Paul Merson was stunned by Mikel Arteta’s team pick when FA Cup holders Arsenal were eliminated from the competition in the fourth round with a 1-0 loss to Southampton.
Arteta made seven changes from Monday’s 3-0 win against Newcastle at St. Mary’s Stadium and put on a weakened team, knowing that Arsenal will face Saints again on Tuesday in the Premier League.
Bukayo Saka, Thomas Partey and Alexandre Lacazette slumped on the bench while Emile Smith Rowe and Kieran Tierney were completely rested and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed a personal problem.
But their successors – including Willian, Mohamed Elneny, Nicolas Pepe and Eddie Nketiah – failed to impress when a Gabriel Magalhaes own goal in the first half sent Arsenal out of a competition they won for the fourth time in seven years last season .
Merson was unfazed by her performance and felt that Arteta’s decision to switch his team was to be blamed with Arsenal 10th in the Premier League table and seven points in the top four.
“I don’t know what he’s doing,” he said on football Saturday.
“They won’t win the league. They won’t make it into the top four, I didn’t think so, unless they do one of the best runs in Premier League history.”
“For me it is [competition] Arteta did that for the last time. He came to Arsenal and had a great semifinal and a great final.
“To be honest, I can’t believe it. In my opinion, this was a more important game than the league game during the week. You are not relegated and you are not in the top four.”
“You don’t really want to finish sixth or whatever, because then you play in Europa on Thursdays and that just brings you back.
“So for me it was a bad decision.”
Arteta defends the choices
Arteta insisted he didn’t regret the decision to switch teams, saying the players he picked deserved their chance.
“I think it was a very strong line-up because I have complete confidence in my players and they deserve to play,” he said in his post-game press conference.
“They have done it many times and against the top opponents, so this cannot be the excuse.
“It’s true that we improved over the course of the game and got better in the second half. We had more quality in what we tried but the players who played deserved it.” [to play] and they tried so hard for us. “
Commenting on the under-attack duo of Willian and Pepe, whose performances have frustrated fans this season, he added: “I say they are trying to do their best.
“You could see how hard they try, with more or less quality, but the intention is there and the willingness is there.
“That’s what we ask of them. Then the decision-making, the final pass, the final goal, the chances they have … That’s the end product and that’s the hardest part in football.
“We’ll continue to support them as much as we can, as a coaching staff and as a club, because that’s what they need. They have to keep working hard and trying to improve their performance.”
Arsenal’s lack of depth is evident again
Analysis by Nick Wright of Sky Sports:
Mikel Arteta was open to criticism in his team selection, but whether wrong decision or not, it is the players who are responsible for their poor performance.
This was an opportunity for those on the sidelines of Arsenal’s Premier League team to show the manager that they deserve more playing time. Instead, they confirmed why they weren’t getting it.
Willian and Pepe continue to attract the most criticism. The lucrative three-year contract handed out to the former this summer is becoming increasingly ill-considered, while the latter seems further than ever to justify its £ 72 million price tag.
Pepe had at least some brilliant moments, an excellent pass to pitch Nketiah that was reminiscent of his talent, but overall it was another erratic display and the late free kick he shot over the bar summed up his lack of confidence.
Nketiah also struggled, missing a number of scoring opportunities. Elneny, who was substituted in the second half, and Cedric Soares, who didn’t get close enough to Kyle Walker-Peters for the winning goal, also performed poorly.
It’s no wonder Arteta is eager to expand its ranks this January. Martin Odegaard is likely to be Real Madrid’s next loan deal. Arsenal’s hectic schedule calls for more depth.