Why do Arsenal keep giving silly goals to their opponents? According to Mikel Arteta, it is not about the ability of his players, or their positioning on the pitch, or even their steadfast commitment to passing from the back. No, the Arsenal manager said after his side’s victory over Olympiacos, it is all about the timing.
“It is just when we have to play it,” said Arteta, who spoke about his side’s individual errors in greater detail than ever before after their 3-1 win in Athens. He had just seen them concede another ridiculous goal, one that was once again entirely of their own making, and he wanted to make clear that it is not the overall strategy that is wrong.
“You know you have to play the ball to this player,” said Arteta of his team’s build-up play. “But when is the difference? Is it now, a second later or a second earlier? That gives the opponent a chance to press or to intercept a pass or not. That is where the difference is.
“To discriminate the decision-making and when it has to be done is what dictates in the next action whether you are successful or not. It is not about stopping or discouraging the team from playing. We just have to understand when to do it, and that is crucial.”
The most troubling aspect of their latest moment of self-destruction was that it was almost identical to the previous meltdown, against Burnley last weekend. On that occasion, Granit Xhaka received the ball from goalkeeper Bernd Leno and tried to play it to his right, from the centre of the pitch.
Against Olympiacos on Thursday night it was Dani Ceballos in the same position, albeit a little higher up the pitch. Just like Xhaka, he tried to play to his right. Just like Xhaka, he got it wrong. Youssef El-Arabi was the beneficiary for Olympiacos, and Arsenal required excellent goals from Gabriel Magalhaes and Mohamed Elneny to regain control of the Europa League tie.
Arteta’s side have now conceded 14 goals in 2021. Of those, seven have been the result of their own individual errors. They possess an unparalleled ability to sabotage their own cause, routinely laying waste to all of the hard work they do at the other end of the pitch.
Arteta knows, and his players surely know, that this simply cannot continue. This is why they are currently 10th in the Premier League table, unable to string a run of victories together, and why they are already reliant on the Europa League to save their season. This weekend they meet Jose Mourinho and Tottenham Hotspur, a manager and a team that would take particular glee from seizing upon another defensive error.
“The goals or the chances that we have conceded are coming from ourselves,” said Arteta. “That is really positive because the moment we stop it we will be even stronger. But the reality is that we have to stop it immediately.
“It is my responsibility. We make them play the way I want them to play. It is just understanding the risk and rewards, the balls we have to play and when. We have to get better at that, because if not it creates tension and insecurity, and it creates belief in the opponent and it is unnecessary.”
Arteta’s critics will say he has not been able to address Arsenal’s most glaring problem. His supporters will say he has had minimal time on the training pitch to coach these players, and that he cannot be expected to control their every move on the pitch.
At least his system is starting to get the best out of his attackers. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looked sharp against Olympiacos, as did Willian and Martin Odegaard behind him. Willian now has seven assists this season, more than any other Arsenal player, despite struggling for long spells since arriving from Chelsea.
In a cup competition like the Europa League, the sense remains that Arsenal have enough firepower to tear apart any opponent. The key will be to make sure they do not tear apart themselves first, and that the attacking players can produce enough quality up front to outweigh the defensive ineptitude at the other end.
“I want to be much more ruthless and as a team I don’t want to give anything to any opponent,” said Arteta. “The opponents are good enough by themselves to create situations and create problems. I want to give zero to the opponent. Whatever we do, we have to earn it so much, so I would like the opponents to have to do the same.”