Amid the hopelessness of Arsenal’s offering at Newcastle on Monday there was a five-minute spell midway through the first half when it seemed they might, just might, have come to their senses. Unsurprisingly, Bukayo Saka was behind it: a darting run on to a give-and-go with Martin Ødegaard was straight out of his playbook but Dan Burn blocked the attempted finish; then there was a nip inside and a low shot that, although reasonably struck, did not overly trouble Martin Dubravka.
Had Saka given Arsenal’s Champions League hopes fresh life from one of those glimmers, it would have been his 13th goal of the season in all competitions. He could yet add to his tally at home to Everton on Sunday but given he leads their goalscoring charts, mental gymnastics are not required to understand the problem. In peacetime football, only one of Arsenal’s top scorers, Brian Kidd in 1975-76, has managed fewer than 12; on the previous occasion, in 1912-13, Charles Lewis scored four and Arsenal were relegated.
Nowadays, their concerns are loftier but a lack of potency is the primary issue for Mikel Arteta to address this summer. When he flung 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 scales. Necessary surgery has been performed on Arsenal’s defence over the past two years but on nights like Monday, when both centre-halves were hardly match fit and Newcastle asked constant questions, their inefficiency further forward is laid bare.
A counter-argument to the focus on a top scorer is that good teams share goals around. Arsenal can claim to have done that: Emile Smith Rowe, whose drop in output has been among their inconveniences, sits one goal behind Saka and 14 players have scored in the league this season. But only Wolves, of the division’s top nine, have managed fewer in total and it inevitably means Arsenal must sweat for their rewards.
There has been an overreliance in general on Saka, who has looked exhausted at times in recent weeks. He provides so much of Arsenal’s spark but has been carrying knocks, flitting in and out of their past four games when he can so often be depended upon to set the bar. When he is out of tune, Arteta is forced to look at his other forwards more in hope than expectation.
Martinelli is a scintillating talent and showed it again when tormenting Leeds’s Luke Ayling into a red card 10 days ago; he is also an emphatic finisher but has scored once in his past 21 appearances and there is a sense that, from his standard perch on the left, he is yet to find the ideal balance between penalty-area threat and wider involvement. Lacazette briefly earned gushing reviews in December when showing the leadership Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had abdicated, if not the goal return of his friend, but that was a passing fancy and he will depart with little fanfare this summer.
Eddie Nketiah preys clinically on opponents’ mistakes but is less effective when asked to bind a forward line from the middle. He was one of Arsenal’s more willing performers at St James’ Park but Callum Wilson showed him how it is done and, while the academy product is understandably admired by the fanbase, they require better. A new contract is on the table but a fresh start will surely be his most likely source of regular football. Pépé’s recent contributions as a substitute have been risible.
Unless Tottenham drop the mother of all clangers at Carrow Road on Sunday, Arsenal’s top-four quest will run aground on the thinness of a squad not augmented in January with one or two key signings to push them over the line. Injuries to Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey have exposed a lack of backup quality in other areas; their patchiness in attack has been an enduring problem over the season, though, and will be the main area of focus for any postmortem.
It will not be news to Arteta, who was relatively candid when it was pointed out in December that they had no reliable centre-forward option for the long-term. “We have a cloud and the cloud is there and, at the moment, we’re not able to change it,” he said. Five months on it has still not shifted and, in a crowded market that will include the Saudi-funded arrivistes who showed them up on Monday, Arsenal face a battle to land the top-quality additions that are called for.
They must win it and they must also fend off any attempts to turn Saka’s head. His contract expires in two years and the last thing Arsenal need is a saga engulfing their prize asset, who was lost in contemplation as he left the pitch on Monday. Saka is as grounded as they come and would suck up a season in the Europa League, especially as Arsenal’s progress is obvious and tangible despite the gripes; what he would feel about the same in 12 months’ time, with the best years of his career approaching, is another question.
“I just can’t believe how we performed today,” he said once he had gathered his thoughts; Arteta must help him out by moulding a front line that he, let alone anyone else, can have faith in.
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