IN hindsight, perhaps Sunday was not the best day to opt for my first away trip of this season.
But I was looking forward to Arsenal and Mikel Arteta building on the magnificent team performance against City and starting another glorious run in the competition we have won in four of the last eight seasons.
Obviously, I knew the team would be different, with players departing for Afcon, and the opportunity would be taken to rotate.
I was not prepared for the news that Emile Smith Rowe and Takehiro Tomiyasu were unavailable through minor injury and Granit Xhaka through Covid.
I have absolutely no doubt Smith Rowe and Xhaka would have started and maybe the Japanese international might have if fit.
Of course, the unavailability of Xhaka and Smith Rowe made Arteta’s decision to allow Ainsley Maitland-Niles to go before the weekend even stranger.
It is not as if the player being cup-tied impacted Roma after all.
It does not even require hindsight to know that losing Partey and Elneny would leave us light, but the absence of Xhaka as well makes the Maitland-Niles decision virtually negligent.
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Most of us Gunners fans wanted Charlie Patino to gain more playing time but saw this being in a similar fashion to his debut against Sunderland.
That would have allowed the talented youngster to enter the fray at the City Ground with the game won and the pressure lessened.
As it was Arteta left himself being forced to rely on Charlie Patino as a starter against a form Championship team – and it backfired horribly.
But unlike some, I find the young player almost entirely blameless.
Yes, he did not shine but for me, this was down to the manager’s decision to change the team set up from the recently highly successful 4-2-3-1, to a 4-1-4-1 – deploying Patino and Odegaard as dual ‘8’s and leaving Sambi Lokonga isolated.
This isolation was telling in defence but more so as the distances between him and Patino and Martin Odegaard left Arsenal without the strong platform our usual double pivot (both strong passers) provides.
Many seem to be saying Patino partnered Albert Sambi Lokonga and under-performed, but for me it appeared he followed his manager’s instruction on position.
As a result, while he was neat and tidy when he did receive the ball, he seldom received it.
Watching Arsenal of late has been all about building from the back, with Aaron Ramsdale or the centre backs feeding Partey or Xhaka.
On Sunday I can only remember Sambi receiving the ball in this fashion on a few occasions.
The single CM did not work really early in the season, when we scraped wins over Burnley and Norwich, and it was obviously not working yesterday.
Surprising then (an understatement) that our manager, so swift to drag off an underperforming Nuno Tavares, could not see that the single pivot was hindering the team defensively and hugely impacting the fluidity of our build up in attack.
The efficient early service to Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli was non-existent and Odegaard and Patino could not exert any influence.
I was stunned that after half-time Arteta had not either moved Patino to play with Lokonga in a 4-2-3-1 or taken the youngster off and put Calum Chambers on as a defensive partner for the Belgian – or in defence to allow Ben White to fulfil that function.
It was this decision to persevere with the 4-1-4-1, as much as the decision to stick with Eddie Nketiah, who was playing as if his mind was elsewhere, that cost Arsenal their place in this year’s FA Cup.
I am a believer in what Arteta is endeavouring to do at my club but I feel his decision to allow Maitland-Niles to leave early – and the call to change the system that has given his team such confidence – not only cost us dearly but could have hindered Patino’s confidence and development.
Fans and media alike are speculating that this is the Spaniard’s way of sending a clear message to the board to invest in January.
I sincerely hope this is not the case as I would think less of Arteta because Arsenal are out of a competition that we fans adore for no reason at all that I can see.
He and his coaching staff have much to dwell on before two matches in four days that can define Arsenal’s season and no new signings can alter that!
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