Arsenal put in a limp defence of their FA Cup title by falling to a 1-0 defeat to Southampton at St. Mary’s on Saturday.
Making an expected amount of changes to his side, Mikel Arteta opted to swap his entire front four on the south coast, whereas Ralph Hasenhuttl chose a near full strength side.
Southampton were by far the better side in the first half as their high pressing and energy gave the impression they had an extra player on the pitch. It took 24 minutes for the opener to come as Gabriel Magalhaes inadvertently directed Kyle Walker-Peters’ effort into his own net.
Poor decision making on the ball and some torrid deliveries saw Arsenal cause little threat, while general sloppiness, particularly at the back, resulted in unnecessary self-inflicted pressure.
Bringing on Thomas Partey and Bukayo Saka in the second half saw an improvement in performance, although it was not enough to find a route back into a game where the Saints didn’t need to be at their best.
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The players that Arteta opted to bring into his starting lineup on Saturday are now the undisputed second string. Three of the front four are nowhere near usurping the regular fixtures, as evidenced by some lacklustre displays.
Knowing that those he fielded are not as good as those who didn’t feature, or even travel, should he then have gone full strength? It’s an easy stick to beat the manager with but he can’t be playing Saka and Emile Smith Rowe from the start every week. The drop-off without them is frightening, but Arteta’s hands are tied.
Willian, Mohamed Elneny and Nicolas Pepe had to play. These are still members of the squad at the end of the day, whose futures, at least for now, are tied to the club. However, the case of wanting to see what they can produce inevitably results in seeing precisely why they don’t play.
It’s Arteta’s position to ask his fringe players for the best they have to offer. Them then failing to take that opportunity is their wrongdoing, not his. Play his best side twice in the same ground in three days and the potential knock-on effect could be even more damaging than a single defeat.
There is a squad for a reason. Fortunately, Arteta has come to the realisation that Willian is not Premier League grade anymore – he shoulders most of the blame for signing him in the first place – Pepe is too inconsistent (despite creating more chances than the entire side today combined) and Eddie Nketiah isn’t ruthless enough in front of goal. Equally, Elneny is so far off the standard required.
An important competition is now gone for Arsenal who have to ensure the regular starters stay fit to battle on two fronts.