Arsenal’s hopes of getting back into the Champions League have taken a significant blow of late, with defeats to Crystal Palace and Brighton meaning that Mikel Arteta’s side face a major battle to finish in the top four.
After a woeful start that saw them lose their first three games of the campaign, Arsenal have been widely praised this season, with Arteta’s young squad performing impressively at times. Now, though, they have lost three of their last four games at a crucial stage of the season.
Although a top four finish is still possible, there is now very little margin for error. They are three points behind Tottenham with a game in hand and still have to play their north London rivals. In addition, the Gunners have games to come against Chelsea and Manchester United.
Arsenal’s hopes of a top four finish suffered a blow with defeats by Crystal Palace and Brighton
Mikel Arteta knows that his team can’t afford many more slip ups if they are to finish strongly
If Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League – a competition they haven’t been involved in since the 2016-17 season – it would be a source of huge frustration for the club and would raise questions regarding the direction they are heading in.
With just eight games to go, Arsenal will be determined to show that recent results were merely a blip, but there appear to be much deeper problems, such as a lack of squad depth and the absence of a clinical goalscorer.
Arteta’s job is unlikely to come under immediate threat in any case, but this is a vital period for Arsenal as they look to make progress, and navigating the summer transfer window will be a considerably more difficult task without Champions League football.
The decision not to make any major signings in January could well come back to haunt Arsenal and Arteta is now relying on a very small squad as he looks for his team to bounce back.
Here’s an assessment of the problems facing Arsenal as the run-in approaches.
Injuries emphasise lack of depth
Arsenal’s squad consists of just 21 players, which was always a significant risk with regards to injuries. The Gunners had been rather fortunate on the fitness front bar the lengthy absence of Takehiro Tomiyasu, but now problems are starting to mount up.
Kieran Tierney is out for the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery and Arteta appears to have little faith in his backup Nuno Tavares, who was taken off at half time in the defeat to Crystal Palace.
The injury to Kieran Tierney, who is out for the rest of the season, is hugely problematic
Thomas Partey is also out injured, which has emphasised the lack of depth in the squad
Granit Xhaka, as he did towards the end of last season, filled in at left-back for the first half against Brighton, but, while the Swiss international’s commitment can’t be faulted, deploying him there disrupts the balance of the team and also leaves Arsenal more vulnerable in midfield, with Albert Sambi Lokonga not yet capable of dictating the game on his own. Thomas Partey is also set for a spell out with a thigh injury, which means Lokonga is poised for a run of games given that he has edged ahead of the more experienced Mohamed Elneny in the pecking order.
Arsenal also don’t have many options to turn to on the bench. Eddie Nketiah and Nicolas Pepe are frequently called upon as substitutes, but beyond that there isn’t much depth in the squad and Arteta seems reluctant to throw on academy players such as Omari Hutchinson.
Lack of a clinical finisher is proving harmful
A prolific striker will surely be high on Arsenal’s wish-list in the summer transfer window, but before then their decision to not bring in a forward in January could end up proving very costly.
Perhaps the choice to let Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leave was the correct one given that his relationship with Arteta had seemingly broken down and he appeared devoid of confidence during his final months in an Arsenal shirt.
However, failing to replace Aubameyang was a huge risk and Arsenal are now reliant on Alexandre Lacazette, who looks some way short of his best in front of goal and has done for some time.
Alexandre Lacazette has struggled in front of goal, with Arsenal lacking ruthlessness
Although Lacazette’s linkup play is of a high standard, he certainly cannot be described as a ruthless finisher. Indeed, Aubameyang, who departed in January, still has more goals than Lacazette for Arsenal this season.
Arsenal had 32 shots across the games against Palace and Brighton but found the net just once, with Martin Odegaard scoring late on in the latter fixture.
The Gunners have scored 45 goals in the league this season, which is a worse return than any of the other sides currently in the top seven.
Perhaps one temporary solution could be to move Gabriel Martinelli up front, but at present Arteta seems to retain faith in Lacazette, who has just six goals this campaign.
More experience needed
Arsenal have a very young squad with an average age of 24.6 and only three players – Lacazette, Cedric and Bernd Leno – are in their thirties.
While there have been some advantages to this reliance on youth – the likes of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard have been very impressive at times – it is difficult to expect young players to keep performing consistently.
Arsenal appeared rattled by the defeat to Palace and there was certainly an uneasiness about their play against Brighton as they dithered over which pass to make and appeared fearful of making a mistake.
Goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale admitted Arsenal were ‘tense’ in the first half against Brighton
After the game goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale admitted that Arsenal were ‘tense’ in the first half against Brighton.
He told Arsenal’s official website: ‘This was supposed to be the reaction game but it wasn’t.
‘We’ve lost and not managed to pick up any points and next week is even bigger.
‘I think we just need to go out there and be free and play our game, you know?
‘It’s a game of football and I think in the first half we were very tense and slow so we just need to go out there next week, trust what the manager and the coaching staff are saying and go and play our football, which we’ve done all season.
‘It’s not good enough. Two games on the spin where the first 45 minutes has got away from us.
‘You make it an uphill battle against any team in the Premier League if you’re losing at half-time.’
Arsenal have a very young squad and at times that inexperience could prove to be costly
Arteta was also critical of his team’s first-half display and stated that they created a ‘cold atmosphere’.
Speaking in his post-match press conference, he said: ‘The first half was really poor again. The reaction that we wanted to show and everything that we talked about, we didn’t make it happen on the pitch.
‘We were sloppy with the ball, we were second best again in a lot of situations, we didn’t show any purpose or build any momentum in the game, play with the right speed and transform the game that Brighton proposed today and with the first chance that they had, the only chance I think they had, they scored a goal and, again, we created a cold atmosphere, an atmosphere we weren’t comfortable with and when we tried to change it, it was too late. It was great not to give up, but it was too late.’
There is a feeling that more experienced players would have reacted to the loss to Palace in a more mature way and wouldn’t have been quite so fearful. Arteta needs to demand more from his players, but in some cases young players can find it difficult to react when things go against them.
Arteta’s reluctance to change
Arteta has used different formations during his Arsenal tenure, but at present he seems insistent on continuing with a four-man defence, at least from the start of games.
Arsenal have the option of bringing Rob Holding into a back three, while Saka could be used as a left wing-back, which would help lessen the blow of Tierney being out.
At present Arteta appears determined to stick with the same system even if it is to the detriment of the team, such as the decision to start Xhaka at left-back against Brighton.
Arsenal need variety in their selections – Rob Holding could be used in a three-man defence
The Arsenal team appears in need of a shake up. Perhaps Pepe and Nketiah could be called upon from the start at times, or Elneny could be used instead of Lokonga on some occasions.
Although Arteta doesn’t have much depth in his squad, there are still adjustments that could be made to give the team more variety because otherwise there is a risk of things becoming stale.
Playing with a mostly consistent starting XI helped Arsenal massively earlier in the season, but now they need a change and Arteta needs to do something different to make his team less predictable to play against.
Palace and Brighton identified weaknesses in Arsenal’s game and exploited them. The Seagulls, for instance, were constantly trying to play balls in behind Cedric. A change in shape would make it more challenging to break Arsenal down.