Arsenal are seeing an alarming trend this season.
There are plenty of things to criticize Arsenal about from this game, and we’ll get to them, but before we start into the cruel process of dissecting Arsenal’s 2-0 loss to Newcastle, it’s worth looking at a disturbing pattern that has plagued the season.
The Gunners have achieved a number of psychological milestones this season. Individual errors that plagued their game last season have almost vanished, and good wins over bogey opponents like Leicester and Aston Villa have demonstrated that they can grind out games away from home. However, there is one psychological barrier they have yet to overcome.
With the exception of the thrilling 2-1 win over Wolves and the three draws against Crystal Palace, Brighton, and Burnley this season, the team that scores the first goal has won every game. The pattern from Monday was replicated, and after Ben White’s own goal, there was not a single point in the game where Arsenal seemed like they may turn things around.
This flaw is indicative of a side that lacks willpower in the face of adversity. The Gunners drown in the in-game waves of difficulty, while the top sides ride them out. Mikel Arteta said after the game that this is an issue that his team would have to deal with.
In his post-match press conference, the Spaniard told Sports Deputy, “We need to find other ways to accomplish it, especially when we find ourselves in this scenario.” “Because of injuries, with Gabby who was feeling something, and with Tomiyasu, we’ve made a lot of adjustments. We attempted to rectify it, but once again, we were woefully inadequate in every category that could have given us a chance to compete in a match, and we weren’t good enough today.”
Perhaps it’s due to a lack of experience. After all, the Gunners boast the league’s youngest squad. However, as they attempt to close the gap with the top, their current lack of first-goal success is simply unsustainable. When top clubs are down, they fight back, which may explain why Arsenal will not be among them in the Champions League next season.
As Arsenal limped to the end of the Premier League season, it was difficult not to think back to January, when the Gunners started on a magnificent campaign of decimating all of their squad depth, which in retrospect appears to have been a massive act of self-harm.
The decision could have been justified at the time because they were only competing in one competition following their FA Cup third round loss at the hands of Nottingham Forest. If Pablo Mari, Folarin Balogun, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Calum Chambers, and Sead Kolasinac had stayed in North London during Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s race, they could not have been expected to play much.
However, without the safety net of squad depth, the Gunners decided to take a major risk on their narrow group’s ability to make it through the season’s final stretch. It was a policy that could only be judged on the basis of its outcomes. It would be a masterstroke in squad management if they could qualify for the top four, but anything else would be a mostly pointless act of self-sabotage. It has unfortunately slipped into the latter category.
Mikel Arteta was happy to defend the moves his club made during the winter window after the game. “We did what we could and what we were allowed to do with the resources we had,” the Spaniard stated. “We were able to construct the team we were able to build at the start of the season, and it is the same team that has brought us all the way here.”
To be fair to Arsenal, attempts were made to sign players. The team pursued Dusan Vlahovic, but he chose Juventus, while Edu was focused on completing a contract for his countryman Arthur. It’s difficult to tell what may have happened if just a couple of those second-string players had stayed, but like with so many things in this Gunners campaign, it’s impossible not to ponder what could have been.
Ways to lose
Add as many cautions as you wish. The mid-season loss of a captain and star striker due to disciplinary difficulties, the fact that none of Arsenal’s first-team back four were fully fit on the night, or the absence of their best and most experienced midfielder, the list goes on and on. There is still no excuse for how Arsenal’s top-four aspirations fizzled out on Monday night.
After such an humiliating defeat at the hands of their local rivals on Monday, you’d think the Gunners would respond with a bang, proving their naysayers wrong. What they came up with instead was pitiful.
“We didn’t compete,” a clearly enraged Mikel Arteta said depressingly accurately in his post-game press conference. “We were never able to get into the game. We keep getting ourselves into problems. We were defeated in every duel. We were second best in every area of the game.”
So, who is to blame here? Granit Xhaka, understandably enraged after the game despite being one of the few players to receive any credit, seemed to have a very clear understanding.
