Dislike of like for like
After a near perfect run of performances this season, Arsenal were probably due an off day. Perhaps only in their game against Leeds have the Gunners come away from a match with points they didn't deserve, but on Saturday against Everton they were well and truly beaten.
In true Sean Dyche style, Everton got round Arsenal, didn't give them a moment's piece, and were direct at every opportunity. By Mikel Arteta's own admission it was a tactic that threw his side off their game.
"From our side disappointment because we didn’t get the result that we wanted," he said when describing the display in his post-match press conference. "The performance doesn’t reflect what we’ve been doing especially in two phases – one, when they were really direct and we struggled to control that type of game and get back to the game that we wanted to play."
READ MORE: Every word Mikel Arteta said on Everton defeat, bouncing back, discipline and title pressure
It was clear from relatively early on that Arsenal's feathers were ruffled, but it's hard not to wonder if Arteta might have been able to do more to smooth things over.
A successful January transfer window means that the Spaniard now has options at his disposal that simply weren't there in the first half of the season. Although Reiss Nelson and Emile Smith Rowe were missing through injury Arteta still had new signings Jakub Kiwior, Jorginho and Leandro Trossard sat among a pretty strong looking bench. The fresh faces give the Arsenal boss all manner of tactical possibilities to play with, but with the opportunity to change things arose Arteta's chose to keep things pretty much the same.
In fairness to the Spaniard his plan A has worked pretty well this season. Arsenal have got themselves to a point where they have a five point gap by playing exactly the football that they tried to play for the most part at Goodison Park, and so you can understand why Arteta was hesitant to deviate from it.
But the subs of Jorginho for Thomas Partey, Trossard for Gabriel Martinelli, Fabio Vieira for Martin Odegaard and Takehiro Tomiyasu for Ben White, did little to pose Everton any questions that they hadn't already answered. Perhaps he could have brought on the overlapping runs of Kieran Tierney to make use of the space Dyche had surrendered in the wide areas on a day where the inverted full back tactic wasn't working, or maybe sacrificed the more defensive-minded Xhaka for Vieira instead of Odegaard who has been Arsenal's most creative player this season. Instead with options galore at his disposal, Arteta opted to go like for like.
It's of course far easier to write this hours after the full time whistle. Every armchair observer is a superior manager with the benefit of hindsight. But for arguably the first time in his time as Arsenal manager, Arteta now has a squad at his disposal capable of finding different solutions to the multitude of problem the Gunners are likely to face. Perhaps when they inevitably come unstuck again in the remainder of the season, he'll be more inclined to use it.
Arsenal need Jesus
Before beginning this section it's worth prefacing it with the fact that Arsenal would not be where they are in the title race if it were not for Eddie Nketiah. The 23-year-old has stepped up in a way that few thought he could over the past month, and his goals in crucial games against West Ham, Brighton and Manchester United have put Arsenal in their best position to win a Premier League title for two decades.
Mixed in and among this form though, a narrative has begun to emerge that Gabriel Jesus won't be able to get his starting spot back when he returns from injury. The Brazilian had been on an 11 match barren run, and with Nketiah in such freescoring form, the suggestion has been that maybe he should be the first choice centre forward for the remainder of the campaign.
Sometimes in football though it can be a case of not knowing what you've got until it's gone. On Saturday, Arsenal experienced that sensation deeply.
Faced up against a rigidly fixed narrow back four, the Gunners were in desperate need of some movement to pull Conor Coady and James Tarkowski out to areas of the pitch they didn't want to go to. Unfortunately though it was sorely lacking. Nketiah, has generally been good at buzzing about all over the front line in a manner similar to Jesus, but against Everton he found himself glued to the centre of the pitch for most of the match. The one occasion where he did move away from his central position, he was able to unsettle the Toffees defence enough to create a superb opportunity that Martin Odegaard skied over the bar.
This perhaps could have been forgiven if Nketiah had been as lethal as he has been over the past weeks. However, having fashioned a great opportunity for himself in the first half he skied it much to the frustration of Gabriel Martinelli who had his arms outstretched in the corner as he waited for a cutback.
It was an off day for the whole of the team, so to single out Nketiah for specific criticism is probably a bit harsh. However, for those forgetting how good Jesus is in his absence, Saturday's clash at Goodison Park was a timely reminder of what he has to offer.
Mikel Arteta is not a man who takes kindly to defeat. Whenever Arsenal lose the Spaniard tends to come into his post-match press conferences wearing his disappointment on his sleeve. On Saturday though things were different. Immediately Arteta was keen to leave the defeat in the past and keep spirits high among his players.
"I want the team to know how much I love them," Arteta said. "I love them much more now than three hours ago, a week ago, a month ago, three months ago. It’s very easy to be next to the players when they’re winning and performing. These are the moments when I love my players more and my staff more and we’re going to stay together. This journey is going to be difficult and challenging and there’s going to be big stones in the middle and we have to overcome that."
As we enter the month of Valentine's Day it's safe to say love works in mysterious ways, but even for those unversed in matters of the heart, it's pretty clear that Arteta is engaging in a bit of mind games here. Last season when Arsenal lost games they tended to snowball from one defeat into two or three. When they were competing for the top four that was very nearly salvageable, but when the Premier League title is at stake there's no time for them to feel sorry for themselves.
It's likely that Arsenal will suffer more days like this between now and the end of the season as the pressure ramps up on them as the league leaders. With that in mind it's probably smart from Arteta to try to shift the narrative to his slightly strange comments rather than allowing the stench of defeat to linger around his dressing room. Arsenal are keen to move on, and the response next week against Brentford will surely be telling for their title ambitions.
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