Mikel Arteta is still searching for a route out of Arsenal’s malaise but keeping 11 men on the pitch might be a good place to start.
As Gabriel jogged off, after being shown a second yellow card in the 62nd minute, midfielder Dani Ceballos turned to the assistant referee and shouted in anger: “Every game the same.”
He’s right, of course, but the blame doesn’t lie with the officials. The Gunners were left to salvage a point in this 1-1 draw with Southampton after receiving their seventh red card of Mikel Arteta’s tenure.
The Spaniard has been in charge less than a year and Arsenal’s tally in that time is over twice more than any other club (three). There have been three in the last five Premier League games and just as against Burnley four days earlier, the home side’s indiscipline came precisely at a moment when they were just picking up steam. Just 10 minutes earlier, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had cancelled out Theo Walcott’s 18th-minute opener to give Arsenal more belief than at any other stage during the match.
That belief quickly dissipated, however, as Gabriel earned two bookings in four minutes either side of the hour mark, the first for dissent and the second for a clumsy tackle as Walcott rolled him to launch a Southampton counter-attack.
The defender, 22, has been one of Arsenal’s better performers in a turbulent season to date but he looked unsure from the off here, shaky in possession and positionally questionable throughout.
Arteta explained away Granit Xhaka’s red card as a misplaced desire to do well and perhaps Gabriel could be classified in the same way if we are being generous. The less accommodating view is that the defender was worryingly panicked throughout, caught trying to win the ball too high up the pitch for Saints’ opening goal and then sent off for a similarly misguided attempt in the second half.
Arteta is within his rights to expect better. Xhaka and Nicolas Pepe, sent off for a headbutt at Leeds, were fined for their indiscretions. Gabriel’s dismissal was not due to undue truculence but no less reckless, a misjudgement which could easily have condemned Arsenal to a fifth consecutive home Premier League defeat.
“It is very difficult to compete in this league when you play for such a long period with 10 men,” said Arteta. “And when you are struggling for results, it makes it more complicated.”
The Gunners, whose starting XI had an an average age of just 24 years old, were edgy to a man early on. It is an impressive feat for a team to look more rigid in possession than out of it but the lack of confidence arising from four consecutive home defeats mixed with Arteta’s acutely detailed instructions seemed to be contributing to a performance riddled with inhibition.
The good news is, however, that they didn’t give up. In fact, after Saints substitute Nathan Redmond hit the post, Arsenal almost snatched it in stoppage-time at the other end, Rob Holding’s header from Bukayo Saka’s free kick hitting the crossbar.
Saka’s perseverance was a plus point throughout; his endeavour earlier had created Arsenal’s equaliser with a jinking run before Eddie Nketiah slipped Aubameyang in for his first goal since Nov. 1. Arteta claimed afterwards that ending that drought will “I’m sure take a lot of pressure off him.”
It was also the Gunners first League goal from open play in more than 13 hours. Baby steps.
“At the end, if you lose the game again, it would have been a really difficult one to take. The players showed what we expect them to do, sometimes with more or less quality but at least the work is there,” said the Arsenal manager. “I saw all the players that weren’t participating and they were in the stands shouting and being right behind the team, living the game with them which is a really strong signal as well.”
This was not a ‘downed tools’ performance that hastened the departure of Arteta’s predecessor Unai Emery but nor was it one to suggest the path to brighter days is any clearer.
Arsenal’s technical director Edu reiterated the club’s unwavering support for Arteta earlier this week, impressed as they’ve been by his immediate impact and long-term vision. The problem remains the bit in between, as encapsulated by the sight of Edu in the stands shaking his head at another poor first half.
Arteta has to get more from these players in the weeks and months ahead to earn the right to shape the squad in his own image. A full complement of players for 90 minutes on a regular basis would make that task considerably easier.