Mikel Arteta is facing a defensive headache as Arsenal face a desperate fight to keep their Champions League dream alive.
The Gunners are still the masters of their own destiny when it comes to a top-four finish and know that two wins against Newcastle United and Everton will seal their spot. However, a humbling 3-0 defeat at rivals Tottenham has changed the complexion of the battle for Champions League football next season.
Arteta refused to comment on referee Paul Tierney’s performance on Thursday night, insisting he would be ‘suspended for six months’ if he gave his views. Tottenham were awarded a penalty for the opening goal after Cedric Soares collided with Son Heung-min, and the visitors were reduced to 10 men minutes later when Rob Holding received a yellow card after a succession of fouls.
The Arsenal boss shielded his players from criticism, but Holding’s dismissal was already the 15th of his tenure since his appointment in December 2019. All too often, the Gunners’ efforts have been undermined by ill-discipline and costly defensive errors.
Arsenal are already five points’ better off from last season’s eighth-placed finish, and it could yet prove to be a hugely successful campaign should Arteta’s young guns qualify for next season’s Champions League. However, the errors and latest sending off at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium served as a painful reminder of the issues which have plagued the Gunners since Arsene Wenger’s exit.
Unai Emery was sacked after just 18 months in the hot seat in November 2019 following Arsenal’s worst run of form since 1992. A Europa League defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt sealed the current Villarreal boss’ fate, but he was defended amid the widespread criticism by Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville.
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The former Manchester United full-back believed the problems lay in the club’s recruitment and playing squad rather than Emery. Speaking at the time, Neville told Sky Sports News: “Let’s be clear about this, these defenders are uncoachable.
“I don’t know who has been responsible for recruitment at Arsenal over the last two or three years but if I was in the boardroom I would be giving that lot a right rocket after watching some of the shambles.
“There is no way Unai Emery is telling David Luiz to step up two or three times to play offside or some of the hideous things you see from other defenders and midfield players. You think of Xhaka the other week. Emery is a man of honour and you see his behaviour. This is something far deeper than the coach.
“He is potentially sailing over the shores of the Channel this afternoon and is very happy to leave behind what is quite simply a very average bunch of players. The coach will ultimately take the fall but some of the things we were seeing on the pitch was fantasy football
“Without a shadow of a doubt they have let him down. The recruitment has been truly pathetic. You couldn’t find a more erratic bunch of players in terms of defending to watch. If you were to say ‘go out and find the three or four most erratic defenders in Europe’ it seems like that has been the brief. Some of the players aren’t up to it, they aren’t of the quality for Arsenal’s level.”
The personnel may have changed with Arteta overseeing an injection of youth, but the manner of defeat on Thursday night was all too familiar for Arsenal supporters. It could prove to just be a blip, but the Gunners will be left to rue the latest collapse should Tottenham ultimately leapfog them into the Champions League.