Sensational Smith Rowe
There’s plenty of negatives to talk about from Friday night’s performance, and we’ll get on to them don’t worry, but the one positive Arsenal could really take from the defeat to Brentford was the performance of Emile Smith Rowe.
On a night where the Gunners senior front men were either absent – in a literal sense in the case of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, and a metaphorical one in the case of Nicolas Pepe – the new number 10 stepped up.
The Hale Ender was one of few players looking to drag the team forward with a series of trademark jinking dribbles and line-breaking turns.
The pick of these was probably at the beginning of the second half where he spun the Bees’ midfield on the halfway line, drove towards goal and fired a shot at David Raya that probably would have caused more trouble if he hadn’t got the ball stuck under his feet.
The 20-year-old’s display was picked up on by Gary Neville in the post match who singled him out for praise.
“His energy, his quality was absolutely fantastic tonight,” said the Sky Sport pundit.
“That link-up down that left-hand side with Tierney, who never stopped going. He was a shining light. You talk about when a team aren’t playing well, he was really sharp & bright”
Much of the talk in recent weeks has been of adding another creative player to support Smith Rowe, and from the rest of the team’s performance it’s clear that’s needed. But in a central role the youngster shone at the Brentford Community Stadium.
Should another ‘number 10’ come in before deadline day you would assume that would see the Hale Ender shifted out to the left again where he has the capacity to be equally as threatening.
In what already looks like it’s going to be a long season, the youngster is undoubtedly going to be a bright spark.
No defence for the defence
“It’s just so Arsenal” said Jamie Carragher when describing the Gunners’ defending for Christian Norgaard’s header for Brentford.
Last season they had the third meanest back line in the Premier League, but this time around it looks as though there are going to be some problems.
These stem largely from Arteta’s desire to evolve his side this season so that they are capable of playing further up the pitch.
All three of their signings thus far in Albert Sambi Lokonga, Nuno Tavares and Ben White are clear evidence of this. White himself even admitted that his manager viewed him as being crucial to progressing his side so that they are closer to the opposition goal.
“It’s a bit more risky because you don’t have an extra defender behind you, but taking risks is good,” said the England international when asked about playing in a back four rather than the back three he was used to at Brighton.
“It depends where the strikers are and how we progress through the midfield.”
This is undoubtedly a forward step for Arsenal, but it’s proving to be something they are having a few teething issues with as they begin to adjust.
Pablo Mari in particular looked very nervous each time he was exposed by the pace of Brian Mbuemo in behind the Gunners’ high line.
That jitteryness then spread to his game on the ball – an area where the Spaniard is usually very composed.
On one occasion in the first half he received it from Leno to the left of the penalty box, and despite having plenty of chances to clear it, the 27-year-old dithered before eventually hoofing it long away from danger in a panicked fashion.
This prompted him to turn and lambaste his goalkeeper at whom he yelled “Bernd, f***ing hell” for the perceived crime of not having made himself available for a pass.
In reality though the problem was all of the Spaniard’s making.
He like the rest of the back four also struggled with the very basics of defending when it came to winning the individual duals.
White struggled against the aerial threat of his former Peterborough teammate Ivan Toney all night, while Calum Chambers‘ desperate defending for the long throw that led to Brentford’s second brought back memories of the dismal trips to the Brittania Stadium to play Tony Pulis’ Stoke in the late 00s.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, and White’s passing from the back and quick switches of play were a highlight.
But the immediate defensive regression, while Arsenal try to adapt to their manager’s new tactics in the long-term looks set to cause some problems in the coming weeks.
Final third problems persist
For all the defensive woes though, the most frustrating part of this Arsenal display was undoubtedly the attack.
Since a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa in the penultimate game of Mikel Arteta’s first season in charge – and probably for some time before that to be honest – it has been clear that the Gunners’ biggest problem lies in breaking down lesser opposition.
That game was in July 2020. Just over a year later and it seems the Spaniard is no closer to figuring out how to do it.
