EPL TALK: Self-destructing Gunners mired in crisis as Arteta faces harsh truths about squad

Chia Han Keong
·Editor
·7-min read
Arsenal's Granit Xhaka is shown a red card by referee Graham Scott as teammate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks on
Arsenal's Granit Xhaka is shown a red card by referee Graham Scott as teammate Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks on. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Catherine Ivill)

SINGAPORE — How have your favourite English Premier League (EPL) teams performed over the past week? Yahoo News Singapore looks at the key talking points surrounding the league in this weekly review:

Gunners see little hope of getting out of deep slump

WHAT HAPPENED: The word “crisis” is sometimes invoked too easily whenever EPL clubs suffer a dip in form or encounter personnel problems.

In particular, league defeats incurred by any one of the “Big Six” clubs were often occasions for overblown negativity – calling for immediate sackings of players or managers and desperate signings of better talents, all the while ignoring the ability for the clubs to bounce back from setbacks.

Of course there were instances of real crisis amid these major clubs – Liverpool almost going into administration in 2010 being an apt example, where it had seemed that the Merseyside club would fall into serious disarray. And this season, a genuine crisis is brewing in Arsenal that could have alarming repercussions on the proud London club.

A 0-1 defeat by struggling Burnley on Sunday (13 December) by the Gunners was their sixth loss in their last eight league matches. Even worse were the manner of those defeats: only two goals scored in those eight matches, and barely any sense of coherence and creativity.

The latest loss was even more alarming given the self-destructive red-card offence by midfielder Granit Xhaka while Arsenal were playing well enough to get a precious win. The Gunners fell apart after that, losing through an unfortunate own goal by captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Yet, Arsenal are in crisis not just because they are mired in 15th place; not just because they have lost fourth straight at home for the first time since 1959, and not just because they have made their worst start to a top-flight season in 39 years.

No, they are in crisis because there seems little hope of a way out of this mess.

Their rookie manager Mikel Arteta is immensely frustrated with his first team, yet he is reluctant to ditch the majority of his underachieving players and play his second-string youngsters. He is insistent on playing a high-intensity pressing game like his mentor Pep Guardiola, but could not figure out a proper attacking philosophy to maximise the talents of his strike force.

The players were deservingly booed by their fans at the final whistle, and there are already talks of a falling-out between them and the manager in the dressing room. If they are already tuning out to Arteta, it would not be the first time – they had driven out previous manager Unai Emery in similar manner.

And there seems no way of getting better players in, with the Gunners saddled with expensive player contracts among flops like Mesut Ozil, Willian and Nicolas Pepe. Getting rid of these players would lead to serious financial woes that would further send the club into a tailspin.

Facing this woeful situation, should Arsenal stick with Arteta – a former player who was highly touted to bring the club back to respectability – or should they pull the plug on their manager for a second straight year?

Whatever the club’s decision, it is symptomatic of a club mired in bad decisions, poor personnel and misused resources ever since their great manager Arsene Wenger left in 2018. Last season’s FA Cup triumph seemed a world away, and in truth, it had papered over the deep cracks amid the first-team squad that had needed drastic off-season revamps to weed out the underachievers.

It would take a monumental effort for Arsenal to overcome their current malaise and re-establish them as one of the top clubs in the country.

WHAT’S NEXT: A much tougher home match on Wednesday against fourth-place Southampton will put more pressure on Arteta to stop the rot. With Xhaka suspended, the midfield is thread-bare and it is hard to see the Gunners being able to end their terrible run.

Tottenham Hotspur's Eric Dier (second from right) and Son Heung-min (second from left) during their match against Crystal Palace.
Tottenham Hotspur's Eric Dier (second from right) and Son Heung-min (second from left) during their match against Crystal Palace. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Clive Rose)

Spurs, Reds battle fatigue and injuries before Wednesday clash

WHAT HAPPENED: Are front-runners Tottenham and Liverpool showing signs of fatigue following their punishing schedules? Both teams looked listless during the weekend in 1-1 draws against Crystal Palace and Fulham respectively – not exactly the best lead-up to their top-of-the-table clash on Wednesday.

For the Reds, there were more injury woes as both their in-form goal-getter Diogo Jota and back-up left-back Kostas Tsimikas would be out for at least six weeks, while defender Joel Matip is facing a race to be fit against Spurs after suffering back spasms in Sunday’s match.

The fact that both Spurs and Liverpool were far from their fluent best after midweek European matches shows the strain these title-challenging clubs are in, as they juggle these various major commitments.

Moreover, both teams employ high-intensity tactics which demand players to run constantly, harass opponents all over the pitch and make rapid mental decisions all game. These tactics make them title contenders, but make the players susceptible to injuries and fatigue.

Liverpool looked awful in the first half against Fulham, barely registering a shot attempt in the first 30 minutes and being overrun by the hosts on numerous occasions. They improved somewhat in the second half, but needed a penalty from Mohamed Salah to eke out a point from Craven Cottage.

Spurs, on the other hand, ran out of steam in the second half against Palace, whose goalkeeper Vicente Guaita was in inspired form with several top-class saves that kept his side in the game until Jeff Schlupp’s 81st-minute equaliser.

Despite dropping points, Tottenham and Liverpool are still heading the table amid the slew of games coming up in the festive season. How they navigate this gruelling stretch could well define how successful they will be come the end of the season.

WHAT’S NEXT: Wednesday’s clash between these two sides offer them a quick turnaround to respond after their drab draws. Spurs arguably look to have the edge, with Liverpool down on their luck with injuries.

Leicester City's James Maddison celebrates scoring their third goal against Brighton.
Leicester City's James Maddison celebrates scoring their third goal against Brighton. (PHOTO: Pool via Reuters/Michael Regan)

Leicester building from 2016 triumph to return as title-chasers

WHAT HAPPENED: When Leicester City won their fairytale EPL title against all odds in 2016, analysts said they rode on the fortune that all the “Big Six” clubs were in flux – either rebuilding or suffering losses of form – allowing the Foxes to surge past them to an extraordinary triumph.

While there was some truth in the analysis, it was a tad condescending to Leicester – as if critics are devaluing what had been a well-constructed team that hit a stunning purple patch and maintained that strong form throughout the season. “It’s a one-off that would never happen again,” was what they were implying.

So it is pleasing to see the Foxes in the thick of the title chase again this season, being just a point behind Tottenham and Liverpool in the EPL table after their 3-0 win over Brighton on Sunday.

Granted, this is a very different side from their title-winning squad. Instead of the much-travelled Claudio Ranieri as manager, it is a much-younger Brendan Rodgers helming the team. Instead of Riyad Mahrez pulling the strings in attack, it is James Maddison. And instead of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth manning the stingy defence, it is Jonny Evans and young Wesley Fofana.

Yet, Jamie Vardy is still around plundering goals, while goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel remains a steady presence. With these two veteran stalwarts showing the way, the other players have responded by lifting their game with help from Rodgers, who has shown why Liverpool were once willing to hire him to take the club to the top of the league.

If anything, it shows how well Leicester have been run by the Thailand-based King Power group, which managed to keep their young talents while repeatedly unearthing new ones. The 2016 triumph was not squandered by poor decisions, but served as a base for the team to build from one-offs to legitimate title challengers.

WHAT’S NEXT: Leicester will host an Everton side buoyed by their 1-0 win over title-chasing Chelsea on Saturday. Carlo Ancelotti’s side may prove a tough nut to crack, but with Vardy around, Leicester might still be able to edge the match.

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