He told Sky Sports, “We didn’t do what the game plan was.” “We were not listening to the coach and were doing our own thing, and this is what happens when you do your own thing. It was a poor performance, and we don’t deserve to participate in the Champions League. We didn’t deserve to be in the Europa League, and it’s difficult to accept right now. I’m not sure why we aren’t following the coach’s instructions.”
The Switzerland international was correct. From the start, Arsenal retreated towards their own goal, allowing Newcastle to further drown them in a pool of their own nerves, from which they never seemed to emerge.
Aaron Ramsdale was the typical personification of the “nervous approach”. With his outspoken and gregarious style, the England goalkeeper has been a calming influence for much of the season, but he was nervous from the start on Monday. When he was charged down by Miguel Almiron early on, he was fortunate not to concede a goal, and instead of serving as a wake-up call, it simply seemed to make him more afraid.
It was evident that he had been told to hunt for players on Arsenal’s left side from goal kicks, but he didn’t find any. As one such ball, targeted towards Nuno Tavares, fell short of its mark, Ramsdale vented his rage at the Gunners bench, who had been pressuring him to stick to the technique.
During a break in play caused by Takehiro Tomiyasu’s injury, Arteta attempted to reinforce this approach by speaking to his players in a huddle, where he could be seen passionately grabbing his goalkeeper and encouraging the rest of the team to get on his wavelength, but there was no talking to these Arsenal players who failed to follow the game plan. The Gunners simply melted away as the tempo rose in a heated atmosphere at St. James’ Park.
To be fair to Newcastle, they were excellent on the night, and if Arsenal had been as well, you could almost take the sandpaper pill that is this defeat. However, leaving in such a tepid manner leaves a bad taste in the mouth that many people will find difficult to overcome.
What is Arsenal’s next step?
The football media has a tendency to sensationalize and catastrophize every result. Each defeat represents the raging depths of a crisis, while each victory represents the soaring pleasure of paradise. This defeat, though, seems like much more than just three points for Arsenal.
Mikel Arteta attempted to stir some interest in Sunday’s match against Everton by claiming that while mathematically the Gunners might still play Champions League football next season, their chances of finishing in the top four are over. Tottenham will not choke on the final day versus Norwich, despite their humorous historical precedence for doing so, and the gap in goal difference between the two sides is so wide that only a loss to Spurs against one of the worst sides in Premier League history will give Arsenal a chance.
They will, short of a miracle, be playing Europa League football next season. While most fans would have accepted it at the start of the season after flying so close to the sun of Champions League play, this comes as a huge disappointment.
The reason for this is that, regardless of how sloppy experts try to distort these numbers, Mikel Arteta is clearly doing a great job at the Emirates. Arsenal has transformed from a team that was rotten to the core, stumbling aimlessly towards mediocrity, to one that is eagerly chasing an upward trajectory with the league’s youngest group. They’ve showed they can compete with the best in moments against Manchester City and Liverpool, but it felt like they needed to be dining at Europe’s top table next season to take the next step.
Recruitment is the only way to close the gap between where the Gunners are currently and where they aspire to be. Gabriel Jesus has been touted as the centre forward saviour that North London so desperately needs, but would the Brazilian want to move to Baku?
Recruiting players of that caliber needed to raise Arsenal to the next level will be far more difficult and expensive than it would be if Arsenal were playing Champions League games next season. Edu has claimed that he wants to shop on the top shelf of the transfer market, but with just second-tier European football to offer, that goal may be difficult to achieve.
Perhaps it’s pessimistic, but you have to question if the Gunners will have another chance. After all, it’s because of Manchester United’s catastrophe this season that this top-four berth has opened up for them. Erik ten Haag has a tough job ahead of him at Old Trafford next season, but they won’t be as bad again.
In the meantime, Tottenham will strengthen under Antonio Conte, provided he stays, and there’s the ticking timebomb that is Newcastle, who will be keen to shatter the established order at the top of the Premier League as quickly as possible. Chelsea’s ownership makes them a difficult team to predict in the future, but with the shifting landscape of English football, perhaps this dreadful night at St. James’ Park will be remembered as the one that got away for Arsenal.