Post Match Review
Southampton, the FA Cup and Arsenal’s necessary evils.
On Saturday, Mikel Arteta had to decide whether or not to take a gamble – be amongst a merry band of plucky cup hopefuls or to look beyond the horizon to more significant, much more rewarding challenges. He opted to reach for the long, arduous journey ahead – league progress and it’s to his credit.
Assuming humanity hasn’t been reduced to clusters of feral tribes battling it out with pointy sticks, this time next year no one will remember Saturday’s fourth round FA Cup defeat to Southampton. No one will remember Southampton getting beaten in extra time by Wolves in the fifth round, either. History is written by the victors, after all.
What will be remembered is that Arsenal will still have won the FA cup more times than any other club (14), a healthy spattering of these victories coming in recent campaigns. There is nothing more to gain or prove by struggling to do it again, not now at least. Final wins against Hull, Aston Villa and a brace of derby victories against nouveau riche oil-oiks Chelsea will live long in the memory. However, as nice as those trips to Wembley were, yet another would feel like little more than a pyrrhic victory.
FA or F-All
For Arsenal, FA Cups used to go alongside a challenge in the league – a mini dog in the handbag of a trophy wife. In recent years however, as we’ve followed the club’s slow but steady decline, it’s clear that Arsenal have relied rather too heavily on a healthy cup run as a marker of progress, an indicator that things are on the up or an opportunity to sneak uninvited into a competition we can’t win. After the shocking capitulation in Baku – itself a marker of the beginning of the end of Unai Emery’s tenure – an equally shocking victory in 2020’s FA Cup felt like the last of the ‘plaster over the crack’ jobs.
It wasn’t a comfortable road to Wembley. Arsenal had to beat a team that was arguably involved in one of the richest runs of form ever seen in the domestic league (I know, I know – the Invincibles). Arsenal prevailed regardless and with Arteta firmly in control it felt like a full stop had finally been put on the club’s slide down the reckoning charts and at last, they could set their sights on new targets. Progress.
Then we come to Saturday. Mikel now had to make a host of difficult decisions, for here was a fork in the road that would determine what kind of progress we were chasing. After a dreadful run of form before Christmas that lead to sections of the fanbase calling for the manager’s head, a flurry of important victories coincided with the return from poor form and injury for a clutch of important players. Add to the the emergence of Emile Smith-Rowe and Arteta’d found himself with a much needed swell of support – and justifications of his rather bristly management style.
The manager now had breathing space and toys to play with – but no batteries. Fixture congestion and the foibles of the cup had us playing away at the St Mary’s twice in four days and on the brink of a run of potentially season deciding run of games against some of the best sides in the league. Something had to give – who were we? A cup team or a team with serious ambitions of climbing the table?
Momentum is everything in football. One team’s spiral of negativity is another’s escape route. ‘Belief’ and ‘confidence’ are buzzwords of every commentator and in the PR kit of every player. Just when happy words were starting to be bandied around London Colney, Arteta had little choice but to throw the newfound confidence to the fat-cats that sit on the bench in the vague hope that he wouldn’t get what he was expecting.
Recalls for Willian, Pepe, Elneny, Gabriel, Nketiah and Martinelli saw a much changed line-up from the one that will undoubtedly play on Tuesday night; from this group, only Gabriel and Martinelli have any realistic chance of being included into Arteta’s first choice starting XI on merit. Southampton, however, mostly fielded their strongest side and with a just about resurgent Theo Walcott back on home turf, the potential for a drive by killing was there for all to see.
The players who came back into the side after stinking it out for the first part of the season (and into what could easily have become a relegation battle) delivered yet more evidence why they should remain on the peripheral. Instead of pulling out a collective ‘this is why I should get picked’ performance, they delivered yet another ‘this is why I don’t’.
Willian has had more than enough opportunity to show signs of wanting to turn his form around. Instead, after this performance, he can now be clearly labelled as emblematic of the worst elements of the club’s transfer policy from the past few seasons. Short sighted, expensive, too comfortable, old, in sharp decline and, damningly, ex-Chelsea. Urgh. There is now a case for cutting him adrift in whichever way the club can afford, because allowing him to continue in this odorous fashion only contravenes Arteta’s ‘non-negotiables’ mantra and will undermine any chance of fruitful squad rotation.
Elneny is what he is. Tidy. Limited. Backward. A boring pair of feet. Nketiah, however, appears to be what he isn’t anymore – a child. He continues to look small and a bit feeble on and off the ball. One wonders whether he’ll develop much from here. We know what and who these players are, regardless of the sample size. When things aren’t as they seem however, things become a little more blurred.
Gabriel has enjoyed a pretty good start to life at Emirates. The best part of a poor team for the first stages of the season, we had recently seen a few errors of judgement creep into his game before an unfortunate exposure to Covid put an end to his run of games and, it seems for now, his form. This might be the result of recovery from long-Covid or just a touch of rustiness. Gabriel has probably demonstrated enough to suggest he’s the club’s best current defender however, so it’s probably prudent to put this one down to experience. This was undoubtedly his worst game in red and white, though.
Martinelli, likewise, is now in the stop-start phase of a return from serious injury. We’ve already seen flashes of the player we know is in there, but the muscular twist that kept him out the Newcastle game may be weighing on his mind as he put in a lively but anonymous performance against Southampton. This was in part due to the appalling service provided by Willian, so again, this was nothing more than minutes under the belt for the young Brazilian and another target on the head of the old one.
Then we come to Pepe. Vocal about the growing concern in the player’s ability to cut it at this level before the game it was hardly challenged as he laboured his way through another lacklustre performance. It has to be said that someone with more skill than I put together a compilation of the Ivorian’s contribution after the game and, in isolation, he actually had rather a good outing. Unfortunately, it had no bearing on the outcome whatsoever, with no shots on target and a few glaring errors. I feel for him, as it seems that the harder he tries the fewer things come off for him. He’s a conundrum, but one I’d part with for a £35m offer from overseas, or indeed, a fishy bin.
So, the bench warmers had their chance at attending a May Ball, but it only served to crown Saka as Emperor of All Future Balls and anoint ESR as everyone’s Prince Charming. At this stage, we should count ourselves lucky that we have an improved team fit to face a tired Southampton on Tuesday evening instead of having to rely on those who persist in disappointing as they did so often in the earlier stages of the campaign and again here, ending our chance of retaining and winning yet another FA cup with an expensive, pathetic whimper.
So, is this progress? Only the result of Tuesday’s Premier League match will define that. A win then would build further on the modicum of momentum that Arteta’s best men have built – hard fought wins punctuated by flashes of young brilliance – and improve Arsenal’s chances of going into games against the likes of a resurgent Manchester United, Wolves, Aston Villa and Leeds with confidence and, importantly, something to defend: an unbeaten run.
The manager saw fit to throw the cup to the wolves, no doubt convinced that his team selection would deliver what they ultimately did. This season represents a real opportunity to sneak through the back door into the top four, uninvited but by merit instead of via the lottery of a cup win. Vicarious glory through the domestic cups is a nice to have, an oasis in a desert of mediocrity that has kept our collective head above water. But it’s pissing down now, and we need a life raft to cling onto. All a cup does when you’re drowning is bail you out.
Arteta’s opted to take the route through weeds and brambles to new pastures instead of the well worn path and I’m not sure there’ll be such a good opportunity at capitalising on chaos as there is between now and whoever is crowned King in May.