At just before the hour mark I looked up to the big screen behind me yesterday and saw that with two thirds of the game gone, we were labouring, with Palace in the ascendency. And I hoped for a change. The set up wasn’t working. Crystal Palace we’re pressing across the pitch in an organised and structured manner. They were retaining possession and then when the ball turned over they would break with two or three players.
It had happened for most of that second half and I was frustrated. “Make the change and do it now” I thought. Saka had already gone off at halftime having been booted up in the air in the clearest of red cards that Mike Dean was never going to give (McArthur was given a yellow despite tugging back ESR and also cynically tripping Saka before that) and that had changed Arteta’s approach to more of a 4-2-3-1. Arteta himself admitted afterwards that we were better in the second half although I’m not really sure what ‘better’ is right now (I’ll come to that). But the manager should have seen the problems in the team and he should have addressed them quicker than he did.
He didn’t. He brought Lacazette on at 67 minutes and the emphasis in our play shifted. He and Aubameyang started to link up well and eventually we got a last-gasp equaliser.
A last-gasp equaliser. At home. To Crystal Palace. Who, incidentally, we haven’t beaten at home in four seasons now.
And this morning I find myself wavering on the manager – properly – for the first time. That’s because he didn’t do enough to correct any structural mistakes in our set up, instead leaving it too late in not being ruthless and pulling the trigger on some players earlier. Martin Ødegaard was ineffective as a number eight and when he was allowed to press forward in the second half he was ineffective in possession. Pepe started brightly with a good effort that led to Auba’s goal but faded in the second half and had ‘one of those days’. You’ve seen those before, right? You know the ones I’m talking about, where he is NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS going to beat his man, his technique in controlling the ball is woeful and he might as well not have bothered being on the pitch. Yeah, those days.
But my frustration this morning is more on the manager than anyone else. That’s because what I saw yesterday was a risk-averse team too focused on playing within a structural rigidity that took any kind of jeopardy out of the game. It was all about positional discipline and players occupying those ‘zones’ to receive a pass. Be in your ‘zone’, control your ‘zone’, receive and distribute the ball in a very specific way. So when Palace broke on us we made mistakes and looked vulnerable. But when we had the ball they knew where we were going to be and what we were going to do.
It was tedious.
That second half was painful at times. There were plenty of people who were euphoric after the last minute equaliser, but not me, because all it did was make the sting of defeat go away. The sting of knowing you are watching an overly-engineered side who will not take chances under this manager is very real indeed.
And that’s why I’m wavering on Arteta right now. ArtetaBall is too precise. It requires too many stars to align. It needs the environment and conditions to be perfect; players not injured, the weather conditions need to be just right, the opposition has to play in a certain way, the refereeing decisions need to be in our favour. All of our good players need to have blinders. When we get those conditions we have good days out. But think about every good Arsenal team we’ve ever watched. How often did they have those conditions? Three times a season maybe?
Football is about intelligence to adapt to the situation and yesterday I saw a team who couldn’t adapt to a high-intensity press. If Brighton was a bad day at the office, then yesterday was the start of a trend, a worrying one at that.
The football isn’t even that great to watch. It’s not like we break with rapid pace to keep teams cold. We don’t ‘sucker-punch’ anyone because our build up is too methodical. It’s too much about positional discipline. At times when we were trailing and chasing a goal I saw players not making any diagonal runs, any darting moves to get in behind defensive lines. The only times that happened was when Lacazette came on and he started combining with Aubameyang. But even that felt like it was two older pros trying something different that wasn’t part of the managers plan.
We are an overly-engineered, overly-structured, and therefore potentially ‘over coached’ side and whilst I am still desperate for Arteta to succeed, this feels like it is starting to turn. We don’t look like a top six side at all. We look like a mid table side battle with another mid table side in Palace. Perhaps that’s because it is who we are. We have some players who have potential but when enough of them don’t have blinders we just look a bit ‘meh’.
I was talking to somebody before the game and we both agreed just how much we wanted this to work and how those people who have turned on Arteta are a little harsh. But last night, for the first time, the doubt crept in and I asked myself “maybe this IS the best he can do?”. We were told we were getting a raw coach but one who tactically was super impressive. Well, last night, one former captain ‘out-tactic’d’ another. And that former captain was in the Palace dugout.
Vieira has had difficult patches at other clubs. But maybe he’s learned from those bad spells and mistakes. Arteta is learning on the job. But he’s at a club where you shouldn’t really be allowed to.
I’ll leave it there for now. More thoughts tomorrow.