last season, when Arsenal started brilliantly but quickly retreated after going ahead. In games like the 2-0 triumph at Leicester, starting fast left them with enough gas to win on fumes, but in others, as the 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace, it backfired. The Gunners seemed to have grown out of the trend, but it’s resurfaced in their last two league meetings.
Arsenal gave the initiative to Southampton on Sunday, while Leeds worked hard to reclaim it. Had the winning streak ended at Elland Road last week, most fans could have accepted that the Gunners lost to a better team, but the self-sabotaging climax at St. Mary’s is undoubtedly why this feels like a defeat. There are mitigating circumstances that we’ll discuss later, but if Arsenal are to retain their run, they must stop losing control in games they lead.
Arsenal’s drop in form may not have been so costly if they were less wasteful with the ball. Gabriel Jesus missed the most opportunity that day.
The Brazilian hasn’t scored in four games since scoring against Tottenham after the international break. On Sunday, he missed three chances to win the game for Arsenal.
Not that he’s missing chances individually worries Arsenal. If strikers keep getting into good positions, goals will come. Instead, it’s the psychological impact of his accumulating goallessness.
With each chance, he seems more frustrated with himself, which may be affecting his confidence. It’s night and day compared to his early season conviction to take risks. It’s hard to envision Jesus attempting that impudent chip that started his Premier League account against Leicester.
Jesus’ pressure to start scoring right now may be exacerbated by certain situations. Having been left out of Brazil’s previous international break team, the 25-year-old may feel he has much to prove. Jesus has a personal score to settle with the World Cup after failing to score as Brazil’s number nine in Russia 2018.
Mikel Arteta attributed Jesus’ lack of goals at Southampton to his self-critical nature. “I’m sure he’ll be unhappy because he had chances to score,” the Spaniard remarked. Gabi is dissatisfied when he scores two goals when he could have scored three or four.
This is not a judgment on Jesus for not scoring, but rather an attempt to understand the pressure he may be facing at this time of year. Jesus should be able to recover his goal-scoring touch after five years with Pep Guardiola.
Tierney vs Tomiyasu rolls on
We can forecast Arsenal’s starting XI from game to game. Mikel Arteta is generally tight-lipped about squad news, but Oleksandr Zinchenko’s calf injury has left the left back position up in the air.
Takehiro Tomiyasu has started the last three games, and the choice is becoming more contentious. The decision to start the Japan international over Kieran Tierney against Liverpool seemed brilliant as he shut down Mohamed Salah. Tierney has since revealed that Arteta told him this was a one-off call. Tomiyasu has kept the left back slot against Leeds and Southampton, raising questions about the Scottish international’s status in the squad.
Tomiyasu makes sense there. The Japan international is two-footed, making him well-suited for the inverted role Zinchenko played early in the season. It gives Arsenal a buildup option and allows Granit Xhaka to move forward more. Without Tomiyasu covering behind him, Xhaka may not have felt free to attack the box for his goal against Southampton. If Tierney had been playing, Xhaka would have spent most of the game playing a deeper role to allow his teammate to attack down the left flank.
Tomiyasu struggled in possession against Leeds and Southampton. His ambidexterity is a plus, but cutting infield from the right to switch to the left is different from getting pushed up against the touchline and having to pass with your weaker foot. football.london sat alongside the Southampton analysts in the press box, and their interactions to the touchline showed they had identified Tomiyasu as a press trigger.
Tierney solves this problem. In this game, his left-side running may have caused difficulties for Lyanco, who was playing out of position without Tino Livramento and Kyle Walker-Peters. This proved true as he nearly assisted Martin Odegaard’s winner.
Tierney has also proved he can play the inverted role. Tierney shifted infield to allow Cedric to attack down the right in support of Odegaard and Bukayo Saka while Tomiyasu was sidelined with a calf injury. The Scot isn’t as smooth in possession as Tomiyasu, but he’s a conscientious enough defender to fill in.
You can imagine Tierney’s irritation as he watched Tomiyasu struggle for the second week in a position that should be his in Zinchenko’s absence. This is not a criticism of Tomiyasu, a flexible and able member of Arsenal’s squad, but just because playing the Japan international at left back worked against Liverpool doesn’t imply it will work every time Mikel Arteta tries it. Sunday’s game against Southampton was one when Tierney was the better option.
Arteta’s rotation comes under the microscope
Mikel Arteta’s lack of bench influence has been criticized. Sunday’s contest is probably fair.The Spaniard made three questionable replacements.
Bringing on Kieran Tierney made logical for the reasons we’ve already described, but taking off Ben White instead of Takehiro Tomiyasu felt weird.Eddie Nketiah replaced Gabriel Martinelli.
After Nketiah came in, the Brazilian was strangely moved to the left wing, despite not having been particularly influential.
When asked why, Arteta told football.london he wanted to “alter one thing instead of two.” In a match where Arsenal were chasing a goal, putting Nketiah in a more traditional tandem with Gabriel Jesus, as he had against Fulham earlier in the season, might have been a more significant switch.
The most surprising move was replacing Martin Odegaard with Fabio Vieira. Arteta probably didn’t plan for Vieira to be that ineffective, but taking Odegaard off seemed weird.
The Norwegian created a fantastic opportunity for Nketiah moments before his withdrawal, and as others around him allowed their standard to drop, he fought hard to keep it high across the team.
He was seen yelling at Gabriel Martinelli to drop back into position to help the team when the Brazilian switched off and stayed too high at a set piece.Substitution critique is limited because we don’t have Arteta’s player information.
Arsenal struggled to recover the high standard of the opening 20 minutes at St. Mary’s, and exhaustion following Thursday’s triumph over PSV could have played a role in Wenger’s alterations.
Arteta didn’t blame fatigue after the game.”We have the same as a month ago, two days ago, and next week,” he remarked. “I hate excuses. We could have played better and won more easily in the second half, and that’s on us. The team started out looking great.
We played poorly. Second-half play was lacking.”The Spaniard has pointed out that his players will need to perform well every three days if they want to win the Champions League and Premier League.
He has a point. With Europa League qualification secured, you wonder if he’ll rotate significantly this week in Eindhoven. Emile Smith Rowe, Oleksandr Zinchenko, and Mohamed Elneny’s absences are testing Arsenal’s depth in a manner Arteta hasn’t yet.
How he handles Arsenal’s changes in the next weeks could determine how long they stay atop the Premier League.