Mikel Arteta told us top class players like Saka should play 70 games a season, he’s rolled him out for 87 Premier League games in a row, he’s seen him complain about injury twice in 2 weeks, he prides himself on super intense training sessions, and in the build up to the Manchester City game – a game he hasn’t ever had a full first team to pick from… he played Saka away at RC Lens and the young man hobbled off after the physios ran hamstring test on 33 minutes and deemed it a risk for him to carry on.
The one hope we had was the fact we did NOT see him pull up after sprinting. If he’d dropped down like Michael Owen in 1998, you’d know it’s over. The hobbling could be a protective measure, but the fact Arteta told the news conference after ‘it does not look good’ is probably the Mortal Kombat finishing move on that hope.
Arteta only has himself to blame here. He’s been reckless with Saka. The reality of an injury like this is it is related to wear and tear. If he didn’t pick it up tonight, he was going to pick it up in the next few weeks. The body cannot be controlled by ‘mentality monster energy’ vibes. If you treat it with disrespect, it will disrespect you by sitting you on your backside, grappling the back of your thigh.
Saka is not a ‘well hindsight is 50/50’ type of injury. It was entirely predictable. Arteta didn’t rest him, he failed to find adequate back-up over four transfer windows, and now we’re facing down the best team in the world without his presence.
Arteta shouldn’t have re-signed Reiss Nelson if he didn’t think he was a decent rotation option for Bukayo
City looks a little more daunting now.
The RC Lens game was a weird one. There are a lot of people jumping to nonsense conclusions about heart, fight, and valor. The simple truth of that game is we got slapped by a good team who had lady luck on their side.
We opened the game with a lovely Gabi Jesus goal supplied by Saka after he intercepted an errant pass.
The boys dropped the lead shortly afterward via a David Raya errant pass to Tomiyasu that was cut out. The goal was disgustingly special from Adrien Thomasson, he curled his shot tightly into the top corner on the half-volley. Unsaveable. But exactly what happens in the Champions League when you do dumb things.
Their second goal came in the second half. Arsenal got caught out by some electric passing near the 70th minute – Zinchenko’s kryptonite – he lost his run, the cross from Frankowski was immaculate, the finish was first time and painfully fox-in-the-box by Elyhe Wahi. We didn’t deserve it… but, that’s the Champions League, baby.
We threw on Eddie, Smith Rowe, and Reiss but it didn’t work.
Arsenal lost – our vision of this group being Europa-League-levels were off the mark. The French force fed us tarte de l’humilité – and I nearly choked.
So… what to think?
Firstly, we’re 2nd in the group on 3 points. Losing in the group stages of CL isn’t a disaster. We’ll still qualify for the next round if we can focus.
Secondly, the reaction is way worse than the reality…
- WORSE THAN LAST SEASON
… is par the course with a fan base that can’t handle anything other than a victory every game. It’s really painful to read. But we’ve seen it consistently over the past few years.
We had 11 shots, 10 inside the box, 6 hit the target. Our xG was 1.6 and we took one goal from that. RC Lens took 2 goals from 0.6.
The affair wasn’t as intense as a Premier League game. But that’s how Lens run things in their own yard. They take the energy out of the game. Champions League games don’t look like the Premier League game because European teams know they can’t win that way. Lens, a possession-based team didn’t break 240 passes. We had over 600. This was basically the story of Wenger-era CL Arsenal.
Our problem is the same one we’ve had all season: We’re way out of form in the final third. I’ve seen people joke that we take more risks in our own half – and it feels true. This new system isn’t creating as many chances as the one we had last season. The players seem a little more risk averse – as Matt on the podcast pointed out, we seem to be shifting from a blend of rock and roll Klopp-ball to near-total replication of what City do (control). Perhaps that’s Arteta’s attempt to reduce the 40+ goals conceded record. The problem seems to be we’re still doing dumb things in defence and our finishing is still below the elite levels it needs to be. Unforced errors are costing us and we don’t have the creativity we had before.
It’s all a bit dramatic – we’re a point behind City and unbeaten in the league. Still, we’re all feeling something we don’t like. The football isn’t quite as magical as it felt last season.
That’ll come down to the reasons I laid out at the start of the season.
- New players
- More fluid system
- Heavier rotation
Our goalkeeper hasn’t clicked yet – in the mid-term, I think he’s an upgrade, but there will be mistakes like the one that happened today as part of his bedding in process.
Our attack is my deeper concern, but I think the issues stem from more than just Arteta’s desire to control. The issue is you have a new #6 and a new #8. They have to learn to feed the system what it wants. That’ll take some time.
The biggest problem is our defence is making mistakes – but the thing that gives me hope? We’re getting punished to the absolute max every time something marginal happens. That won’t last forever. Look at those finishes tonight. Ridiculous. Spurs aren’t getting punished like that every time their midfield makes an error. My hope is the luck improves as our errors drop.
Ousting City and winning the Champions League isn’t easy. Young players need to learn; inexperienced coaches need to get better, and fans need to accept that pain is part of the process even at this stage. Just remember the people that catastrophize, it’s always the same folk, they talk about elite mentality, but can’t handle anything outside perfection. Winning is hard. Competing against clubs like City is the biggest challenge in sporting history. There will be bumps.
Lens is a minor bump. Let’s see what the City game looks like this weekend. The best team in the world coming to North London will tell us far more about where we are.
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