Arsenal are a bit like one of those old, fidgety bathroom faucets: on the one side you have a cold water valve, on the other side the hot water valve. You open the hot water valve first because it always takes a moment to clear out the cold water, but then when the hot water starts flowing, it’s scalding hot, so you quickly flick on the cold water and all the sudden the stream is icy cold. So, you then have to sit there fiddling with the taps until you get the exact right temperature. Then just when you lower your face into the sink to splash it with perfectly warmed water, someone flushes a toilet, sapping off all the cold water, and you burn the shit out of your hands.
Getting the balance right in a team is difficult under normal circumstances but in a pandemic, with multiple injuries to key players, it takes the most minute changes to the valves to get the temperature just right. And with Arsenal against Slavia Prague last night, Arteta seemed tentative to open any valves at first. Content with just a slight trickle of lukewarm water. But then he sort of opened things up, got the temperature and flow sort of right before one final adjustment. Things were perfect, the bathroom mirror was steamy, water was flowing like a Miyazaki film, and Cedric Soares flushed the toilet.
But Arteta’s starting lineup was the slow trickle. Lacazette got the nod in the CF spot, with Willian on the left, Smith Rowe dictating play, and Bukayo Saka providing pace. In midfield and defense, he fielded what were probably his most assured and trusted players available: Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, and Cedric with Partey and Xhaka just in front of them. It wasn’t the lineup most of us would have gone with, it felt too conservative up top and I think fans were crying out for more hot water in the form of Aubameyang and Pepe, but Arteta seemed more worried about not getting burned.
The match ended with Arsenal getting 1.8 xG and 4 big chances, one of which was massive. But other than Saka’s chalked off shot for offside (which wasn’t really offside and would have tested VAR) it took until the 60th minute before Arsenal created anything meaningful. But on the other hand, Arsenal were doing a great job of holding Slavia to speculative shots from distance, and not getting opened up too much. The tap was cold, it was a slow trickle, but the important thing from Arteta’s perspective was that Arsenal didn’t get burnt.
This is one strategy with the figety old faucet problem. If you go to a bed and breakfast or something, you might be tempted to just turn on both taps full flow. That’s what I would do. But Arteta is apparently the kind of guy who just barely turns the taps on and waits to see what comes out. His strategy is patience, whilst mine is wild swings hot and cold. In the end, we both arrive at our perfect equilibrium. I just waste more water.
For me, the starting lineup was all wrong: we needed more speed up front, someone who would take up more central forward positions, and who would make runs in behind the Slavia Prague defense. After all, my logic goes, if they are going to press high, they are going to leave space behind and when you do break their lines (which you will do), you want a speedy, intelligent forward. And I was left frustrated watching Arsenal yesterday. There were at least two times when Thomas Partey broke the press, started a counter and Lacazette was nowhere to be found, Willian was trudging along behind the play, while Smith Rowe and Saka both went wide. Right in front of Partey there was a gaping hole, the Prague defense was scrambling, and there was no one to pass to.
At other times when Arsenal had counter attacking chances it was even worse. Those were the moments when Willian and Lacazette led the charge. It was so slow, neither player wanted to (or maybe they can’t?) run behind the defense, and there was one time when both players seemed to want to drop to collect but there was no one in front of them.
This was the imbalance in the starting lineup. Willian doesn’t even try to get past a man anymore and Lacazette’s main role in this Arsenal side is to drop, collect, and pass forward. But pass it to WHO?
Arteta counters those of us who wanted a hotter start by pointing to how Arsenal created enough with his lineup to win the game and he’s right. Lacazette missed an incredibly easy chance one-v-one with the keeper. And Saka kept putting in dangerous crosses which either went to no one or were missed (by Lacazette). And Arteta points out that holding Aubameyang back gave him options off the bench. Which is also true, because Auba came on and almost immediately scored with what Arteta (wrongly) called a “tap-in” and ended up creating what should have been the game-winning chance for Nicolas Pepe.
But there was also something about that start which we all knew would turn out wrong. Last week Arteta said he wanted his players to show balls but instead of him taking the game by the balls, he went ultra conservative and even praised himself for his late subs by pointing out that he wanted to wait to see how they changed their lineup before he changed his. But if you want your players to be brave, maybe you should be brave? Maybe he thinks he was being brave, by holding back Aubameyang until the 78th minute? I don’t. I think he was being reactive, waiting to see what the temperature of the taps were.
And in the end he got burnt. He can blame the players (which he did again) and Cedric did flush it all away late with two very strange bits of football at the end of the game but it is also just as true that his tentative starting lineup, which took over 60 minutes to get going in this game because he failed to get the balance right in attack, failed to punish a Slavia Prague side which was there for the taking. He could have done better. He could have been bolder. And if we fail to go through to the next round, it will be because Arteta got this game wrong.