There were times, in Arsenal’s impressive run of recent form, when it seemed as if they could simply cruise back into the Champions League without so much as a hiccup. The more weathered members of their fanbase would have always known that it was too good to be true, though, for a team that has chaos and drama embedded deep within its DNA.
Ah, Arsenal. We meet again. Susceptible at set-pieces, uncomfortable in the face of aggression, cowed on a hostile night at an away ground. Mikel Arteta’s side really were playing the old favorites on Monday, when Crystal Palace made them look once more like the erratic team of 2020 rather than the more slick side of 2022.
Afterwards, Arteta made no attempt to hide from the realities of the performance. He apologized to the club’s supporters, and described his team’s showing as “unacceptable”.
Under normal circumstances, Arsenal’s intention now would be to draw a line under this gruesome showing. To move on. Park it. Forget it ever happened. But that will not be possible on this occasion, because their problems suddenly run far deeper than one sub-par performance.
To lose one key player, Kieran Tierney, is a significant issue for a club with such a small squad. To then lose another in the second half, when Thomas Partey limped off with a muscular problem, is verging on disastrous.
Arteta’s transfer gamble may have been a risk too far
Unfortunately for Arsenal, this was the risk they decided to take in the January transfer window, when they effectively weakened their squad. A total of six players were allowed to leave the club (including versatile options Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Calum Chambers) and no new faces were brought in. Without European football to worry about, Arsenal took a gamble: keep the squad small, and make it through to the summer.
Until now, it had been a gamble that had paid off. Arsenal’s team was more settled than it has been for years, with each player knowing their role in Arteta’s system. The shape was consistent, the selection was the same with each game, the performances were impressive.
It seemed as if Arsenal’s plan was to reach the end of the season with a squad of around 14 players they could fully trust. The starting line-up, plus one of Gabriel Martinelli or Emile Smith Rowe (whoever was on the bench), and then Rob Holding if defensive cover was required. Takehiro Tomiyasu, when he finally returns from injury, would also be counted.
The intention, obviously, was not to use back-up left-back Nuno Tavares. We know this because Tavares hadn’t started a league game since December. The same is also true of Albert Sambi Lokonga, who has started just one league match since November.
Injuries leave Arteta’s thin squad looking exposed
But now the fringe players will have to step up, and Arsenal’s thin squad will face considerable strain. There are fears that Tierney will miss the rest of the season with his knee problem, which occurred last week, while Arteta described Partey’s issue as a “big concern”.
In recent months Arsenal have shown that their starting line-up is capable of competing with the best teams in the division. The loss of just two of those players now changes the entire feel and balance of this team, and could feasibly derail their push for the Champions League.
Tavares had a dreadful night at left-back on Monday, when he was substituted at half-time. Partey, meanwhile, has arguably been Arsenal’s best player since the start of the calendar year. Neither his quality nor Tierney’s can be replicated by anyone within the current squad.
“It’s what we have,” said Arteta, when asked about the lack of depth. “It’s the numbers that we have. We’ve lost Kieran and we’ve lost Thomas now and that’s it. With the players that we have we will keep trying like we have since the start of the season, but we never had a big squad so we can’t find any excuses. ”
The ultimate proof of the lack of options at Arteta’s disposal could be seen on the benches at Selhurst Park. Arsenal’s substitutes included three academy players without a single senior appearance between them, while Palace had the likes of Christian Benteke, Odsonne Édouard, Eberechi Eze, Will Hughes and James McArthur lying in wait.
For a club of Palace’s stature to have more senior and experienced options than a club like Arsenal is a strange turn of events. But this is the path Arsenal have chosen, and until now it has worked – after all, fourth place is still within their grasp. There can be no hiding from the risk they have taken, however, and there can be no telling how costly that decision might prove to be.