Arsenal have, for the last five or six years, increasingly become a cup team as their league form has fallen away. With the current crop of players featuring in cup competitions, they will not remain a force in knockout competitions for long.
A month ago, they were reflecting on a missed opportunity in the Carabao Cup. Playing Manchester City is never easy but against Pep Guardiola's side, they remained competitive for an hour before a calamitous mistake from second-string goalkeeper Alex Runarsson triggered a whimpering collapse. The Iceland international is clearly not up to the task and was replaced by Mat Ryan as second choice in the winter window.
That cup exit was just before Christmas. As January draws to a close Mikel Arteta finds himself looking back on another sub-standard performance in the FA Cup as his side crashed out to Southampton. Just two points separate the two teams in the Premier League table but Ralph Hasenhuttl fielded his strongest XI but Arteta did not. The 1-0 loss was inevitable.
Having just relieved the pressure on himself with a six-game unbeaten run after the diabolical run in autumn, Arteta surrendered his side's place in the very competition which bought him considerable credit with glory in his first season in charge.
Much of Arsenal's latest recent mini-revival has been on the back of the emergence of Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka, who complement each other well in the final third, which has even begun helping the woefully off-form Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang start scoring again.
On Saturday lunchtime, Saka was benched, Aubameyang missing due to a personal issue and Smith Rowe rested all together. The attacking burden therefore fell up on Gabriel Martinelli, who is still feeling his way back from long-term injury, his fellow youngster Eddie Nketiah, Willian and Nicolas Pepe.
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Nicolas Pepe of Arsenal replaces Willian of Arsenal during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Arsenal at Anfield on September 28, 2020 in Liverpool, England.
Image credit: Getty Images
They were hardly adequate replacements. Willian has been a truly appalling signing. He has produced just three assists and no goals since arriving at the Emirates in the summer. His new club have won just two domestic matches that he has started since October. That one of them, the FA Cup win over Newcastle saw Arsenal score twice in extra time when he had long left the field, is hardly surprising. Now 32, and just seven months into a three-year deal reportedly up to £220,000 a week, the money they are wasting on him is staggering.
Pepe continues to be one of the most frustrating figures in Arsenal's recent history. There are clearly the hallmarks of a good player in the Ivorian, as his best moments show. But all too often he gives the ball away sloppily, shoots skyward when he is demonstrably capable of better, or is all too peripheral.
After the game, Arteta defended the misfiring pair: "They try to give their best. The intention and willingness is there and after the decision making, the final pass is the end product and that’s the hardest thing in football.
"We’re going to keep supporting them as much as we can."
Martin Odegaard, 10 years Willian's junior, is reportedly on his way and it seems inconceivable that the veteran will get a look in, having behind both him and Smith Rowe, who are both arguably better players already and are still developing.
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Nketiah, for all his enthusiasm, looks ever-less likely to make it at the top level. He has had a knack of chipping in with handy and timely goals in the past, but he is seemingly a constant passenger when playing against better opponents than those found in the early stages of the Europa League.
But while the attack was ponderous, slow and predictable, the sub-standard personnel is not limited to the forward line. It is scarcely believable that five years on from his signature, Mohamed Elneny is still an Arsenal player. A master at passing it sideways and giving it away under little or no pressure, his work rate is admirable, his ability pitiful. Sent out on loan to Turkey in the summer of 2019, he is somehow more integral than ever, despite doing little to earn it.
At the back, Cedric Soares is a waste of a place in the squad. Signed last January when he could hardly get into the Southampton team, initially on loan, he was given a four-year contract without kicking a ball in anger. At 29, he is hardly going to improve as a player but, as a Portugal international, he draws a hefty salary. With Kieran Tierney earning a well-deserved rest, it fell on Soares to play out of position at left-back and he was well of the pace at St Mary's.
Arteta has an inflated squad to deal with. Take for an example the centre-halves. In Calum Chambers, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Rob Holding, William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhaes, Pablo Mari, David Luiz and Shkodran Mustafi, he started the season with eight centre-backs, five of whom are full internationals. Few of them are truly good enough.
January has seen Arsenal do some of the work that has been long overdue. Mesut Ozil is leaving for Fenerbahce, having fallen out of Arteta's plans. The gaffe-prone Sead Kolasinac has gone back to Schalke on loan. Sokratis has had his contract terminated. But Willian, Elneny, Soares and Pepe should be added the fat-trimming exercise.
Prior to the match, Arteta said he was hoping to avoid a repeat of the Ozil saga, where an aging player was given a huge contract with little left to give. But since Ozil fell out his plans last spring, he has given Willian and Soares contracts he will bitterly regret. Elneny is simply not up to the task and Pepe will be running out of chances after producing so little after 18 months.
Under Arsene Wenger, cup games frequently featured second-string sides. But the Frenchman's rotation policy had the dual function of resting tired first teamers and giving youngsters a chance to show what they could do. But it is foolish to expect off-colour veterans drawing huge salaries on their last big contracts to give the same fight as those looking to make a name for themselves.