The worst ever
Normally when there is a defeat as comprehensively crushing as Arsenal’s defeat to Liverpool’s on Saturday it makes sense to start a post-match talking points piece looking at the positives to try and lighten the mood somewhat.
Having searched high and wide for some though it seems that there were nearly none to take.
It seems fitting then to go in the exact opposite direction and look for the most negative of the negative to begin with.
Mikel Arteta was celebrating his 50th Premier League game in charge of the Gunners and it seemed a stern test against a wounded but still dangerous Liverpool side boosted in their Champions League aspirations for next season by a shock defeat to Chelsea in the lunch time kick off would be a good yardstick to determine just how far the Spaniard had managed to take his side.
Instead as the full time whistle came Arteta found himself fielding questions to relating to whether this was Arsenal’s worst display since he took over.
“I don’t know if it was the worse but probably one of the worst and the one that really shocked me,” he said in his post match press conference.
“It leaves us in that position that we have to apologise for what we’ve done on that pitch today throughout the game.”
The Gunners have been pretty competitive since their former captain returned to become manager, and a victory over Spurs last month meant that they had already registered more points against the ‘Big six’ this season (10) than they had last campaign (9) with two heavyweight clashes left to spare.
Liverpool were dominant in more or less every metric imaginable on the night. The shot count stood at 16 to three, possession was 65% to 35%, passes registered stood at 703 vs 395. Only in yellow cards did Arsenal managed to match their vastly superior hosts.
At their best the Gunners under Arteta have been masters at playing out from the back.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s Community Shield goal against this very opposition serves as case in point of that.
And yet as Klopp’s Premier League holders moved to press high on opposition goal kicks – as is their nature – a panicked Bernd Leno chose to hoof long to no one.
With the ball unable to stick, wave after wave of ocean blue Liverpool shirts came to attack the Arsenal goal and despite treading water for the first half, the Gunners ultimately ended up drowning after Diogo Jota’s introduction to the match.
It was a case in point for those argue in favour of the school of thought that Arsenal have not actually moved forward in year or so that Arteta has been at the helm.
Those in fight the corner of the Spaniard will claim that the eye test triumphs over his far from impressive win percentages when compared to the first 50 games of predecessor Emery or even the final 50 games of Wenger.
But as Jurgen Klopp‘s side – who let’s not forget have lost nine times since the turn of the year – ran riot it was difficult to state the defence for Arteta.
On balance he remains the right man for the job, and there is no question that he will be sacked at any time in the near future. But if he is to see out another 50 matches in charge at the Emirates, then ensuring performances of the like seen on Saturday are a one off is of paramount importance.
If there was one player who could some up the awfulness of Arsenal’s display on the night it was Dani Ceballos.
The Real Madrid loanee is going through his worst run of form in his season and three quarter long Gunners career and looks a shadow the player who had the Emirates serenading him to the tune of La Bamba after his home debut against Burnley.
At his best the Spaniard has a balletic ability to spin away from opposition attackers as he conducting the pace of the game from deep, but as Liverpool put on the pressure Ceballos’ display began quickly to look more and more off key.
no Arsenal outfield player gave the ball away more than the 24-year-old (8) who lacked the composure his team needed.
The sloppiness of his performance was not unnoticed by his team mates and an unnecessary foul as the Gunners looked to launch a rare counter attack saw him subject to a steely glare from the blood stained eye of Alexandre Lacazette.
Perhaps it is a little harsh to be critical of a player who has largely played second fiddle this season.
It could be argued that Mohamed Elneny should have started the game instead but the lack of discernible improvement once the Egyptian came on would seem to suggest that the lack of options available to Mikel Arteta is a real problem as he seeks to build his squad.
The style of play the 39-year-old wants to impose at the Emirates is heavily dependent on having midfielders comfortable and capable in possession when under pressure.
Once you go beyond Partey and Xhaka – who himself is far from flawless when it comes to evading the press – in the current Gunners squad then it’s difficult to see who can step up.
The drop off in central midfield quality is alarming and something Arsenal should be looking to fix come the summer where possible.
Arsenal pay the price for transfer policy
It’s difficult to see how this game could have got much worse for Arsenal.
That is until you remember that Kieran Tierney went off injured after a challenge with James Milner just before half time in the match.
Speaking after the game Mikel Arteta admitted the prognosis for the Scot’s fitness did not look good.
“He felt something in his knee and he was in pain so it looks like he will be injured but we don’t know for how long,” said the Spaniard.
It goes without saying almost but the loss of Tierney is a massive blow.
It’s not as though his is the only injury Arsenal are contending with right now.
But where the 23-year-old’s absence differs from his teammates is in how irreplaceable his contribution to the side is given the options Arsenal have in the squad right now.
Tierney has created more opportunities from open play than any other Gunners player with his aggressive overlapping runs down the left flank, and while it would be wishful thinking to expect a second string player to replicate that contribution, there is no one who even comes close to making the similar attacking bursts that the Scot has established himself as a specialist in.
Cedric is an able deputy, but as a right footer playing on the left, it’s unfair to expect him to be able to get to the by-line and deliver as many consistently dangerous balls.
It puts into focus Arsenal’s decision not to sign an orthodox left back to support Tierney after the decision was taken to allow Sead Kolasinac to leave.
The qualm here is not so much with the fact that Kolasinac was allowed to leave – he had started just once in the Premier League and deserved a return to his boyhood club to help try to save them from relegation – but rather with the lack of contingency plan for his departure.
The Bosnian left at the very start of the January window, and with Tierney’s well-known troubled injury history the Gunners always knew they were taking a chance by not having a direct alternative.
Of course it’s easy to say this in hindsight knowing that the 23-year-old has gone on to struggle with knee and calf problems since January, while the options available for a short term fix such as Ryan Bertrand and Patrick van Aanholt were not up to the level Arsenal would have wanted, the wisdom of failing to find proper back up to a position so key to their attacking play surely has to be questioned.
All eyes on Thursday
If there was even the slightest ember of a hope that Arsenal would be able to launch a late push for the Champions League places this season, surely that was extinguished by Saturday night’s performance.
In fact it is looking difficult for the Gunners to make up the seven point gap to West Ham – who are still yet to play their Premier League fixture against Wolves at time of writing – in sixth.
Mikel Arteta’s eggs are now firmly in the Europa League basket as evidenced by the decision to take of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 15 minutes from time.
Speaking after the game the Spaniard was short-termist in his assertion that Thursday night’s quarter final first leg against Slavia Prague at the Emirates would offer his side a chance to vanquish the demons of the Liverpool defeat.
“Absolutely. This is the minimum that we can do. Perform at a completely different level on Thursday,” he said.
In each football.london bulletin, we’ll bring you the latest breaking news, transfer features and comment pieces on your favourite club, as well as the key talking points for fans.
You won’t miss a thing – you’ll get all the news you need right to your inbox. We’ll also send special newsletters when big stories break or there’s a special event happening.
You can sign up for Arsenal updates here.
You can sign up for Chelsea updates here.
You can sign up for Tottenham updates here.
You can sign up for West Ham updates here.
But the game has taken on even greater significance than it had before now with the European qualification through the Premier League looking so far off.
On paper it is a favourable draw for Arsenal, and although they won’t say it, they will know that this is a get out of jail free card that they have no choice but to take.
The financial implications on their summer transfer budget, as well as their ability to attract player of the calibre needed to take them forward is almost totally dependent on their ability to win the Europa League and for what feels like the 100th time this season, the Gunners’ next match is the biggest of their campaign so far.