It wasn’t quite 22 games this time, was it? After a recent upturn in results had breathed new life into both the Arsenal squad and fans, their unbeaten run and FA Cup defence came to an abrupt end on Saturday afternoon as they succumbed to a disappointing 1-0 defeat away to Southampton.
Our premature elimination from the competition was sealed courtesy of an unfortunate own goal from Gabriel mid-way through the first half, and the result leaves Mikel Arteta with a daunting task ahead if he is to secure European football next season. However, could our cup exit benefit the side as the season progresses?
With one eye on Tuesday night’s Premier League trip to St. Mary’s, Arteta rang the changes for the weekend’s fourth round clash. Players with points to prove, such as Willian, Mohamed Elneny and Eddie Nketiah were given the opportunity to showcase their talents, while standout performers including Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka and Thomas Partey were afforded some rest after their impressive exploits of late.
Though his intentions may have been noble, such extreme rotation had a detrimental impact on the team. From the constant surrendering of possession in dangerous areas, to a chronic lack of cutting edge at vital attacking moments, there were many sources of frustration during the game and those entrusted by the manager were unable to drag us out of the mire.
Reduced fixture list may give Arsenal an advantage on the European stage.
Missing a playmaker between the lines or an offensive outlet from the left, these struggles were largely incurred due to the omission of some first-choice players, suggesting that this Arsenal side simply does not have enough strength in depth to challenge on multiple fronts simultaneously.
Although we are languishing in 10th place in the Premier League standings, and have played more games than those around us, there is still a lot to play for this season. Arsenal currently lie seven points off the top four and five points away from sixth place, suggesting that the gap between us and the European spots is not insurmountable and, judging by Saturday’s team selection, Arteta has faith in the first-team to bridge it.
Speaking to the official Arsenal website, the boss insisted that, despite the changes, he had named a ‘very strong lineup’ in the cup and ‘can not complain’ about the players he has at his disposal.
However, the errors that manifested on the south coast indicate a sharp decrease in quality when a few key figures are omitted and suggest that we will need to field our strongest side if we are to accomplish anything of note over the coming months.
We are now reaching the endgame of this rollercoaster season and the fringe players have repeatedly demonstrated their ineptitude when it comes to the big games, so maybe the reduced fixture list will enable stronger lineups in the future and give us a better chance of achieving European success in May.