PSV Eindhoven handed Arsenal just their second defeat of the season, beating the Gunners 2-0 to ensure first place in the group goes down to the final match. It was a somnolent performance from Arsenal, one you’d hope to avoid with the group on the line but not a totally unexpected one given the stakes. PSV had to win. Arsenal did not.
You’d like to be ruthless and win every match, but that isn’t realistic. Form ebbs and flows, and right now, Arsenal are in the midst of a bit of a down spell. The last time they lost a match (Manchester United) they reeled off seven consecutive wins. The Gunners have Nottingham Forest at the Emirates on Sunday and then FC Zurich at home on Thursday before an important match away to Chelsea in 10 days. That’s two prime opportunities to turn things around and rediscover some form.
Arsenal looked out of sorts from the start of the match, misplacing easy passes and miscontrolling the ball. The pitch wasn’t great — the ball would not roll cleanly or smoothly — but neither were the Gunners. The shape, combinations, and movement looked off, probably because of the lineup changes. Fabio Vieira does not play as wide as Bukayo Saka and Takehiro Tomiyasu does not get forward nor hit the crossfield balls like Ben White, so the play down the right was congested and disjointed.
Eddie Nketiah doesn’t flow into and out of space / gaps like Gabriel Jesus, negatively affecting both the ball progression from back to front and the lateral switch of the play from side to side. Sambi Lokonga is definitely not Thomas Partey. And you catch my drift. Arsenal looked like a team that wasn’t comfortable playing together, which makes sense given that this bunch haven’t had much match time as a unit.
The defense was not immune from the disruption, either. Rob Holding was particularly noticeable and not for good reason. His decisionmaking was poor, see e.g. PSV’s second goal where he needlessly stepped up and was easily turned. Nor is he all that good on the ball, which was apparent on several misplaced passes. Instead of the ball flowing out of the back and into attack, it came right back at Arsenal, and Holding shares the blame for that. There also looked to be confusion / a lack of communication among the defenders in terms of tracking PSV runners.
Tonight’s performance was one to forget. Mikel Arteta’s side need to figure out what went wrong, correct it, and move on. If they beat FC Zurich, they win the group. Not a bad spot to be in, but they’ll have to do it without Granit Xhaka, who picked up a yellow card on the evening and will be suspended. Sidenote: it’s still wild to me that two yellows over the course of an entire group stage and beyond results in a suspension.
The Arsenal performances have been trending in the wrong direction, that’s for sure, but the play tonight was not surprising. Bad games can (and do) happen when the other team has more to play for and you’ve rotated your squad. You’d like to see more from the guys who aren’t first choice, but they aren’t in the preferred XI for a reason. And when guys don’t play as often, they don’t look as sharp, which is what happened tonight.
I’m backing Mikel Arteta and Arsenal to turn it around. They’ve played really well this season, and they’ll play well again soon enough.