Arsenal’s defeat to Manchester City on Wednesday meant they dropped to second in the Premier League with 16 games left to play.
For the time being, City are above them on goal difference, having played one game more than Mikel Arteta’s side. They will be level on games played on March 1, after Arsenal play Everton at the Emirates.
There’s not been much time for Arsenal to lick their wounds since the City game and they are back in action in the early kick-off on Saturday away to Aston Villa.
There are plenty of talking points: how will they react, team selection (will Thomas Partey be fit to play?) and where that defeat leaves their title challenge.
Our Arsenal reporters James McNicholas, Amy Lawrence and Art de Roché give their thoughts…
Should Leandro Trossard start over Gabriel Martinelli?
De Roche: Trossard has had a positive impact in every appearance for Arsenal so far. Considering a fast start could be essential for Arsenal, the fact Trossard is a technician who can move the ball very quickly could help massively. That is how they set the tone in their last trip to Villa Park, with Emile Smith Rowe in that more creative role on the left. When Gabriel Martinelli and Eddie Nketiah aren’t connecting as well as Martinelli did with Gabriel Jesus, having someone as good and fresh as Trossard drift inside may be beneficial. A start would be deserved for him.
McNicholas: Arteta has probably earmarked this game for a degree of rotation. It’s a third fixture inside a week and follows hot on the heels of an intense encounter with Manchester City. Trossard has made a few impressive cameos for Arsenal, and this feels like an opportune moment for him to get his first Premier League start. Arsenal’s left side hasn’t clicked in the last few games, and the Belgium international could help freshen it up.
Lawrence: Trossard is absolutely due a start. It will be interesting to see how much he can bring to the team from kick-off, rather than as an impact player. But the extra curiosity is to wonder where he plays. When he arrived it was clear he was recruited to provide cover across the front line but so far he has only been positioned on the left side as an alternative to Martinelli. It is clear the attack needs some refreshing, with goals hard to come by in recent matches, but there is the option to try Trossard in another position at some point during the game. Coming in on the left looks most likely.
Is it time to drop Nketiah?
De Roche: Not for me, personally. Frustration around missed chances against Manchester City is understandable, but Nketiah is not performing too differently to when he first replaced Jesus. He still created a platform to play from against City, and won the penalty, and created good chances for Martin Odegaard after running with the ball against Everton and Brentford. The difference has been his finishing. Jesus went through a similar spell prior to his injury, so sticking with him now would be similar. Trossard in for Martinelli makes more sense to me.
McNicholas: I think the time to really worry about Nketiah is not when he misses chances – it’s when the chances stop coming. The fact he is still taking up the right positions is a positive sign. That said, he has played an awful lot of football since Boxing Day. With Trossard coming in on the left, this could be an opportunity to try something different through the middle – perhaps Martinelli?
Lawrence: This is one of those questions which only Arteta, and his coaches who see the players daily on the training ground, can answer. Arsenal have to trust the gut feeling of the decision maker who is privy to all those nuances only apparent behind closed doors. Who is feeling the pressure? Who is training well despite the the dip in results? Who is carrying any worrying signs of fatigue or is best placed to push through? Who looks sharpest and most confident? Who do they back to respond to setbacks? Nketiah will doubtless have gone over those chances against Manchester City in his head, but Arteta looks at the bigger picture. Nketiah is still in the right place and making good runs for chances to come. This run of games Nketiah is having is not going to continue for ever with Jesus inching closer to fitness and as a vocal supporter of Nketiah it would be a real surprise if Arteta dropped him. Such major strategic changes tend to be forced rather than chosen.
How big a miss is Partey when he’s not in the team? Are you happy with Jorginho’s impact?
De Roche: Still doubtful to return against Villa, Partey is a big loss. Jorginho made a positive impact on his first start against Aston Villa, positioning himself well in defence and moving the ball quickly. That eased some concerns as the level of the team does not seem to drop too far in possession. His lack of athleticism is the bigger worry as Partey makes the “sweeping up” that comes with his job look effortless. That allows Arsenal to maintain control with and without the ball. Jorginho will help, but may not give Arsenal as much consistent control.
McNicholas: Partey is hugely important. He has a fairly unique set of skills, which enable him to evade the opposition press and control the centre of the pitch almost single-handedly. Jorginho’s performance against Manchester City was encouraging, but I do think that opposition suited him. When he came on at Everton, he struggled more with their physicality.
Lawrence: Partey has unequivocally been one of the central figures in the shape that served Arsenal so well over the first half of the season. The way he plays has also has a knock-on effect in relaxing the defenders behind him and freeing up the midfielders in front of him. No deputy or alternative could be expected to slot in immediately to generate an instant rapport in the same way. Jorginho impressed in the first half against City and showed exactly why experienced cover was necessary. It is early days, and obviously not the easiest game to dominate, so let’s see what more minutes in the team brings.
Should Ben White come back in at right-back?
McNicholas: Yes. White has been one of Arsenal’s top performers this season and will hopefully have benefited from a bit of rotation.
Lawrence: It is hard not to have sympathy with Takehiro Tomiyasu this season generally. He is a very popular player and an excellent defender, who was entirely trusted last season. It cannot be easy to have unexpectedly lost his place and he has worked diligently and without complaint to get a merited crack at the right-back spot. He is not normally a player who makes mistakes so the City game will have hit hard. Again, it’s time to back Arteta to make the right call, but a return to White is expected.
