“I want more from my team,” Mikel Arteta told Sky Sports. The Arsenal manager offered no excuses for his side’s poor display in Monday’s 2-1 loss to Everton but to many supporters, the players aren’t the only ones underperforming right now.
A third defeat in four games has left Arteta under mounting scrutiny. “It was a worrying sign, how they lost,” said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher. After the 3-2 reverse at Manchester United, this was the second game in a row in which Arsenal have surrendered a lead.
The momentum of their 10-game unbeaten run has been lost at a time when rivals are finding their own. Arsenal have slumped to seventh place as a result, behind Manchester United and Tottenham – two clubs who were in crisis as recently as a few weeks ago.
It would be a stretch to call Arsenal’s current plight a crisis. They are only four points behind fourth-placed West Ham, whom they face at the Emirates Stadium next week. “They can win the next home game and they will still be challenging for the top four,” added Carragher.
But it is nonetheless concerning how quickly their progress has unravelled and Arteta did not help himself with some of the decisions which ultimately contributed to their latest defeat.
Granit Xhaka, back in the side after a three-month absence with a serious knee injury, was already tiring when, on 63 minutes, he fouled Anthony Gordon for the booking which later prevented him from stopping Andre Gomes in the build-up to Everton’s winner.
Arteta could have turned to Albert Sambi Lokonga, outstanding in the recent 2-0 win over Newcastle, but instead his first change was to introduce Nuno Tavares for Kieran Tierney.
Tavares’ erratic showing was in keeping with his recent performances and only added to the nervousness engulfing Arsenal. The 21-year-old lost possession eight times, according to Opta, most notably in the moments before Everton’s equaliser.
Arteta’s remaining changes were similarly difficult to make sense of.
Eddie Nketiah, who has recently rejected Arsenal’s offer of a new contract, had not made a single Premier League appearance this season before his introduction against Manchester United on Thursday and yet he was chosen ahead of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang when Gabriel Martinelli was withdrawn on 71 minutes.
Nketiah would go on to miss a glorious chance to put Arsenal in front and the decision to hold Aubameyang back was even stranger given Alexandre Lacazette’s obvious struggles.
The Frenchman, who is without a goal since mid-October, didn’t muster a single shot and only had one touch in Everton’s box. Why, then, was he kept on until the 85th minute?
Arteta was not oblivious to Arsenal’s attacking shortcomings. In fact he summed them up succinctly afterwards. “No penetration, no threat,” he told Sky Sports. But Aubameyang’s late miss, when he snatched at his effort while unmarked in the Everton box, suggests his already fragile confidence may now have taken another hit.
Others are being overlooked altogether.
Nicolas Pepe has been an unused substitute in the last five games. Lokonga has been pulled out of the side just when it seemed he had found his feet. Mohamed Elneny was given 90 minutes at Old Trafford, having barely featured all season, only to find himself back on the bench, unused, at Goodison Park.
It all feels muddled and while Monday’s game might have ended differently had Everton’s Ben Godfrey not somehow escaped punishment for his stamp on Takehiro Tomiyasu’s face in the first half, Arsenal were already struggling at that point.
Individuals are out of form, Thomas Partey chief among them, but this was another game to heighten the lingering sense of ambiguity about Arteta’s overarching offensive strategy.
Arsenal are taking more shots at goal this season but many of them are speculative and creativity is still lacking. Only Norwich have created fewer big chances among Premier League clubs.
Arsenal have scored just 18 goals in 15 Premier League games so far, placing them 12th in the division this season, and the underlying data offers little reassurance. In fact, their net expected goals total of -3.9 ranks them even lower, at 14th.
It could be argued those numbers are skewed by Arsenal’s heavy defeats against Manchester City and Liverpool but the meeting with Everton was the ninth game this season in which they have been outperformed by their opponent in terms of expected goals.
It is actual goals that really matter, of course, but another worry is how Arsenal react to scoring them.
Martin Odegaard’s strike at Goodison Park should have been a platform to build on but, like Emile Smith Rowe’s opener at Old Trafford four days earlier, it instead prompted Arsenal to cede control and hand their opponent the initiative.
“In the Premier League, when you have the opponent there for the taking, you have to kill the game,” said Arteta afterwards. No arguments there. But out on the pitch Arsenal could be seen timewasting with 20 minutes still to play.
His players seem unsure whether to stick or twist after taking the lead and it is a reoccurring issue, as shown by the fact they have dropped eight points from winning positions this season – matching their total for the whole of the last campaign in only 15 games.
All this is coming at a time when they should be better. Arteta has reshaped the side to his liking. The lighter schedule afforded by their failure to qualify for Europe has given him more time with the players on the training pitch. And yet familiar problems are still unsolved. The fog of ambiguity around their playing style remains.
Arteta wants more from his team. He is entitled to ask for that after their recent performances. But events at Goodison Park on Monday night were a reminder that he must look inwardly too.