Even the best laid plans go astray. But Mikel Arteta could never have foreseen the catastrophe that unfolded before his eyes at Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night.
His first contest against his former boss, and mentor, Pep Guardiola got off to an ominous start when Granit Xhaka suffered a bizarre injury with a minute played, rolling his ankle after contact with an innocuous wayward pass and forcing Arsenal into their first substitution.
Losing their most combative midfielder set the Gunners along a path that would lead them to a comprehensive 3-0 defeat in their first match for 102 days. And while that may have been a well forecasted result even ahead of the game, especially given Arsenal’s inexperienced starting XI, Arteta’s game plan deserved better.
The Spaniard was wise enough not to take the fight to City, opting for a more pragmatic approach that would’ve been alien to previous Arsenal sides. He effectively employed a 4-5-1 formation that congested the midfield while Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were encouraged to push forward on either flank in possession.
Leading the line, the pacey Eddie Nketiah posed a legitimate threat in behind that we didn’t get to see enough of. And even when Dani Ceballos had to replace Xhaka early on, the substitute settled in quickly and the visitors impressed for the first 25 minutes.
Enter, David Luiz…
David Luiz has conceded four penalties in the Premier League this season 🤦♂️— Goal (@goal) June 18, 2020
No player has ever conceded five in a single campaign 😬 pic.twitter.com/hXq6XOlujg
In fairness to Arteta, he was spot on in his decision to bench the erratic Brazilian. Just as he was equally justified in his omission of Mesut Ozil from the matchday squad entirely for ‘tactical’ reasons.
The Arsenal boss chose to put faith in ex-City owned centre-back Pablo Mari instead, but his injury opened the door for Luiz and his litany of errors. The away side started to lose their shape and within a few minutes, Bernd Leno took centre stage with a series of excellent saves that denied Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Riyad Mahrez in quick succession.
Arteta’s meticulous game plan was falling apart, though, as Arsenal’s defensive organisation deteriorated and things began to go down hill. Then Luiz grabbed the wheel and drove them off a cliff.
His poor decision-making allowed Sterling to fire home the opener on the stroke of half-time. A disastrous bit of play soon after the restart then saw him haul Mahrez to the floor, concede a penalty and receive his marching orders.
"It's not the teams fault, it was my fault."— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) June 17, 2020
David Luiz accepted responsibility for Arsenal's defeat at Manchester City, adding that he wants to stay at the club and Mikel Arteta 'wants me to stay'.
Arsenal fans - should he stay or should he go? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/Z9sPQfEq6b
In truth, Arsenal were always likely to leave Manchester in defeat. But Arteta’s tactics may have given them a sliver of hope only for Luiz’s calamitous nature to condemn them to a spectacular failure.
That, in a nutshell, is almost symbolic of the bigger challenge the young manager is faced with.
He has the right ideas and a clear philosophy that would appear aligned with Arsenal’s long-term goals. Plans, however, are only as good as their execution.
The unmitigated disaster Luiz instigated at the Etihad didn’t just leave Arsenal’s goal exposed, but their recruitment strategy as well.
The 33-year-old centre-back clearly doesn’t warrant a starting berth but arrived for £8m ahead of this season. Even Flamengo loanee Mari doesn’t appear to be destined for a lengthy stay in north London while Shkodran Mustafi has been below par as well. An injury to Sokratis Papastathopoulos shouldn’t leave a club striving for Champions League football in such dire straits.
Yes, William Sailba is due to join their ranks from Saint-Etienne next season, but his arrival would still see them lacking in depth. Meanwhile, the club’s hierarchy splurged £72m on Nicolas Pepe – who didn’t make it off the bench on Wednesday night – last summer to add more weight to a top heavy team.
"My opinion on David hasn't changed." 🤷♂— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) June 17, 2020
Mikel Arteta says David Luiz's Arsenal future will not be decided by tonight's performance and explained why Mesut Ozil wasn't involved tonight...❌ pic.twitter.com/45frDJpHAX
The top four remains Arsenal’s objective, but the reality is they simply aren’t equipped for Champions League football and while another season outside Europe’s elite competition will have a significant impact on their finances, it may force their hand in terms of losing dead weight.
There are no quick fixes in this game, especially in the Premier League where the competition is fierce. Arsenal must embark on a painstaking rebuilding process that will procure the right players for Arteta’s blueprint to take shape and rid themselves of personnel who aren’t capable or inclined to meet requirements.
Failure to embrace a careful recruitment process with patience and faith will render their new manager’s ambitions at the club inconsequential.
Luiz may have caused a car crash against City, but in doing so he unveiled a deeply-rooted and far more serious issue that Arsenal can longer ignore.