Monday, April 17, 2023

Why Mikel Arteta got angry at Thomas Partey as Arsenal's title hopes dealt huge blow

Saka’s penalty woe

Given his traumatic miss with England in the Euros final, Bukayo Saka has shown some real – use a Troy Deenyism – “cojones” to step up and take big pressure penalties for Arsenal.

Prior to Sunday, all four of his spot kicks had come against ‘big six’ opponents – Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City. As he stepped up here in what was seemingly a much lower stakes game against West Ham, it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that he would score. Sadly for him for Arsenal it wasn’t meant to be.

With his record you probably would have bet your house on Saka scoring. Mikel Arteta probably would have joined you at the bookies too. “If I had to pick one player to do it, it would be him again,” the Spaniard said of his winger. This though is the brutal nature of being the penalty taker for a team in the title race. At some point, you’re going to suffer heartbreak.

Arteta was philosophical in his approach to this afterwards and challenged Saka to take responsibility again. “If you are prepared to take responsibility of penalties, you have to be prepared that in that package the possibility to miss is 100%,” the Spaniard said. “At some point you’re going to miss. That’s it. You have be able to react to that after. If you cannot do that then you cannot be a penalty taker. Bukayo has been through that and he will go through that again.”

The Arsenal dressing room were all supportive of their teammate despite the miss, and in fairness to Saka he has moved quickly to own the incident by issuing an Instagram apology. If there’s one player in this Arsenal side who doesn’t need to say sorry this season given his form, it’s Saka though. He’s done more than enough to earn one bad day at the office, and you’d back him to bounce back next week against Southampton as he already has done in his career so far.

Different week, same story

Two away games. Two away games Arsenal dominated for the first 35 minutes. Two away games where they were ultimately lucky to leave with a point. On paper last week’s draw at Anfield and this week’s one at the London Stadium look almost identical. The mood surrounding them though, could not be more different.

After the box office entertainment that was the 2-2 draw with Liverpool last week, Arsenal seemed on course for a far more routine sequel. The Gunners had raced into a two goal lead courtesy of a Gabriel Jesus tap in and Martin Odegaard’s volley within 10 minutes and were playing the glitzy football befitting of a red carpet. Then came the film we had all seen before.

Thomas Partey tried to flick the ball over Declan Rice, the man he could be competing for a starting spot next season with. The interception landed at the feet of Lucas Paqueta who cleverly forced his leg into the path of Gabriel’s desperate lunge. It was a momentary lapse in concentration, but Said Benrahma stepped up to ensure it was punished in the most brutal way possible.

From that point on it was almost a shot for shot remake of collapse at Anfield. Having been swimming serenely to three points Arsenal suddenly found themselves in the middle of a storm. Symbolically, Partey, normally a hub of composure at the base of the Gunners midfield, was probably the most affected. He began giving the ball away time and again and one occasion in particular saw him receive a rollocking from Mikel Arteta who furiously instructed the Ghanaian to pick his head up in possession and find his cool. He and the rest of the Arsenal team never managed though, and as Jarrod Bowen volleyed home the equaliser the parallels to last week were eery.

Speaking after the game though, Arteta didn’t quite see the similarity. “The pattern in terms of the result is different,” the Spaniard said when asked to compare the two matches in his post-match press conference. “In terms of what happens it was very different. But you have to accept that”

In many ways he is right. You can almost forgive that kind of swing at a ground like Anfield. The “jungle”-like atmosphere last Sunday meant there was almost a sense of inevitability to Liverpool’s comeback. This time around though, it was wholly avoidable.

The atmosphere did change after the first goal, but Arsenal should have had enough to drown out any embers of a West Ham comeback. Had Bukayo Saka scored his penalty before Bowen’s equaliser, then maybe they would have done, but instead of reacting positively to adversity as they have done most of this season, they retreated further into their shells. It was this that frustrated Arteta most at full time.

“We made a huge mistake to stop playing with the same purpose to score the third and fourth one and just thinking we could play around them and maintain the result and just looked too easy,” the Spaniard said. “At that moment we gave them hope. Credit to West Ham, they took it.

