Ain the midst of despair Arsenal’s offer to Newcastle On Monday, there was a five-minute break midway through the first half when it looked like they could, perhaps, come to their senses. Unsurprisingly, Bukayo Saka was behind it all: a whirlwind round trip with Martin Ødegaard was straight out of his playbook but Dan Burn blocked the finish attempt; then there was a pinch inside and a low shot which, although reasonably hit, didn’t bother Martin Dubravka too much.
Had Saka breathed new life into Arsenal’s Champions League hopes with one of those glimmers, it would have been his 13th goal of the season in all competitions. He could still add to his tally at home against Everton on Sunday, but given he tops their scoring charts, mental gymnastics isn’t needed to figure out the problem. In peacetime football, only one of Arsenal’s top scorers, Brian Kidd in 1975–76, managed less than 12; on the previous occasion, in 1912-13, Charles Lewis scored four and Arsenal were relegated.
These days their concerns are higher but the lack of power is the main issue that Mikel Arteta has to address this summer. When he pounced on Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé after Ben White’s own goal, having already deployed Gabriel Martinelli from the bench, it was hard to believe these were changes that would tip the balance. Necessary surgery has been carried out on the Arsenal defense for the past two years, but on nights like Monday when both centre-halves were barely fit and Newcastle asked constant questions, their ineffectiveness further is exposure.
A counter-argument to the focus on a top scorer is that good teams share goals. Arsenal can claim to have done that: Emile Smith Rowe, whose drop in production has been one of their downsides, is one goal behind Saka and 14 players have scored in the league this season. But only Wolves, among the top nine in the division, have managed less overall and that inevitably means Arsenal have to sweat for their rewards.
There has been an overreliance in general on Saka, who has at times seemed exhausted in recent weeks. He provides much of the spark for Arsenal, but he has been knocking in and out of their last four games when he can so often be counted on to set the bar. When out of tune, Arteta is forced to look at his other forwards more with hope than expectation.
Martinelli is a scintillating talent and has shown it again by tormenting Luke Ayling of Leeds is shown a red card 10 days ago; he is also an emphatic finisher but has scored once in his last 21 appearances and one gets the feeling that, from his standard perch on the left, he has yet to find the ideal balance of threat from the penalty area and wider involvement. Lacazette briefly earned rave reviews in December by showing the leadership that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had abdicated, if not his friend’s return to goal, but that was a passing fancy and he will leave without much fanfare this summer.
Eddie Nketiah clinically feeds on opponents’ mistakes but is less effective when asked to link a forward line from midfield. He was one of Arsenal’s strongest-willed entertainers at St James’ Park, but Callum Wilson showed him how it was done and, while the academy product is understandably admired by the fanbase, they have need better. A new contract is on the table, but a fresh start will surely be his most likely source of regular football. Pepe’s recent contributions as a substitute have been laughable.
Unless Tottenham drop the mother of all clangers at Carrow Road on Sunday, Arsenal’s quest for the top four will fail on the leanness of an unaugmented squad in January with one or two key signings to push them past of the line. The injuries to Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey revealed a lack of backup quality in other areas; however, their uneven attack has been a persistent issue over the season and will be the main area of focus for any post-mortem.
That won’t be news for Arteta, who was relatively outspoken when it was pointed out in December that they didn’t have a reliable long-term centre-forward option. “We have a cloud and the cloud is there and at the moment we are not able to change it,” he said. Five months later that still hasn’t changed and, in a crowded market that will include the Saudi-funded upstarts who introduced them on Monday, Arsenal face a battle to land the top-quality additions that are needed. .
They have to earn it and they also have to fend off any attempt to turn Saka’s head. His contract expires in two years and the last thing Arsenal need is a saga engulfing their prize asset, which was lost in contemplation as he left the pitch on Monday. Saka is as grounded as it gets and would aspire to a Europa League season, especially as Arsenal’s progress is clear and tangible despite the blame; How he would feel much the same 12 months from now, as the best years of his career approach, is another question.
“I can’t believe how we performed today,” he said once he collected his thoughts. Arteta needs to help him by creating a frontline that he, not to mention anyone else, can trust.
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