Name your starting XI
I think Arsenal need to shake up their left-hand side. With Partey out, I don’t consider Xhaka droppable, but I would take this opportunity to rotate Kieran Tierney and Trossard in for Oleksandr Zinchenko and Martinelli. There seems to be a natural balance between Tierney and Trossard, with the former’s willingness to overlap and the latter’s preference for cutting inside. I would also take the opportunity to try Martinelli through the middle, if only to give Nketiah a rest.
It would be unlike Arteta to make radical changes. His “love” for his players, which he continues to articulate, is something he shows in actions as well as words. Once Villa are out the way there is a week to recover and reset before the next game, and Arsenal are getting closer to adding Smith Rowe and then Jesus to the attacking ranks which will be a major boost. It would be out of character for Arteta to tinker too much and show that his faith in his players is wavering. Having the stylistic differences of Tierney, Smith Rowe and Martinelli to bring on is an asset — the key could be changing things up at the right time.
Arteta has never been one to make wholesale changes, even before this season. Instead, he prefers to keep a core group of players (or units) together with minor tweaks around them. With that in mind I’d expect three changes at the most but personally, would make two. Trossard could be better suited to how Arsenal want to play in attack with the positions he takes up from the left. At right-back, White’s overlaps were missed against Manchester City. Aston Villa have targeted Bukayo Saka in the last two meetings between the teams, so I would bring White back in to provide more attacking support. Tomiyasu’s performance was unfortunate against City, but he did not do enough to keep his place.
Are this team taking too many risks on the ball?
De Roche: Simply put, no. The magnifying glass has come out because of Tomiyasu’s error against Manchester City but Arsenal are where they are because they have played that way throughout the season. There have been mistakes earlier in the year, such as Gabriel getting caught leading to Fulham scoring in August. The difference was those did not end up being costly mistakes.
On whether they will continue to play that way, Arteta said: “In the right areas, against the right players pressing, yes. If not, no.” This has been the approach all season, which is displayed in Aaron Ramsdale’s mixed distribution.
What is your main concern ahead of the Villa game?
De Roche: Sharpness. Arsenal seemed to perform without thinking too much during the first half of the season. Split-second decisions were made in attack and that made them dangerous, whether they scored or not. The main concern would be if that sharpness dissipates against Aston Villa because that was a major factor in their positive momentum. It seems unlikely to happen, but they cannot return to slumps like they had during the backend of last season when matches became slogs.
McNicholas: For me, it’s the quick turnaround from the City defeat — physically and psychologically. This is the most testing moment of Arsenal’s season. We will learn something about them this weekend.
Lawrence: Thanks for the 12.30pm Saturday kick-off after such a physically and emotionally draining midweek while the opponent has had a full week to prepare! Preparation is far from ideal but these are the schedules top teams have to contend with. It does not help the fact that precision and concentration in both boxes has been problematic in the past few games, so being as switched on as humanly possible is the hope.
What do you think the main instruction to the team should be before kick-off?
De Roche: Set the tone and go from there. Arsenal haven’t been miles away from wins in the past week. The big difference will just surround how sharp they are from the beginning and whether they can carry that momentum throughout the game. This isn’t the Arsenal of early last season, or the year before when it seemed like every solution under the sun was needed. They know what they need to do, it’s just about executing.
Lawrence: It is still in your hands. This season is a beautiful opportunity. Remember what you are great at. Remember how good it feels to trust one another and win together. Relax out there. Don’t play with tension. Put in all your energy and determination. Go for an early goal — the foundation for so many good results this season.
How confident are you now that Arsenal will win the league?
De Roche: They are still in a strong position so hope remains. Much of this season has been about enjoying the ride without the pressure of thinking about May. And while that may be harder to do as we get deeper into the second half of the season, that should not change. The fact Arsenal have overcome hurdles they’ve previously faltered against at various points of the season (such as away records against traditionally tricky teams and the ability to respond quickly to goals) is encouraging. That is what they have to get back to first and then everything will take care of itself.
McNicholas: I’ve always been more hopeful than confident. Events since the 3-2 victory over Manchester United have dented those hopes. Matches against Everton, Brentford and then Manchester City were a brilliant chance for Arsenal to build a substantial lead at the top of the table. Instead, they’ve been usurped.
It’s absolutely vital they get back on the horse and pick up a win. There’s a long way to go in the race, but the longer this disappointing run extends, the more those title hopes diminish.
Lawrence: Some of us never got the point of being particularly confident! There is a massive difference between confidence and hope — there has been no shortage of the latter of course, even though everyone knows how much of a killer that can be. The idea that Arsenal were favourites or would bottle it if it never happened seemed nuts to me all along. Such pronouncements and predictions came far, far too early, even before the halfway point which is madness.
There is confidence that Arsenal can go very far and that should remain. They are capable of putting together another strong run. It is not a certainty that Manchester City will obliterate everybody. They have been fallible at times this season and cracks can appear at any time. Arsenal just have to do things day by day, game by game, as they have done all season. Try to win the next one. Try to get out of the slump. Try to put another bunch of points on the board. Whatever happens it is a hell of a ride.
(Photos: Getty Images)