“There is another moment where you could go 3-1 up after 50 minutes and probably the game is over. Two minutes after that you concede the equaliser. This is part of football. My worry is after 2-0 that we made that huge mistake and didn’t understand what the game required in the moment.”

Huge blow in the title race

Regardless of how excusable the capitulation was though, the reality remains that Arsenal have now dropped four crucial points in the title race. The Gunners may be ahead in the table as things stand, but the momentum is very much with Manchester City.

There is now no margin for error at all and it appears as though the head-to-head match at the Etihad in just over a week will be decisive. Against any other team, you might be able to slip up even once, but against this City juggernaut anything less than perfection will be punished ruthlessly.

Unsurprisingly, Arteta does not want to lean into the hysteria. “For the race of the title, I have no idea,” he said when asked how big the past two matches’ impact would be. “Just as I had no idea seven weeks ago, or 12 weeks ago, or what will happen in three weeks. My biggest task is to go again and train really well and on Friday play in the same level that we played in the first 35 minutes against a team that is fighting for their lives, or against Liverpool, but do it for much longer periods.”

Regardless of how calm he is being though, it’s difficult not to wonder whether his side are starting to feel the heat of the business end of the season. For the second half Arsenal looked to be team weighted down by the magnitude of what they might be able to achieve. Again, though Arteta was keen to put a positive spin on things.

“I would say yes if I saw a team playing from the beginning like *tenses and holds his breath*,” he told when asked if the pressure was getting to his side. “When I see a team playing with that flow, that’s not. At 2-0 certainly it’s not the pressure, it’s that we misunderstood what the game needed in that moment.”

In reality it is still too early to say how big a say this match will have in the title race. There is still a lot of football to be played, and it is technically still in Arsenal’s hands. If they do go on to finish second though, the significance of these past two weeks will feel huge.

Strange subs

Perhaps though there could be an argument that this game wouldn’t have been so potentially consequential if Mikel Arteta had got his changes right. With Alex Zinchenko’s injury the Spaniard opted to put another attacking player on the bench instead of calling Lino Sousa up from the under-21s to fill the left back spot. This meant that when the time to change things came, he had plenty of offensive options on the bench.

His switches though left more questions than answers. The initial decision to take of Gabriel Jesus for Leandro Trossard seemed an odd one. It’s not that Trossard couldn’t add something to the Arsenal attack – he’s been sublime offensively since his January arrival – but given Jesus’ run of form at the minute, maybe it would have made sense to give the number nine a bit more time on the pitch.

After that the choice to take Kieran Tierney off for Fabio Vieira and move Granit Xhaka to left back seemed another peculiar one. Arsenal weren’t able to create much in the second half, but their best chances had come from low by-line deliveries from the Scottish international. He may not invert in the way Arteta wants his full backs too, but in this throw the kitchen sink atmosphere, keeping his attacking weapon set on the pitch did appear to make sense.

Then finally came the decision to bring Eddie Nketiah on for Martin Odegaard. Again, it was not a case of Nketiah being the wrong man to bring on. For years under Arsene Wenger the tactic of throwing on as many forward players as possible worked a treat. Instead though it was taking off Odegaard that was the strange thing. The Norwegian had been Arsenal’s most creative player, and if anyone was going to unpick the lock of a West Ham defence that had dropped deep by that point, it felt like it would be him.

Last week at Anfield it felt like Arteta got his changes wrong. Bringing on Jakub Kiwior to drop his team into a back five with 15 minutes to go seemed to only amplify the pressure Liverpool put on Arsenal instead of allowing them to soak it up better. Failing to bring on Jorginho when the game appeared to be crying out for a bit of control was another questionable choice, while the lateness of Tierney’s introduction to the game in place of Zinchenko was ultimately fatal.

Arteta has got so much right this season that it almost feels frivolous to criticise his decision-making. But influencing games from the bench with his subs is not something the Spaniard has always been the best at. Here, and last week at Liverpool it feels as though he’s falling foul of this weakness again.

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