The 49 Steps
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The 49 Steps

Notes on Tottenham 3–0 Arsenal: Mental Midgetry

Arsenal flunked every test possible during Thursday’s 3–0 defeat in the north London derby. Spare yourself any attempt to shield Mikel Arteta and his players behind shoddy refereeing or so-called media bias.

The cold truth is Arsenal were mentally, tactically and physically inept at Tottenham and paid a heavy price for both failings. It’s also fair to lay the blame for the psychological frailty at the feet of the manager.

As usual, Arteta is emerging virtually unscathed from a drubbing that would’ve seen previous Arsenal managers skewered. It’s not Mikel’s fault, the players let him down. Cedric Soares gave away a daft but contentious penalty. Rob Holding saw the red mist and got his marching orders.

Not the manager’s fault surely? Nothing to blame the manager for even if he is as responsible for modulating the temperament of his team as he is for designing the tactics.

Speaking of those tactics, where were they? Arteta already had a blueprint for handling an Antonio Conte team. It was handed down by Arsene Wenger, who won four, drew three and lost just once in eight meetings with the Italian syrup.

Wenger’s most common ploy was to match Conte’s 3–4–3 setup. His next tweak was described by Football.London’s Aaron Catterson-Reid:

Arteta opted not to deploy something similar, leaving Emile Smith Rowe on the bench and rendering Martin Odegaard isolated as Arsenal’s lone schemer. Odegaard is the sole source of creative verve without ESR in the mix, but Arsenal failed to get the Norwegian maestro on the ball often enough.

Nor did Arteta’s team get players close enough to lone striker Eddie Nketiah, who was suffocated by Spurs’ three-man defence while Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka hugged their respective touchlines as if they were safety blankets.

Arteta mistakenly valued pace and width over ingenuity in forward areas, but his misjudgement was even more costly at the back. That’s where Arsenal tried to man up against Heung-Min Son, Harry Kane and Dejan Kulusevski.

Mohamed Elneny marked Kane, a wise ploy from Arteta and his staff because it meant Kane could be tracked whenever he went short into midfield, where his flicks from deep unlock the pace of Son and Kulusevski.

The problem with going man-for-man meant centre-backs Holding and Gabriel Magalhaes had to step into the channels to body Son and Kulusevski. Full-backs Cedric and Takehiro Tomiyasu occupied themselves with Tottenham wing-backs Emerson Royal and Ryan Sessegnon.

Neither Magalhaes nor Holding had the pace to handle their daunting assignments. It was a particularly tough duty for the latter, who was quickly drawn into a catty scrap with Son, who knows how to shade the lines of legality better than most.

Son got away with a swing of the elbow when both players tussled on the deck. Holding was booked and was later shown a second yellow for throwing his own elbow into Son.

Arteta’s defenders (as if he even needs any) will lay all the blame at Holding’s door. His actions were rash and thoughtless, but this incident wasn’t exclusively a problem of personnel.

Not when red cards have been so frequent on Arteta’s watch:

The Arteta PR machine will tell you the manager is burdened with a young team. Lapses in judgement are part of the inevitable folly of youth, etc…

Do me a flavour.

Holding is 26 and has been in the Arsenal first team since 2016. Inexperience is no excuse. He’d also been playing well, so Holding’s brain fart at the new Lane (whatever) was out of character.

Similarly, Cedric’s fallow years can’t be blamed for his giving away the penalty for Spurs’ opening goal. Not when Cedric is 30 and has been one of Arteta’s go-to players (says it all).

The spot-kick was a soft award, even if Cedric did make contact with Son. It wasn’t enough of a collision to justify giving a penalty so early in a big game, but Cedric giving referee Paul Tierney a choice to make summed up how nervy and frantic Arsenal lacked the composure needed to navigate tough fixtures.

It’s easy to bemoan Tierney and his blind spot to Son’s actions, but this misses the point. The ref’ was a shambles, but Holding had been drawn into an unfavourable matchup.

He tried to compensate for a lack of pace with an overdose of aggression. It was a tactical failing you can trace directly back to the manager.

Holding, an experienced player at this stage of his career, letting his heart rule his head in a game of this significance is also on the manager. It was Arteta’s job to calm the players before the white-hot atmosphere they were certain to face at the home of the enemy.

He had to make sure the group was focused on doing the right things. Focused on not throwing away a game Arsenal didn’t NEED to win with a four-point advantage in the race for the top 4 at the start of play.

Such subtle psychology is the forte of all top managers as much as any tactical acumen. For a guy with supposedly exceptional communication skills, Arteta got his messages all wrong.

What he said at half-time with Arsenal 2–0 down and reduced to 10 men should have been critical in ensuring his team rolled down the shutters, kept their heads and walked away from the game without any further damage.

Instead, Arsenal conceded the third, typically to Son, within 90 seconds of the second-half restart. That must’ve been some team talk…

Again, any other Arsenal manager would be raked over the coals for the mental midgetry shown by his team. Yet, there are no shouts of “spineless,” “insipid” or “weak.”

There’s something increasingly disturbing about the way Arteta is consistently excused for every failing. Like his decision to play Tomiyasu at left-back the last two games. He’s not a left-back, but Arteta trusts Tomi more than natural LB Nuno Tavares.

What does that say about one of Arteta’s handpicked signings? What does it say about Arsenal’s scouting, coaching and player development? Nothing good, that’s for sure…

Tavares can’t be trusted in big games and neither, it seems, can Albert Sambi Lokonga. The midfielder who cost £18 million last summer still can’t get a look-in.

Along with Tavares, Lokonga forms £25 million worth of players not trusted by the manager who signed them. To excuse this farce by saying the prices paid were cheap is ridiculous to the point of being offensive. So is arguing neither Tavares nor Lokonga were signed for these games.

They are squad players, and the purpose of squad players is to be able to come into the team when called upon and not cause too much of a drop off from the strongest XI. There’s inevitably going to be some dip, but good squad players mitigate the damage. They are worth their weight in gold.

Arteta lives in a 24/7 safety net, so he won’t take any stick for mediocre transfer dealings. He’ll also likely get away with almost letting Champions League qualification slip through his grasp.

Yes, Newcastle away on Monday looks tricky, but I think Eddie Howe’s team is already on the beaches after ensuring Premier League safety. There’s also no guarantee Spurs will beat Burnley on Sunday. The Clarets aren’t great travellers, but they’re fighting for their top-flight status, while Conte’s team has been as erratic as Arteta’s definition of progress.

Arsenal’s only concern is the state of the back line. Holding’s suspended, Gabi went down injured and Ben White was too crocked to come off the bench.

None of those are good omens for a defence that has been far from solid even when most of the regulars have been fit and available:

Arteta’s going to need a better way of shuffling the deck than simply dropping Granit Xhaka back.

The Process King will also need to prove he can quickly salve the psychological wounds from Thursday and refocus his players on flipping the script by claiming the prize still in their hands.

Originally published at on May 13, 2022.



Arsenal, NFL History and Film Analysis from James Dudko

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James Dudko

Films, Footie and Gridiron, with the emphasis on Arsenal, NFL history and analysis of cinema from years past.