Paul Merson was left baffled by Mikel Arteta’s team selection as FA Cup holders Arsenal crashed out of the competition with a 1-0 loss to Southampton in the fourth round.
Arteta made seven changes from Monday’s 3-0 win over Newcastle at St Mary’s Stadium, fielding a weakened team in the knowledge that Arsenal face Saints again in the Premier League on Tuesday.
Bukayo Saka, Thomas Partey and Alexandre Lacazette dropped to the bench, while Emile Smith Rowe and Kieran Tierney were rested completely and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed out with a personal issue.
But their replacements – among them Willian, Mohamed Elneny, Nicolas Pepe and Eddie Nketiah – failed to impress as a first-half own goal from Gabriel Magalhaes sent Arsenal out of a competition they won for the fourth time in seven years last season.
Merson was unimpressed by their performance and felt Arteta’s decision to rotate his side, with Arsenal lying 10th in the Premier League table and seven points off the top four, was to blame.
“I don’t know what he’s doing,” he said on Soccer Saturday.
“They are not going to win the league. They are not going to get into the top four, I wouldn’t have thought, unless they go on one of the best runs in the history of the Premier League.
“For me, this is the [competition] that made Arteta last time around. He came to Arsenal and had a great semi-final and a great final.
“Honestly, I cannot believe it. This was a more important game than the midweek league game, in my opinion. They are not getting relegated and they are not getting in the top four.
“You do not really want to end up getting sixth or whatever again because then you are playing in the Europa on Thursdays and that just sets you back.
“So, for me, it was a bad decision.”
Arteta defends selection choices
Arteta insisted he had no regrets about the decision to rotate his side, saying the players he selected deserved their chance.
“I think it was a very strong line up because I have full belief in my players and they deserved to play,” he said in his post-match press conference.
“They have done it on many occasions and against the top opponents as well, so this cannot be the excuse.
“It’s true that throughout the game we improved, and we got better in the second half. We had more quality in what we tried to do but the players that played deserved [to play] and they tried so hard for us.”
On under-fire duo Willian and Pepe, whose performances have frustrated fans this season, he added: “What I am saying is they try to give their best.
“You could see how hard they are trying, with more or less quality, but the intention is there and the willingness is there.
“This is what we demand them to do. After that, the decision making, the final pass, the final goal, the opportunities they have… That is the end product and that’s the hardest thing in football.
“We are going to keep supporting them as much as we possible can, as a coaching staff and as a club because that is what they need. They need to keep working hard and try to improve their performances.”
Arsenal’s lack of depth exposed again
Analysis by Sky Sports’ Nick Wright:
Mikel Arteta left himself open to criticism with his team selection but, wrong decision or not, it is the players who must answer for their poor performances.
This was an opportunity for those on the fringes of Arsenal’s Premier League team to show the manager they deserve more playing time. Instead, they confirmed why they are not getting it.
Willian and Pepe continue to attract the most criticism. The lucrative three-year contract handed to the former during the summer looks increasingly ill-judged while the latter appears further away than ever from justifying his £72m pricetag.
Pepe did at least have some bright moments, one superb through-ball to set up Nketiah providing a reminder of his talent, but it was another erratic display overall and the late free-kick he blasted over the bar summed up his lack of confidence.
Nketiah struggled too, spurning a series of scoring chances, while there were also unconvincing performances from Elneny, who was substituted in the second half, and Cedric Soares, who failed to get close enough to Kyle Walker-Peters for the winning goal.
It’s little wonder Arteta is eager to add to his ranks this January, with Martin Odegaard likely to be the next arrival on loan from Real Madrid. Arsenal’s hectic schedule demands greater depth than this.