Without his two most experienced strikers in Aubameyang and Lacazette who were both absent due to a somewhat cryptically explained illness, Arteta went for youth by picking Flo Balogun and Gabriel Martinelli in an exciting line up that promised to blow off the cobwebs of the toothless front line we had seen in pre-season.
However, the usual old problems persisted.
Balogun, making his first Premier League start, was full of intent and refused to stop making runs until he was withdrawn on the hour mark. By the time he had come off though the Hale Ender had touched the ball just 13 times.
The inability to get the centre forward involved in the game is a problem that effected Aubameyang in the number nine role last season and Lacazette before him.
Martinelli meanwhile out on the left hand side looked confused as to where exactly he was supposed to be standing each time Kieran Tierney got the ball out wide and looked to whip the ball in.
Over 18 months into his reign at the Emirates and it seems as though Arteta’s Arsenal have not really evolved beyond the tactic of get it out to the Scottish international to cross and hope for the best.
When asked about the problems after game the Spaniard came up with an excuse that he just about had the right to play given the lack of personelle available on the night.
“I don’t think that tonight’s game is the one to analyse given the circumstances that we had on the day,” he said.
Regardless of that though he will know that this is a big problem that his side still have not solved.
There is a genuine chance that Arsenal will go on to win their next two games against Chelsea and Manchester City, by sticking men behind the ball and looking to break on the counter.
Arteta’s record against the big teams is pretty good and he seems to have perfected that game plan.
It’s against the lesser teams in the Premier League though where points need to be won, and right now the Spaniard still hasn’t found a method of attack capable of doing that on a consistent basis.
The Gunners may find a sticking plaster, but their long-term issues in the final third still require serious surgical attention.
As is always the case with games played in the month of August, much of the post match press conference was dominated by transfers.
It should be said that Arsenal were missing six first team players due to injury and illness for the game against Brentford, so go full on 2011 deadline day panic buying at this stage of the window might be a bit much.
But at the same time the loss to the Bees shows that the Gunners are still woefully short of being anywhere near a side capable of challenging for the top four, which is where KSE claim to want them to be.
For his part Arteta maintained his usual public stance that he is happy to work with the players that he’s got.
“My focus is with the players that we have to try to make them play as best as possible and to get the best out of the team and try to find a way to win football matches and it’s the same in the next one,” he said after the match.
In fairness you would hardly expect the Spaniard to say anything different at this stage.
We know that the Gunners are still active in the transfer market with at least two more signings very much on the cards.
A back up goalkeeper is an indisputable necessity, with Hale Ender Karl Hein – who is yet to make his senior competitive Arsenal debut – having to appear on the bench on Friday night due to the lack of options in this position, while a creative player remains an area of interest.
football.london understands that the club have opened talks with Real Madrid to sign Martin Odegaard permanently, and despite James Maddison being among the targets pursued, it seems the Norwegian is the preferred option right now.
Assuming Arsenal do get the deal over the line though, there still have to be questions asked over how much they have actually improved this transfer window.
Given that Odegaard was at the Emirates for the second half of last season, it could easily be argued that Ben White is the only player set to come in who will directly improve the starting XI.
There is still time for a centre forward or right back to come in before August 31st, but as things stand it does look to be an underwhelming summer of business given the high hopes for a rebuild.
There are reasons for this in terms of the difficulty all clubs across Europe are having in selling their players, but that doesn’t change that fact that the Gunners have fallen far behind their rivals.
Chelsea are adding Romelu Lukaku to a squad that already won the Champions League, while Manchester City have signed arguably the best creative player in England in Jack Grealish to bolster a squad that won the Premier League at a canter.
For a club whose ownership claims they want to be challenging for the biggest trophies, Arsenal’s business does not even come close.
There is still time in the window to change this, although Arteta was clear that the Brentford defeat will not impact the way his side operate in the transfer market during these closing few weeks.
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“No, we are very clear of what we wanted to do,” he said. “What our strengths are and where we can improve.
“I don’t think today’s performance shows anything different from what we’ve already seen.”
That may be the case, but if the performance at the Brentford Community Stadium is anything to go by, then the Gunners are in serious need of reinforcements and are running out of time to do it in.