Mikel Arteta frustrated by Arsenal’s inability to take the next step

Mikel Arteta frustrated by Arsenal’s inability to take the next step

Against the backdrop of Mikel Arteta’s expansive responses, it was shocking to hear her suddenly stop. And revealing. The Arsenal manager was trying to make sense of Thursday night’s 3-2 loss to Manchester United, a game his side have controlled at various times, when asked if his senior players need to give him more.

“Absolutely, the balance we need is right,” Arteta began. “The senior players have to lead and the young players have to follow. Nod and a steely gaze.

The idea that Arsenal would lose was odd after the first 15 minutes when they led Emile Smith Rowe’s bizarre goal – scored as United goalkeeper David de Gea was injured. United’s debut had been fraught with errors, their nerves trembling, Fred in particular appearing to be a danger to his own team.

The sentiment would be similar after Martin Ødegaard’s equalizer for 2-2 in the 54th minute, which had represented a strong response to the concession to Cristiano Ronaldo not long before. “We were in our best time then,” said Arteta. “We had total control and domination. This is when you need to take the next step and win.

Instead, Arsenal shot themselves in the foot, Ødegaard guilty of a stupid challenge on Fred that allowed Ronaldo to score what would turn out to be the winner on the spot.

At 1-0, Arsenal had started to treat the ball like hot coal, putting it under minimal pressure and prompting United to generate momentum, which resulted in Bruno Fernandes’ equalizing in the 44th minute on the assist from Fred.

Even at 3-2, Arsenal had chances to equalize without ever giving the impression that they would take one and it would surely be their most bitter loss of the season.

For Arteta, the overall picture remains positive. Get back to its lowest ebb – the run-up to last Boxing Day, when the club were on a five-point streak in 10 Premier League games. They have since made 38 appearances in the competition – the equivalent of a full season – and taken 70 points. It is a form among the first four.

But the next step Arteta mentioned has often eluded them, especially in high profile games away from home. There were breakthroughs last season, including a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford in November and another 1-0 success at Chelsea in recent weeks. United’s result was the first away league win over a so-called Big Six rival since January 2015, when they beat Manchester City 2-0 with goals from Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud.

After the beating at City and Liverpool this season, Arteta had wanted a decisive result at United; his players to show they wouldn’t collapse under the pressure. That didn’t happen and it was hard not to confuse the shortcomings all over the pitch with a collective lack of experience. The average age of the Arteta range was slightly over 24 years old.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang failed to add to his four Premier League goals this season in a moderate display against Manchester United. Photography: Oli Scarff / AFP / Getty Images

Who were the senior players and where were they? These were captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, 32, and Thomas Partey, 28 – supported by Mohamed Elneny, 29, who had been propelled into his first championship start of the season. Arteta remembered Elneny’s performance in the corresponding match last season and preferred his skill over the fluid technique of 22-year-old Albert Sambi Lokonga.

No one really expected Elneny to dominate in midfield, especially after having had so little football recently, but it was Partey’s display at his side that was the real disappointment. Partey was sometimes cowardly and unable to impose himself.

Which brings us to Aubameyang, who has four league goals for the season and is clearly struggling. There was a moment early on when he shut down Victor Lindelöf to help Arsenal win the ball in a good area, which hinted at he was leading the team. It was a very isolated moment, his evening marked by a strange misery in his finish; a lack of strength and conviction. He failed to beat De Gea one-on-one in the 78th minute, although an offside flag would save him embarrassment. Nonetheless, it reflected his low confidence.

Arteta isn’t fortunate enough to have many other senior players, with Alexandre Lacazette, 30, and Granit Xhaka, 29, injured, the only ones he seems to rely on. This means the trip will inevitably take on nights like Thursday, when the focus is on mistakes at both ends and holes in the middle. That doesn’t make them any less frustrating.


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