Saturday, July 20, 2024

Arsenal’s disappointing EFL Cup loss to West Ham shows few fringe players offering signs they can contribute

LONDON — It was a chance to focus on far more important matters, to ease the minutes load on the squad and double down in pursuit of the grander prizes. That would be the more bullish assessment of Arsenal’s exit from the EFL Cup after a 3-1 loss to West Ham at the London Stadium, a contest they rarely attacked with the same intensity of their Premier League and European commitments.

It would not be a view shared by Mikel Arteta, however. As he threw ever more big guns onto the pitch, it was apparent he was less than amused to be departing in such tame fashion. When Manchester City are your chief rivals for every item of silverware you compete for, it is unwise to let their early exit from the scene pass you by. Meanwhile, for those who wish to play their part in Arsenal’s pursuit of the biggest prizes, so many tame displays do them no favors.

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“We’re out of the cup and we wanted to play a very different game,” said a seething Arteta. “We wanted to compete in a very different way, that we discussed for 48 hours, to what we’ve done.

“First of all I’m disappointed in myself because I wanted play a certain way and we haven’t managed to do that. Every time you lose a game, the pain is there. We have to use this pain for Saturday, that’s for sure.”

Arteta did not have the air of a man who was happy to be rid of England’s second tier cup. Arsenal, naturally, have greater priorities, the Premier League trip to Newcastle at the weekend chief among them. Equally, there is much to be said for getting in the habit of winning trophies, let alone of delivering the sort of performance that would allow them to emerge victorious on Saturday.

Arteta might have an FA Cup to his name, but Eddie Nketiah is the only player to have featured in the 2020 final who is still at the club at this moment. It is easy to ascribe the same value to this competition that Mauricio Pochettino did when his Tottenham side looked like the coming force of the English game. There would be time aplenty, Spurs reasoned, to break the silverware duck. Looking back on that era now, might it not have been a little sweeter with a trophy, even a second-tier one, to show for it? Can Arsenal afford to let any opportunity for a trophy slip away when the standards set by their rivals elsewhere are stratospheric?

There is a balance to be struck, and on occasion Arteta might feel he had struck it with his selection, one that bore six changes from the side that had brushed past Sheffield United but still found room for hat trick hero Eddie Nketiah and Kai Havertz. Arsenal played the game in the right areas of the pitch, convincingly outshot their opponents (which they looked like doing even before West Ham’s early opener, an own goal from Ben White, encouraged them to sit deeper and counter more) and pressed well if they conceded the ball high up the pitch.

There was, however, a clear lack of the sort of oomph that Arsenal’s best players might bring. Declan Rice had been held in reserve on his return to the London Stadium, where jeers mingled with an early standing ovation for the £105 million man whose last action in a West Ham shirt was lifting the Conference League Trophy in Europe. He would only be called for when Arsenal were two goals down. Once it got to three Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard were called in. The latter in particular attacked a forlorn cause with real purpose, striking his sixth goal of the season with one of the final kicks of the game, but not for a moment did the London Stadium fear a comeback that was never coming.

Two goals in the first 15 minutes of the second half saw to that. Aaron Ramsdale could bemoan the shirt tugging of Tomas Soucek when White flicked a corner into his own net for the game’s opener in the 16th minute, but he might wonder whether more could have been done to block Jarrod Bowen’s third, a shot fired just above his gloves, albeit one that seemed to deflect at least once on its way to the goal. Between those goals was one he coud do precious little about. Mohammed Kudus took down Nayef Aguerd’s long ball with aplomb, exploiting the space afforded by Oleksandr Zinchenko and Gabriel to drill low into the far corner.

This will all feel like a missed opportunity for Ramsdale, who offered no conclusive evidence that Arteta has erred in establishing David Raya as his number one. He would on occasion look to draw the West Ham press towards him before going long but lacked the precision of the Spaniard’s best clearances. Aside from the trip to Brentford on November 25 (a match where Raya will be ineligible as a loanee), it is hard to see when Ramsdale will get a chance to change Arteta’s mind.

Others might feel the same. Zinchenko’s presence in the XI seemed to point to Takehiro Tomiyasu being the choice to start at St. James’ Park, where greater solidity will surely be required. Given the joy that Lucas Paqueta and Kudus got in the space the Ukrainian vacated, that judgement seems to be shrewd. Kai Havertz started brightly, winning a dangerous free kick he then flicked smartly at goal, but tapered off.

As Arteta would note, this was not a conducive environment to judge players on the fringes. It might be the only one he has for some time, however. “We have to be fair on the players. Some players haven’t had that many minutes, to ask them to do it straight away in the first game, in a different competition surrounded by players who haven’t started, is not a fair assessment. 

“Something that is further from the assessment is doing certain things that have to be required to win a football match, especially when we play away from home against West Ham. Today we haven’t done them well enough.”

If that critique might not have applied to any player it was Jakub Kiwior, the Polish center back slipping with aplomb into William Saliba’s spot at the heart of Arsenal’s back three in buildup. Having performed similarly manfully in a wider role at the weekend, he has the look of a player that could be extremely valuable in the run in. In defense, Arsenal look well stocked enough now that Tomiyasu is back to the player of his first year at the club. Zinchenko’s defensive struggles may yet needle and for all that Arsenal’s form has generally been strong, Zinchenko’s defensive struggles continue to be a problem opponentss have attempted to exploit. On Wednesday, West Ham succeeded at it.

Further forward, however, there does not seem to be the same sense of a real battle for places. With Thomas Partey injured all too frequently, the midfield for the biggest games seems certain to be Jorginho, Rice and Odegaard by default. The likes of Nketiah and Leandro Trossard might have made convincing roles over this season for impact spots behind the front three, but is anyone really exerting pressure on Saka, Martinelli and, when fit, Gabriel Jesus? 

Arsenal’s vision for going one better this season had been simple, greater numbers than last time out could ensure that the sort of cliff that they dropped off when Tomiyasu and William Saliba went down in the spring would not reoccur. For that to become reality, however, Arteta needs to know that he can trust the deeper reaches of his squad. Tonight offered only patchy evidence that he can. 

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