Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Mikel Arteta admits agonising over Rob Holding decision but vows Arsenal will keep fighting

Much of the build up to Arsenal’s Premier League clash with Manchester City was spent agonising over how Arsenal might look to set up. The Gunners were on a run of three draws in a row that had seen them cede control in the Premier League title race and it felt like something had to change.

Mikel Arteta has form for trying outlandish things at Etihad in the past. Two years ago the Spaniard opted to trial Willian as a false nine before opting for a back three that contained Sead Kolasinac and Calum Chambers during last year’s 5-0 humbling. This time around the potential for a galaxy-brain moment befitting of his mentor Pep Guardiola felt like it could be forced by the presence of Rob Holding. Since coming in to the backline to replace the injured William Saliba, Holding has struggled, and the Arsenal team as a whole have missed the Frenchman’s distribution from the back.

When asked about the potential for a switch of system by football.london in his pre-match press conference Arteta teased that “we will see.” Ultimately he chose to stick with Holding, but after a chastening night for the 27-year-old, Arteta admitted that there were some things he wanted to do differently in this title deciding match.

“We wanted to tweak a few things, especially there,” the Spaniard said in his post-match press conference. “But when they are able to execute and score an early goal you have to understand where we’re coming from, you have to be loyal to what has brought us all this way. We’ve done it in the past in different ways and that doesn’t guarantee you anything. It’s time to look in the mirror (at) what we could have done better or differently.”

Whatever tweaks Arteta wanted to try, they didn’t work. Within five minutes Arsenal found themselves behind when Holding was easily beaten by Erling Haaland who then played Kevin De Bruyne through for the opener.

After that the 27-year-old was exposed time and again as he was sucked out position by the City frontline’s movement. Although he did save some face by hammering home a late consolation goal it was a night to wonder what might have been if Arteta had tried a system aimed at protecting Holding’s weaknesses. Playing centre back in this set up is a demanding role, and it’s hard to really criticise Holding for not being what he isn’t.

Ultimately though there was no perfect solution. The absence of Saliba has been brutally compounded by the season ending injury that Takehiro Tomiyasu picked up in the same game against Sporting CP. The Japan international might have afforded Arteta the option to move Ben White into central defence, or he could even have filled in there himself.

Still though the option of switching to a back five was there for Arteta. Again though it would have been imperfect, given that Bukayo Saka would likely have had to play a wingback role that would have stifled his attacking potential.

They were punished in the most brutal way, but the reality is that Arsenal’s biggest crime is not having a squad as deep as City. Guardiola’s men were also missing a key player in Nathan Ake, but replaced him with a £50million England international in Kyle Walker. This is what the Gunners and the rest of the Premier League are up against, and coming second to it is far from the bottle job some have made it out to be.

Arteta though is refusing to accept that things are over, and has vowed to keep fighting on for his side’s remaining five games. “There’s still five games to go,” the Spaniard said. “I’ve been in this country almost 22 years and I’ve seen a lot of things and I know how much it shifts from game to game. There are not easy games in this league. Let’s see. We have to lift our players tonight. We played against an exceptional team, we know that, but we are an exceptional team as well.”

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