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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
David Hytner

Arteta’s road to redemption marked out in Newcastle black and white

Mikel Arteta and Granit Xhaka
Mikel Arteta was filmed raging after defeat to Newcastle last May, while Granit Xhaka questioned Arsenal’s courage. Photograph: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC/Getty Images

There was a very strange moment for Arsenal just after the hour against Chelsea at the Emirates on Tuesday night, when those in red appeared intent on giving their opponents a helping hand, when it felt as though we were watching a computer game glitch.

Chelsea broke with four on two, a posse of additional Arsenal players straining to get back, only for N’Golo Kanté to make a poor attempt at the killer pass. No matter. The ball ricocheted off a couple of Arsenal players, nobody able to take charge of the situation and there was Noni Madueke, the Chelsea winger, close to the byline.

Madueke pulled back but none of his teammates had made a run. At which point it looked as though Arsenal were about to contrive between them to knock it into their own net. The control was still absent, slapstick the theme, before they did eventually clear.

The home fans were bemused. Their team were 3-0 up and it ought to have been four or five. But then Arsenal did concede, Madueke getting on to a pass in behind Oleksandr Zinchenko and the rest of the match was not as comfortable as it should have been. It was perhaps just as well that Chelsea are at such a low ebb. Had they scored again, it might have got interesting.

Game management, the pros call it, and Mikel Arteta said afterwards that Arsenal had managed the last 30 minutes badly. They got away with it. But they had not done in two of their previous games – the 2-2 draws at Liverpool and West Ham; they had been 2-0 up in each. After that came the chaotic 3-3 home draw with Southampton and the 4-1 drubbing at Manchester City, leading up to Chelsea.

Everybody knows what the layperson calls it and it is a notion fuelled by the club’s misadventures of previous seasons, most recently last year when they lost at Tottenham and Newcastle in the third-last and penultimate games to blow their hopes of a top-four finish. They call it bottling or choking, crumbling under the pressure.

After the Newcastle defeat, the midfielder Granit Xhaka put flesh on the bones. “You need people to have the balls to come here and play,” he said. “It looks like we can’t do something against the pressure.” Arteta would rage in the dressing room afterwards – as captured in the club’s Amazon Prime documentary.

Ben White lies on the floor while Aaron Ramsdale looks away as Bruno Guimaraes runs to the fans to celebrate scoring Newcastle's second goal.
Ben White lies on the floor while Aaron Ramsdale looks away as Bruno Guimaraes runs to the fans to celebrate scoring Newcastle's second goal. Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters

There is no doubt that there is a constituency of football fans who want to label Arsenal as bottlers for how they have allowed City to take control of the title race over the final stretch. It is linked, in part, to tribal rivalry. To them, it is too perfect and enjoyable a narrative to ignore. They want to conflate game-management errors to something rotten in the state of Arsenal, something flimsy. It just works, especially as it is possible to trace everything to mentality.

There is a degree of overlap. And yet to see everything through this prism is glib and unfair. Nothing has gone particularly wrong for an Arsenal team that, before Sunday’s visit to Newcastle in their fourth-last fixture, are on course for a 90-point finish. The club’s record return is the 90 that the Invincibles collected in 2003-04.

Internally, at least, the point at Liverpool was considered a good one. And, despite the disappointment at the paucity of the performance at the Etihad, there is the awareness that City can run over anybody. Mentality was the issue at West Ham but it was more to do with complacency. Arsenal did not freeze.

They have made individual errors, such as Bukayo Saka’s penalty miss for a 3-1 lead at West Ham. There was the goalkeeper, Aaron Ramsdale, giving the ball straight to Southampton’s Carlos Alcaraz for 0-1 in the first minute. There have been others, not all of which can be neatly compartmentalised.

Injuries have stretched Arteta’s squad towards the end of a gruelling season and the reality is that City just look stronger, deeper. They have raised their levels at the crucial times, such as in the second half at the Emirates in mid-February, turning 1-1 into a 3-1 win. Nobody accused Arsenal of choking then. To derail this City machine, teams have to be perfect, likely 90-plus points so. There could not be too many recriminations if Arsenal were to come in just below this bar.

The St James’ Park game offers a reminder of Arsenal’s journey over the past 12 months. Will Arteta ever get over the result from last May? In short, no. “I have moments in my career, as a player as well … defeats or when I didn’t maximise what I could have done and they are still there,” he said. “They never go away. The feeling in those moments will stay with me for ever.”

But Arteta knows that he will travel to the north-east with a different squad, one transformed, even if there will be worries. There always are. Gabriel Magalhães is an injury doubt and William Saliba remains out. Newcastle are in form. Arsenal are not.

What it will come down to for Arteta is taking care of the key moments, managing the game. No errors. Execute in the essential areas. Be tight. Be ruthless.

So do not talk to him about bottling it. “We have 38 tests – not one or two – during the season,” Arteta said, with a sigh. “If not, you are not where we are for 10 and a half months. But this is my opinion.”

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