Fixture pile-up means Mikel Arteta is walking a tight rope…and the wind is starting to blow

Could yesterday’s defeat to Manchester City have been a great deal worse? Is it ok to expect more from Arsenal despite the current circumstances? The answer to both is ‘yes’.

There was simultaneously elements to like and elements to lament about how Arsenal performed against the runaway league leaders on Sunday and that’s ok. There is just as much room to both criticise and praise the team in defeat as there is in victory.

The Gunners were anxious and timid for much of the opening 20 minutes against the visitors, typified by their panicked defending and errant passing, both unusual features for a side that has shown – and continues to show – improvement in both areas.

If the gameplan had been to keep it tight for the opening quarter, that fell to pieces in barely 90 seconds, and that would understandably scramble the brains of any side that had worked long and hard on avoiding doing the very things they allowed their opponent to do from the first whistle. Frankly, it was only some last-ditch defending and lacklustre finishing that prevented the visitors from moving further ahead in the opening forays.

They didn’t, however, and Arsenal were able to get a grip on themselves and the game, so far as you can against a City side that had won 17 on the bounce before the first whistle. The Gunners were able to hold on to the ball, organise their press, find spaces, and be more competitive in their duels – key components for any match.

What they were not able to do, however, was convert that promise into much more than half-chances and promising situations. Where it mattered most, the final pass or final touch was badly lacking and the Gunners were unable to truly exert the sort of pressure on Ederson’s goal that they might have liked.

That’s disappointing and the defeat felt tame by the final whistle but this is our reality. We don’t have the tools Manchester City have available and the manager hasn’t had the time with the tools he has to fashion something entirely in his own image. But, perhaps much more pressing than that, was the reality of our fixture list and the overwhelming importance of Thursday’s trip to Greece.

With so many wearied legs in this squad, and with just two days to train and prepare since arriving back from Rome on Friday, rotation and reshuffling was badly needed. Mikel Arteta couldn’t risk (or didn’t want to risk) the legs of Emile Smith Rowe, Gabriel, Dani Ceballos or David Luiz and didn’t have the services of his best midfielder available to him. That he had to give Bukayo Saka another 90 minutes was testament to the paucity of options in what is a congested and fearfully difficult run of fixtures. Frankly, Manchester City were the last opponent we would have wanted to be facing at this time.

None of that takes the edge off what was, in the end, a pretty tame defeat but, as with all things in this shortened season, some perspective is required. Given where we are in the league and the importance to this club of European competition, compromises have, at times, to be made.

All eyes now turn to Thursday and the overwhelmingly important Europa League clash with Benfica – a game that Arteta dare not lose. If defeat to City was a necessary evil to allow the Gunners to perform at something near their best in Athens then so be it but the manager and his team are walking a tight rope now and there is a stiff breeze blowing.

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