Here we are again. Discussing a football match where Arsenal made mistakes. It’s getting rather tedious and in a week that could have been huge for the side’s fortunes this season, they came up short.
After an international break that dragged on and a weekend of Premier League football where supporters could only watch on and wait, Monday came around with expectation and belief in the air.
On one hand, the limp display at Brighton had reasons aplenty to head into this game with trepidation. On the other, it extended the unbeaten run and was just one of ‘those’ days. A solitary laboured performance can be forgiven. Two in a row sets off alarm bells.
Starting the game precisely how everyone of an Arsenal affiliation would have liked, Mikel Arteta’s side were good value for their 1-0 lead. Neat combination play between Takehiro Tomiyasu and Nicolas Pepe forced the opener, one Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang coolly fired home.
4 planned mistakes Mikel Arteta made against Crystal Palace as Arsenal were fortunate to snatch a 2-2 Premier League draw with Lacazette’s equaliser
When taking a lead and controlling the match, clearly the best form of attack is defence. At least, that’s what Arsenal thought. They curled up and decided to sit on their lead for the remaining 80 minutes. Like all good teams do, of course.
Worst of all is that Crystal Palace weren’t great. They were the better side and Patrick Vieira outdid his opposite number with some football more closely resembling what Arteta is hoping to instill, but as for chances they didn’t create many without a helping hand.
Both their goals came as the result of the two players deemed the most press resistant in the side being caught in possession. Thomas Partey was first to succumb before Sambi Lokonga followed suit, and while there are faint cries for fouls in both instances, that is a path we will not head down.
Alexandre Lacazette pinched a draw at the death. Celebrations quickly turned to realisations; this was not a point to savour. This was a display to mourn. How much of that falls on the manager’s poor tactical errors? Quite a lot.
1. Playing Bukayo Saka & Emile Smith Rowe Out of Position
Mentioned once, mentioned twice, mentioned thrice and likely to be mentioned quarce and beyond, Arteta has to put a halt to his decision to playing his two Hale Enders away from their strongest respective positions.
Emile Smith Rowe is capable of playing in the No. 10. It’s not like he’s being shoehorned in there. What you do run the risk of in fielding him where his passing is more central than his carrying, is widening the margins for inconsistency. Some of his decisions in possession were wrong on Monday, whereas his runs and movements weren’t.
Play him as a forward where you cater to his skillset. Why stick him in the right-hand pocket when the left side is where he’s been developing over the past six months? Reduce the amount of unnecessary risk that can follow.
As for Bukayo Saka, he too is absolutely capable of playing on the left. But when your right side is flailing and feeble, the delightful out-to-in runs that your Player of the Season makes coming in off his favoured side have to be utilised. He’s at his best there for England, just as he is for Arsenal.
The same applies to Martin Odegaard who was a ghost against Palace. He comes deep, which is fine when Arsenal are dominating the ball. No qualms there. When control is relinquished and the opposition push on, he gets lost in that midfield and provides no cover for his fellow teammate, in this case Thomas Partey. Arsenal become simple to play through and physically unable.
Play your best players in their best positions. It’s frustratingly straightforward.
2. Nicolas Pepe & Wide Players So Far From Goal
Nicolas Pepe had a very poor game. And, somehow, he was involved in both of the goals Arsenal scored.
Just seven minutes in and Tomiyasu got close to him on the edge of the box, playing a neat one-two after the corner was overhit, and Arsenal scored from it. Pepe, close to the box, forcing a chance. Shock.
While he was hopeless in almost every duel (won 3 out of 15), couldn’t dribble (completed 1 out of 6) and lost possession painfully often (22), to give the Ivorian some relief, what is he supposed to do when he’s hugging the touchline 50 yards from goal? He’s being asked to draw blood from a stone.
It was noticeable even when Gabriel Martinelli came on just how disorganised the team was, with individual roles unheard of. Arteta asks too much of his players in situations and any winger, especially two in Pepe and Martinelli who aren’t ‘wingers’, left to take on three men with chalk on his boots will struggle.
At points in the first half Arteta had Pepe lining up on the right of a midfield three when defending in a 4-3-3 shape, in what can only be described as an effort to make him as nonthreatening as actually possible.
There can’t be a right-winger all on his own that far from goal on a side of the pitch where the right-back is instructed to fill in as a central defender for much of proceedings. It doesn’t work. Still, Pepe was poor and attacks disappeared every time they found him, but his hands are also somewhat tied, as the other wide players are when they’re on the touchline with zero support.
3. Unwillingness to Press the Opposition
Aubameyang, Odegaard, Smith Rowe, Saka and Pepe. All five of these players are either effective pressers or dangerous in broken play. But they aren’t used that way.
Odegaard is one of the most infectious pressers of the ball when he’s in the No. 10: he played deep.
Smith Rowe is a valiant counter-presser: he was asked to press only briefly, and from too deep.
Pepe is an inside forward best around the box: he only received the ball deep and wide.
Saka has such quick feet advanced in the final third: he too was deep and wide.
Aubameyang scores goals in the penalty box: he ran his socks off almost solely.
With a group of players who thrive on the front foot and pinching the ball off the opposition in broken game states in areas where invention reigns supreme, asking them to perform in less threatening zones without engaged pressing limits their output. Why play five attacking players with a remit that sees them try to create at their lowest ebb?
Be more explosive. Be more daring. Press the opposition, especially when they play a high line, and inject some imagination into the team. Arteta just can’t manage a press.
4. Albert Sambi Lokonga Was the Right Change Used Wrongly
After Saka was assaulted by James McArthur at the end of the first half Arteta was forced into a change of personnel, with Albert Sambi Lokonga coming on in his stead.
Whether he intended to make this substitution or not, it was the right one to shore up the midfield and push Odegaard closer to the goal. There were strong claims for someone like Gabriel Martinelli to come on instead, but it would have left the same gaps in midfield that were being exposed in the first half.
It should have been effective. Despite seeing most of the ball, Palace were creating very little in terms of threat and managing the transitions would have been the platform to regain control and push for a second goal.
However, while the individual errors Partey and Sambi made were not on Arteta, the spaces left between the midfield pairing can only have been instructional.
Sambi would drift into wide zones on either side and Partey remained as the solitary midfielder. It meant that transitionally Arsenal were horribly simple to play through with space to run into and numerical advantages handed to Palace on a silver platter.
Giant spaces between the players on the pitch, as noted with how isolated the wingers were, continued in midfield and the team was not set up in a manner to both sustain spells of pressure or keep compactness when losing the ball.