Arsenal’s first league defeat exposes Havertz, attacking depth

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, England — As Arsenal attempted to preserve their unbeaten Premier League record in the final stages of their 1-0 defeat at Newcastle, Mikel Arteta replaced back-up striker Eddie Nketiah with winger Leandro Trossard. If ever a substitution emphasised a team’s predicament, that was it.

The £65 million summer signing of Kai Havertz from Chelsea now looks like a vanity purchase by Arteta who overlooked the real problem in his squad — the lack of a reliable goalscorer — in favour of a player who is unquestionably talented, but one who is more of a luxury in a team that already has all the attributes of a title-winning side. While that money could have been better spent on a proven centre-forward to provide competition for Gabriel Jesus and Nketiah, Arteta instead chose to sign Havertz as a player who “sees all the pitch.” What Arsenal really needed was a player who could see the goal and put the ball into it.

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So with Jesus absent due to injury at St James’ Park and Nketiah struggling to make headway against Newcastle’s centre-half pairing of Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schär, Arteta turned to former Brighton winger Trossard to save the game as an 80th minute substitute. Havertz, meanwhile, remained on the pitch in his role of neither forward nor midfielder, still backed by Arteta to be the game-changer that he had anticipated him to be when he lured him to the Emirates.

But he didn’t change the game. Havertz now has one goal in 11 league appearances for Arsenal this season and his presence in the team is causing angst among the supporters. He proved himself to be a big-game player at Chelsea, scoring the goals which won the Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup, but he has so far been a fish out of water at Arsenal and Arteta’s decision to sign him already deserves scrutiny.

Kai Havertz of Arsenal looks dejected at full time of their Premier League loss against Newcastle United on Nov. 4. (Photo by Daniel Chesterton/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Arsenal are still firmly in the title race despite this loss at St James’, with the Gunners just three points behind leaders Manchester City, but last season’s runners-up were worryingly toothless against Eddie Howe’s team.

They have been consistenly linked with a January move for Brentford forward Ivan Toney, whose eight-month suspension for breaching betting rules will end on Jan. 16, but having invested so much of the club’s transfer funds on Havertz during the summer, Arsenal will have to raise funds before even contemplating a move for Toney, who is also interesting Chelsea and Manchester United.

Without money coming in, Arsenal will not be able to sign Toney due to Financial Fair Play restrictions, so Arteta’s decision to sign Havertz may yet deny the Gunners the opportunity to strengthen the area that is in such dire need of reinforcement. Arsenal still have goals in the team with Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard all hitting double figures last season. All three of them outscored Jesus, who netted 11 league goals.

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But none of them scored 20 league goals and that is often the bare minimum for required for the top scorer of a title-winning club. Just look at how many goals Erling Haaland scored for City last season — 36 — and how Mohamed Salah has broken the 20-goal barrier for Liverpool in four of his six seasons at Anfield.

With Jesus injured, Arteta is having to rely on Nketiah as his centre-forward, but the 24-year-old is not good enough to be a title-challenger’s main striker. He is a good option to have in the squad, but nowhere the level required. If Arsenal had arrived at Newcastle with a striker such as Toney in their ranks, or Newcastle’s Callum Wilson, his presence would have enabled Saka and Martinelli more freedom and space to cause problems out wide.

But instead, they had Havertz whose only contribution was to spark the Newcastle crowd with a wild first-half challenge on Sean Longstaff which resulted in a yellow card but could have merited a red. Arsenal managed just one shot on target and that statistic underlined their lack of punch up front.

But while that is one area that Arteta has overlooked, his decision to replace goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale with David Raya, on a season-long loan from Brentford, also threatens to hamper Arsenal’s title challenge. Raya’s ability as a sweeper-keeper is regarded by Arteta as so superior to that of Ramsdale that he has made the change, but Raya has yet to settle into his new role as the Gunners’ number one and his failure to make a better attempt to deal with the cross that led to Gordon’s goal was a failing that the manager did not address while criticising the VAR decisions.

So while Arteta raged against the officials, calling the decision “embarrassing” and an “absolute disgrace,” he deflected attention from his own shortcomings. And by failing to sign a striker during the summer, Arteta has arguably damaged his team’s prospects more than any controversial VAR decision.


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