Arsenal 0 Liverpool 3
Sunday 3rd April 2021, 8pm
It was a shocker, let’s face it. And questions about Mikel Arteta’s ability to rebuild Arsenal are more valid than ever on Easter Sunday. A resurrection feels like another miracle akin to that which Christians are celebrating today, albeit many through the consumption of chocolate rather than a visit to the church.
If Arteta can land the Europa League and secure Champions League football next season, he will save his job. The club certainly aren’t going to qualify through League position after Saturday's game, because, unfortunately, the match did not fall in favour of Arsenal F.C. best odds. A seventh place finish in the table should be enough for Europa League matches for a fifth campaign running, but that shouldn’t be enough to keep Arteta in post. If he does remain, it will sadly demonstrate the lack of ambition in the club’s owners. The Premier League participation gravy train, along with a wafer thin slice of UEFA’s prize money pie is enough for them.
Expectations have certainly been managed downwards in recent seasons. It all started way back when, with the fourth place trophy, and standards have continued to slip. Unbelievably, a poll by The Athletic during the international break indicated that 71% of Arsenal fans were happy with the club’s performance this season. And 87% of them would be happy if Arteta was still in charge next season. Wow. As Liverpool owner John W Henry once tweeted, “What do you think they’re smoking over there at Emirates?” 9th place is good enough for 7 out of 10 fans. This must be because people believe that Arteta can successfully rebuild the club.
After the game against Liverpool, I have lost faith that he can. Carlo Ancelotti would not have been a long term option, but he would have stabilized the club. Arteta seems to have taken it backwards after Unai Emery’s departure. Yes, we’ll always have the FA Cup from the end of last season, the two matches at Wembley giving real optimism that this was a team on the up, one that could compete again. This seemed to be confirmed with victory over Liverpool in the Community Shield, albeit on penalties. And then the Premier League kicked off.
Now if you’d told me then that Arsenal would be going into this fixture on the Easter weekend four points behind Liverpool, I’d have thought – bring it on. Of course, the reigning champions’ domestic season has gone to pot, and for this game, they were weakened by their centre back injury crisis and the loss of Jordan Henderson. Arteta was without Saka, Smith Rowe, Xhaka and Luiz. Many would have not been too concerned about the latter two, but the youngsters were missed badly. Worse still was the loss of Kieran Tierney just before half-time.
That came after a half of domination by Liverpool, Arteta’s plan to soak up their pressure and hit them on the counter attack. A ploy that lacked one thing – any sense of a cohesive attack from his front four. In midfield, Partey and Ceballos were there in body, if not spirit. The mind went wistfully back to David Rocastle, the 20th anniversary of his sad death marked by tribute banners around the stadium and the matchday programme. One thing that Arteta’s players did not show anything much of yesterday evening was Rocky’s commitment to the cause.
They held out for over an hour somehow, and Elneny replaced an ineffective Ceballos, presumably with greater defensive solidity in mind. That went well. In fairness, the main culprits for the goals were Gabriel and to a lesser extent Aubameyang, who was supposed to suppress Trent Alexander-Arnold, and hopelessly failed. Bernd Leno did not cover himself in glory either. It was a sorry show, and it felt like Arsenal got off lightly to only lose by three. Nobody played well, and the absent players cannot be used as an excuse for the lack of motivation and application.
We’ve seen too many rank performances of this nature under Arteta – and after 15 months in the job, the level of inconsistency raises questions about the manager’s ability to get the best out of this group of players. In fairness to the Spaniard, he took full responsibility for the defeat, and did not deflect the blame onto his players.
That's admirable, but also an admission that he is not up to the job. He’ll keep trying as long as he is given the chance to put it right, but this observer no longer has the belief that he can do it. Yes, he can develop young players, but his inability to get the best from better paid older heads is too great a handicap. Arsenal have been sinking slowly in the mud ever since the breakup of the Invincibles.
Very incrementally, but how far do you allow it to go before trying something new. Emery did not work – a decent manager in Spain, but does not travel well. Arteta had a good reputation within the game as Guardiola’s number 2, but that does not seem to translate to players only a few years younger than him when he is picking the team.
He will be given till the end of the season, and it must be hoped he can land the Europa League for the much-needed financial shot in the arm that will produce. If he doesn’t, what exactly is the point in retaining him?