Arsenal begin to bounce back
The disappointment surrounding Thursday night’s Europa League elimination at the hands of Villarreal was about far more than just the match itself.
With each passing minute of the game the impending reality of Arsenal‘s terminal decline from title challengers to mid-table strugglers under the ownership of the Kroenkes began to hit home that bit harder.
Most disturbing of all was the fact that there seemed to be no impetus or ability on the pitch to able to do anything about it.
The increasing likelihood that Arsenal will not play European football for the first time in a quarter of a century next season is still very raw for most fans and victory over a relegation-bound West Brom side will have done little to change that.
The man who has had to bare most of the brunt of that dissatisfaction has been Mikel Arteta and for a brief period in the second half it seemed as though the pressure on his job was about to get a whole lot worse.
As Matheus Perreira’s solo-effort drew the Baggies back into the game out of nowhere the Spaniard teetered closer to the brink of a result so damning that it may have been impossible for him to come back from.
Speaking after the game he admitted that it had been a stressful period of the match.
“When we conceded the goal we looked nervy for a period,” he told press with the air of a man who knows his position at Arsenal is still very much on the line after a season of objective underachievement.
Willian‘s late free kick released much of the tension around the Emirates, and Arteta will be delighted that some positive momentum that he can start to build upon has been generated.
He’ll know that the rift between the club and the fans that has emerged over the past few weeks will not be mended solely by Sunday’s win, but it is at least a start as the Gunners begin the long climb back to the top.
Arteta lays down the challenge for Smith Rowe
The man of the match on the day was Bukayo Saka – and don’t worry there will be plenty of praise for him later on – but someone else who definitely deserves praise for his performance is Emile Smith Rowe.
The 20-year-old was one of the few people to come out Thursday night’s disaster with any form of credibility attached to his name as he kept running and trying to make things happen until the very end.
That fine form was continued into the match against West Brom on Sunday as he produced display of the outstanding level that we are coming to expect.
Such is the authority and swagger with which he plays it’s easy to forget that he only came into the Arsenal first team on a regular basis just over four months ago.
The intelligence with which he moves, determination with which he plays and delicacy with which he distributes the ball make him the archetypal modern number 10 and the performance was capped off with a fine finish to secure his first ever Premier League goal.
These are the levels we might be becoming used to, but after the game Mikel Arteta was insistent that there is still so much more to come from the Hale Ender.
“He’s having an incredible season since he started to play in December,” said the Spaniard of the young midfielder.
“But he scored his first Premier League goal and an incredible season for the number 10 of Arsenal he needs to score 15 goals and give 10 assists and then you are right up there with the top guns through Europe and everything.
“He’s got the ability to do it, but he hasn’t done it.
“We need to stay calm with him give him the right support and step by step I think he will give more.”
Of course it’s not going to happen overnight and the fact that Smith Rowe limped off after cramping up in his hamstring, shows that his body is still not quite yet ready to keep up with the physical demands of a player capable of reaching those high levels of performance on a consistent basis every three days.
But there is no doubting that from what we have seen this season, the 20-year-old is capable of producing even more than what he has done already.
With European football likely off the menu next season Arsenal fans might well not have much an appetite for what’s to come, but with the mouthwatering prospect of an improvement Smith Rowe’s performances so far, they, like Arteta, will surely be hungry for more.
No regrets over Saka
Across both legs of the Europa League semi final against Villarreal, Mikel Arteta made a series of strange decisions.
Playing Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine in the first leg, failing to substitute Dani Ceballos before he could get sent off in the same match and then switching to an almost completely untried 4-3-3 in the second game all stand out, but perhaps the most bizarre series of selections he took came in the left back position.
When Arsenal have been at their best this season it has been with Kieran Tierney flying up the pitch from defence to create left sided overloads from which the team can fashion goalscoring opportunities. It is for this reason that the 23-year-old has been their top chance creator from open play.
But when the Scot was ruled out for a month at the beginning of April the Gunners effectively lost their most potent attacking threat due to the lack of an obvious replacement.
This not a problem Arteta hadn’t faced before though.
When he first took over at the Emirates, Tierney was out with a dislocated shoulder and the way Arsenal chose to fill the void then was by having Bukayo Saka fill in as an auxiliary left back.
The move was a success and the teenager registered two assists in the unorthodox position.
Admittedly when the problem came around again last month the circumstances around Saka’s status in the squad had changed slightly.
The 19-year-old had established himself as one of the Gunners best players on the right wing, and moving him back into defence might have threatened to stunt his development.
But in a time where short-term progression to the Europa League final was all that mattered it seems now that the decision not to take that risk was the wrong one.
Restored to left back against West Brom, Saka was simply sublime, winding back to last season by rampaging forward to consistently create issues for the Baggies in the first half in particular.
He registered yet another assist for Smith Rowe and had Arsenal’s finishing in the box been a little more potent he could well have had a few more.
It’s such a shame that Arteta had decided only now that it was right to use the England international as cover for Tierney, but after the game the Spaniard insisted he had no regrets when it came to the decision.
“No,” he told press when asked if he would have done things differently if given the chance again.
“I regret that Granit (Xhaka) could not start. That was my biggest regret because everything that we prepared it was with him in that position.”
To be fair it’s unlikely that Arteta was going to admit his mistake, and doing so would have served no one, least of all himself. But deep down the Spaniard will have headed home last night thinking about what might have been.
Martinelli underwhelms up top
While the decision not to start Saka at left back has retrospectively proved to be the wrong one, a choice Arteta can certainly claim to have got right off the back of the West Brom display was not to start Gabriel Martinelli up front.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang still recovering from malaria and Alexandre Lacazette coming back from a hamstring problem the opportunity was there for the Brazilian to play in the centre forward position.
It’s the spot where Arteta has hinted he sees his future in the past, and given the talent within the Gunners ranks in the wide areas, it may well be where Martinelli has the cleanest run to becoming a regular starter at the Emirates.
But when given the chance from the off on Sunday he didn’t really do much to take it.
His pressing was decent and tireless as always, but when it came to the kind of movements a number nine needs to make the 19-year-old was found to be lacking.
Arsenal’s build up generally looks to go wide before getting the ball central in the final third, but the Brazilian found it difficult to muster the patience required to go for long periods without touching the ball.
Instead of looking to use his pace to offer a threat in behind he consistently dropped deep desperately trying to get involved in the play in a manner that was emblematic of a young player who still has plenty to learn when it comes to his all round game.
Those moments of indiscipline began to build up and when Nicolas Pepe lost the ball on the right wing instead of passing it central to Martinelli, the teenager could be seen throwing his hands skyward in exasperation.
The fact that he was replaced by Lacazette on the hourmark was no real surprise after a frustrating afternoon.
This is not to say that the Brazilian is a lost hope when it comes to playing centre forward.
There are certain aspects to his game that give him the edge when it comes to his competitors in the position already.
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For example he possesses the mobility required to hold the ball up on the counter and sprint forward to be on the end of attacking moves that is sometimes lacking Lacazette’s skillset, while his ability on the ball is superior to that of Aubameyang.
But what often does Martinelli damage is his overzealousness to be involved and impact the match in a game-changing fashion each time he touches the ball.
That eagerness is great, and he would not be the same player without it. But channelling it so that he is at his most useful to the team is the challenge ahead for Arteta as the 19-year-old continues to develop next season.