There’s no two ways about it. Arsenal are stumbling down the stretch. They needed 88th and 90th minute goals to rescue a point at home against 20th place Southampton to rescue a point. And Manchester City are up next. The good news is that if Arsenal somehow do the improbable and beat City at the Etihad, they control their own fate to win the title. But something has to change in the short time between now and Wednesday.
Arsenal’s title challenge is bleeding out from self-inflicted wounds. Aaron Ramsdale passed it directly to Carlos Alcaraz less than 30 seconds into the game to gift the visitors a 1-0 lead. I honestly don’t know what he was thinking or what he thought he saw. There was no pass on where he put the ball.
The midfield was nowhere to be found as the Saints moved the ball as if on the training ground for a second goal on the back of yet another Thomas Partey turnover. Partey, again, shared the blame, for Southampton’s third. He got caught in possession (just as he did against West Ham) deep in the defensive third and conceded a corner. Alex Zinchenko fell asleep at the back post marking, and Southampton got a third.
There have been subpar performances all over the lineup over the three disappointing, damaging draws. But nobody has been as consistently poor as Partey. The combination of whatever slight knock he picked up on the international break, William Saliba’s absence behind him, and perhaps some other issues that reportedly resurfaced recently have turned him into a shell of the player he was earlier in the season. At times, he was firmly in the conversation for the best holding midfielder in the league and perhaps in Europe. Right now, he’s a liability.
The swap of Rob Holding for William Saliba has been equally as damaging. You need not look beyond the numbers to see it. The Gunners have conceded 9 goals in 5 matches without Saliba. They’ve conceded 25 goals in their 27 other matches.
But just for “fun” we’ll look beyond, too. The poor performances from players are acute problems. Holding’s presence — and I love the guy, he’s been a great soldier — is a chronic illness. It permeates everything Arsenal do and has ripples effects all over the pitch.
Part of Thomas Partey’s struggles are because Saliba isn’t behind him. For the most part, Saliba and Zinchenko are the guys who control the ball when it’s not in the attacking third. Partey covers the pitch, occupies space, wins the ball, and gets it to those controllers. Without Saliba, Partey has to do the controlling / distributing, and he’s not as suited to it.
Saliba is a calming presence, he plays pushed up closer to the midfield, his passing is better, and he can beat the press on the dribble if needed, too. The entire right side of the Arsenal formation is worse off without Saliba in the lineup. Opponents have been pressing the right, and Arsenal are less adept at breaking that press. As a result, the ball doesn’t move up the pitch as smoothly or get to the skill players on the left.
And let’s not pin all the blame on Holding and Partey. Alex Zinchenko’s passing was off and he didn’t help dictate the tempo of the match like he normally does. Martin Ødegaard was uncharacteristically poor until the final 15 minutes of the match. Gabriel Jesus missed chance after chance — no goals from nearly 1.5 xG worth of shots.
The Gunners have given up the third-most goals on their home ground of any team in the Premier League. They’ve only kept three clean sheets, good for second-worst. I’d count up the number of points they’ve dropped against teams in the bottom fourth of the league, but that would just upset me even more. Suffice it to say they’ve dropped far too many against poor teams.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Arsenal match report from me without a bit of griping about the refereeing. Southampton, like most Arsenal opponents, were allowed to delay the match and break up the rhythm without repercussion (but Bukayo Saka was cautioned in the first half for not running over to take a corner at Anfield). It took until the 60th minute for Gavin Bazunu to be warned for time-wasting, even though he’d been taking 25-30 seconds on every goal kick and time the ball came to his hands from the 2nd minute onward. He continued to waste time after the warning and wasn’t cautioned. The time got added back, sure, but the break in game flow mattered. Let’s make football more about playing football and less about dilatory tactics and gamesmanship, yeah?
Gabriel Jesus had two penalty shouts in added time, both not given. They probably fall into the “you’ve seen them given” category rather than the “stonewall” one. It’s a real bummer how Arsenal seem to consistently come out on the short end of those. I don’t know what players are supposed to do. Both Jesus and Martinelli kept their feet through clear fouls to try to make a play, and Arsenal didn’t score on either. Nor were they awarded penalties after the fact. Then when they go down a bit easier, they also get nothing.
Ending on positive notes: Bukayo Saka was unplayable today. He was every bit the superstar that Arsenal need him to be. Gabriel Martinelli was, as well. The two of them did the heavy lifting in dragging Arsenal kicking and screaming back from the brink to rescue a point.
Bukayo Saka 2 shots (1 goal) and 5 key passes. 1.2 xG plus xA— Scott Willis (@scottjwillis) April 21, 2023
Gabriel Martinelli 2 shots (1 goal) and 6 key passes. 1.5 xG plus xA
I mentioned that Martin Ødegaard was off for most of the match. He was magnificent down the stretch. As much as Saka and Martinelli lifted the team for the opening 75 minutes, Ødegaard seemed determined to ensure the Gunners didn’t drop all three points, even if he had to do it all himself. Regardless of the outcome of this season, Arsenal’s future is incredibly bright with a brilliant, young attacking trio leading the way.
All is not lost, either. As I said, if Arsenal win at Manchester City, they’re in the driver’s seat. A draw leaves them in need of help, but it’s no fait accompli that City will win out. A loss at the Etihad will be hard to recover from. And stranger things have happened, too. Nobody expected Arsenal to drop points against West Ham or Southampton. What’s to say Manchester City won’t having a shocking result or two mixed into their stretch run?
And happy St. Totteringham’s Day, everybody. It comes with a bit of a sour taste, but Arsenal are back where they belong. Arsenal bookended Spurs’ six years of “dominance” with second place finishes (at least) whereas all that lot have got to show for their “glory days” and having a club legend leading the line is a few notable wins and no trophies. The white spray paint in North London has been rightfully and easily washed away to reveal the true color, as it will ever be. Red.