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Arsenal’s progress under Mikel Arteta undermined by defence
Arsenal's 2-1 defeat to Tottenham showcased the defensive vulnerabilities that Mikel Arteta will need to erase if he is to succeed in the job, writes Adam Bate.
Last Updated: 13/07/20 10:43am
“I think Mikel found a way for them to be stable and they are improving,” Jose Mourinho told Sky Sports in his post-match assessment. “And then we found our chances.”
It was a neat summary of a game in which Mourinho's Tottenham were dominated for large spells but still ran out 2-1 winners thanks to Arsenal's all too familiar weaknesses.
Mourinho's strategy was clear, particularly in a second half in which his side saw just 24 per cent of the ball. Spurs sat in and waited for mistakes - because the mistakes were coming.
Arsenal's encouraging form is being undermined by a failure to do the basics.
The defeat means Mikel Arteta's side are back down in ninth - below their rivals and with qualification for the Europa League let alone the Champions League now in the balance.
- Alderweireld header sees off Arsenal in derby
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There have been positives for Arteta as he looks to sift through the wreckage of years of confusion and mismanagement at the Emirates Stadium. But the 15 points lost from winning positions since he arrived are an indication that the mentality still needs to change.
Meaningful progress is still to come.
That is a frustration for fans because there had been positive signs in beating Wolves 2-0 at Molineux just one week ago. Arsenal have been the better side for long periods of the two matches that have followed - at home to Leicester and this away day against Spurs.
But they have contrived to pick up only one point from six.
At least there was the excuse of Eddie Nketiah's red card to help explain the dramatic momentum shift that saw them lose their way in midweek. Against Tottenham, they gifted their opponents the equaliser in the first half before being sucker-punched in the second.
Alexandre Lacazette's opening strike was a reminder of the firepower that Arsenal possess. The error that cancelled it out just 137 seconds later was a reminder of how easy it is to squander the advantage that this attacking quality can provide.
Sead Kolasinac was the player guilty of the slack pass to David Luiz that Heung-Min Son latched onto and lofted over goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez. It was the sort of mistake that most would file under shocking but has long since lost the power to shock their own supporters.
"Arsenal's back three will always give you a chance," Jamie Redknapp told Sky Sports. "It is a fact. They are defending better but they cannot help it, it is in their DNA right now."
The warning signs were there even as Arsenal probed for a winner of their own.
In the 72nd minute, Shkodran Mustafi was beaten to the ball by Harry Kane and his toe-poked pass was almost slotted home by Son. It was poor by Mustafi, needlessly speeding up the Spurs attack by diving in.
But he was just getting started.
Soon after, the Germany international defender allowed Kane to get away down the left channel once more, with Martinez coming off his line to pull off the save. But there was nothing that the goalkeeper could do to stop the winner coming from the resulting corner.
Toby Alderweireld nodded into the net and a game that should have been won was lost.
"I have never seen them nullify an opponent like they did today," Arteta told Sky Sports, "but we gave them a goal again and we concede a set piece. At that level, you cannot do it.
"The game was ours. We had total control.
"Every time we pressed the ball they could not come out, we regained the ball. It is difficult to attack a low block like this but we generated enough chances. Again, small details cost us and that is one of the biggest things we need to improve as a team."
Whether it can be done with some of these players is highly debatable.
Even in the minutes after Alderweireld's goal, there was some miserable defending.
At one point, Mustafi sold himself so early when Kane shaped to cross from the left that the England captain did not even need to check back. Instead, he was able to continue merrily on his way while Mustafi sat there on his backside. It was amusing but also worrying.
"We will keep trying to coach them and coach them," added Arteta.
But Mustafi is 28. Kolasinac is 27. David Luiz is 33.
These are the experienced players in the Arsenal squad. It would be no reflection on Arteta if he proves unable to coax a dramatic improvement in their consistency levels at this stage.
The solutions will surely have to come from elsewhere, although it would be wise not to expect William Saliba, the teenage prospect currently on loan at Saint-Etienne but set to join the squad next season, to prove a one-man answer to the club's defensive problems.
And yet, he is just one of a host of reasons to be optimistic about the potential for improvement at Arsenal. Even in defeat on Sunday, the emergence of Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock off the substitute bench was a reminder of the young talent available.
It was Arsenal who played the more progressive football in the derby and the ceiling for this style of play would seem to be higher than the risk-free stuff served up by Spurs.
However, right now, it was enough to beat them. Waiting for the mistake remains a tactic well worth pursuing against Arteta's side. Until he is able to make the necessary changes - to the personnel and the mentality - defeats such as this one are likely to continue.