Panic? At the Emirates
By Sumaiya Vawda
Consecutive defeats have done their part to dull the mood amongst Arsenal supporters. In the first half against Brighton, only groans of disgruntlement were audible from a crowd that had been re-energised this season. Perhaps more unsettled were the players whose fundamentals evaded them in the absence of the regular set-up. Is panic seeping in?
If one were to believe the online discourse, then Arsenal’s season has ended entirely and a reckoning should be had. Some have called for Arteta’s sacking, and in the aftermath of Villareal’s unlikely victory against Bayern Munich, reporters have claimed Unai Emery should still be at the helm in London. This latter remark being particularly absurd for Emery’s multiple failings at Arsenal, and Villareal sitting a mediocre 7th in La Liga. The Spaniard is undoubtedly better suited to his home league, knockout games and medium-sized clubs.
Mikel Arteta will be best judged at the end of the season, but a few disheartening performances should not detract from the work he has done in reshaping the squad, providing it with a clear playing style and producing impressive metrics. In that vein, it may be argued that the loss against Brighton was slightly unlucky given that a goal was disallowed for no obvious offside and the Gunners were undoubted winners in the shots taken and xG produced department. Perhaps the grunts from the crowd were more for an impending doom than what was actually playing out on the pitch. Yes, the team was poor and the result hands Tottenham the impetus in the race for top four, but the panic begins when past patterns come to mind.
Arsenal are battling for top four and suffer a season-ending injury to a key player- how often has this trope played out! Wenger had to deal with the likes of Robin van Persie, Per Mertesacker, Aaron Ramsey or Olivier Giroud sustaining injuries at crucial points in the top 4 challenge. The eerie part is that Arsenal’s Europa League pursuit was derailed by injury to Kieran Tierney just over a year ago and another season seems to be resting on the same injury. We know what happens when Granit Xhaka is at left-back (he can be easily outrun and the team loses his central progressive passing) and thus it was difficult to go into Saturday’s fixture without a sense of impending trauma.
We may have seen a similar movie before but panic need not be the default. The return of Thomas Partey is imperative; he is a player who simply cannot be replaced in the structure at this moment. The next concern is the rehabilitation of Nuno Tavares. While he may be a better fit than Xhaka, he will feasibly make costly errors if given the majority of playing time until the end of the season. How will Arteta off-set this? Takehiro Tomiyasu would be a welcome return on the right that will allow Tavares more freedom roaming forward, but it is uncertain how his lack of match fitness will impact performance. There is also the small matter of Alex Lacazette, whose inactivity in front of goal becomes more evident when his touches, passes and mobility are also failing him.
Of course, it can be argued that when you operate with a bare bones squad, you leave yourself open to such gaps in performance. Reaching top 4 would be the crowning moment for this young squad, but 5th shouldn’t be something at which to scoff. Overall, panic and disunity will only hinder the cause. The inference of past experiences on this young squad is wholly unfair. Arteta will have to carefully place his chess pieces and withdraw all the goodwill he has with the slightly faded ones, to push this squad over the line without the media frenzy further breaking their wobbling stride.