For the second time in four years Arsenal travelled to the City Ground to play Championship Nottingham Forest in the third round of the FA Cup and for the second time in four years Arsenal’s FA Cup run was halted as quickly as it began in ignominious fashion as we were knocked out to a hard working, if not particularly impressive, Forest side.
I took the trip up to Nottingham in the car with my ol’ mate Dave Seager and as we drove up talking about how Arteta would set up his team, there was a clear acknowledgement from us both that rotation was the best approach on the day. Players who haven’t played very much needed to get minutes; we have relied on a pretty settled first XI for much of this season and whilst that has brought some very good performances and we are starting to see the fruits of that consistent labour, any injuries to key players would mean that we need to bring in other members of the squad and so having them coming in cold isn’t the best idea.
So when the team news came out I was kind of ok with it. Perhaps I’d have given Martinelli and Saka a rest but I’m not really sure who would fill the gaps, because we had Balogun off to Middlesbrough to complete his loan, Auba at the AFCON (although we know he is in the cold anyway so probably wouldn’t play even if he was there), Pepe at the AFCON, so the options for rotation seem light unless you dip in to the youth team who have never played for the first team before. You can’t do that in a hostile environment asway from home to a decent Championship outfit. If we were playing a League Two side at home then maybe Arteta could have given it a go, but not away to Forest, so I could see why that decision was taken. Added to that was the fact that ESR had picked up a knock and as Arteta had said on Friday, we had a number of problems in the side, with Xhaka also out with COVID.
But also as Arteta said, that doesn’t excuse the performance yesterday, because it was pretty bad. There were some real stinkers of performances from some of those Arsenal players. It was that bad that Arteta hooked Tavares on 30 minutes! He was having a shocker but that is one heck of a public statement by the manager; I suspect if he could he probably would have liked to hook half of his team yesterday to make that same statement. Cedric on the other flank was utterly awful. When he wasn’t swinging dead balls out for goal kicks, he was getting caught under the flight of the ball, getting overrun by basically anybody that attacked him and looking every bit the player that we would gladly send off to Spain if we could. Quite what Atletico have seen in him as a squad player is beyond me, because if we can see he is pants as a squad player for us, what does that say about their options??
Cedric was joined by Rob Holding in the ‘having a mare’ corner too, because the newly hairlined centre half stunk the place out just the same. It is an embarrassing state of affairs for a seasoned Premier League defender when your opponents from a division down basically don’t bother to press you or close you down when you’ve got the ball. Holding had all of the time in the world when the ball was at his feet and that is because Nottingham Forest knew he is terrible in that situation. And so it proved. Forest backed off him, Ben White as well and the England international wasn’t exactly great, but Holding’s shocker masked White’s performance a bit. But the whole back line was pretty bad and the goal Forest scored was inevitably by a mistake in midfield by Sambi, but the lack of tracking by Cedric of a 33-year-old Lewis Grabban sneaking in at the back post just shows how appalling we were.
And so to the midfield, which is where I think Arteta got it wrong, from a tactical perspective. We have seen this season where Arteta has opted for Partey in central midfield and two number eights playing in front of him as a single pivot and it hasn’t really clicked. Remember earlier in the season where Odegaard was told to sit deeper in that number eight role and a lot of us thought he was out of form and it didn’t work? Well this happened again yesterday. Arteta detailed Sambi to play as a single pivot in the middle and hold everything together, whilst asking teenage debutant Patino and Odegaard to play those number eight roles. And unsurprisingly it didn’t work. There was too much space between Lokonga and his other midfield partners and as a result our passing felt lacklustre in the middle of the park and we never looked like we were going to get a control of the game. Control the midfield and you control most of a football game and in this match we didn’t do that at all. You have to feel for Patino, who as a result of this instruction looked a little lost at times, but Odegaard was equally lost. But it can’t have done Sambi any good to play that role. Personally I think Patino and Sambi sitting in front of the back four in a double pivot may have offered at least a little more; keep the spaces between the two very close and so both always have an option to release the ball. So for me it was a tactical set up that was wrong and that played a bit part in us losing yesterday because of the lack of midfield control. Whether or not it was personnel related or not – in terms of injuries and absentees – I don’t know, but it didn’t work and Arteta needs to hold his hands up today.
But so do so many of those players. Saka and Martinelli weren’t great, although Saka was manhandled by Colback a couple of times with absolutely no repercussions by the left wing-back. But here’s the thing about those two: both have built up enough goodwill and fan credit in the bank that we can forgive a performance like that from them. One player who – to me at least – hasn’t built up that credit is Eddie Nketiah and he had a shocker yesterday. He offered nothing in terms of channel running, he didn’t hold the ball up at all (although to be fair I know that isn’t his game), plus he missed a header at the far post that was basic bread and butter stuff. Quite how he didn’t even hit the target from Saka’s cross is beyond me and just hit home once again how he is not the guy to take over from our ageing and exiting strikers. That miss, coupled with the shocking miss at the back post against Everton when the scores were 1-1, are examples as to why you need proper elite strikers in games like this because if you get one chance you need to put it away. Eddie was poor and if this was supposed to be a shop window game, he did himself no favours.
But very few Arsenal players or coaches did yesterday. It was a collective stinkfest and the result of which is that we now realistically have just one opportunity for a trophy this season. And if we play like that against Liverpool on Thursday, that hope will soon diminish too.
Catch you all tomorrow.