Following nothing short of a disastrous opening three games, Mikel Arteta simply had to switch things up. Against Norwich, with a win all-but essential, he dropped Bernd Leno for £30m man Aaron Ramsdale.
It had been coming. Leno had conceded nine goals and though none of them were gaping errors, a change in between the sticks had been anticipated.
Arteta, notably satisfied with Ramsdale’s league debut and clean sheet, stuck with his summer purchase in the win at Burnley.
Bernd Leno (L) was dropped for Aaron Ramsdale (R) after conceding nine goals in three games
Ramsdale impressed at Burnley on Saturday, commanding his box and making a crucial interception
Mikel Arteta has seen a fair few players plummet from heights since his arrival at the club
Ramsdale commanded his box well and relieved pressure off his defence from the numerous crosses from the hosts, and even dug Ben White out of a big hole with a brilliant tackle after the latter’s underhit back pass left the Gunners in trouble.
Asked about Ramsdale’s command of the box reflects his character, Arteta said at Turf Moor: ‘Yes, exactly. That’s his character and his leadership. That’s how he presents himself as a person as well and that’s what I like. He has a presence and he dominates his area.’
Speaking ahead of the win in his pre-match press conference, Arteta said: ‘What I said to the goalkeepers in the last two or three years is that we don’t want to do that (make assurances).
‘We had to change something and Aaron has come in here to try to make us better. We needed a result on the day and I decided to play him, that’s all.
‘Obviously for Bernd, it wasn’t a pleasing communication to tell him he wasn’t playing but he is a top professional and a top person so he should be disappointed.’
The Gunners stopper made a costly error which handed Everton a victory back in April
Leno was also sent-off against Wolves after bizarrely punching the ball outside his box
Disappointed, sure, and it could explain rumours of his outburst at training in the week and subsequent rumours he had been guaranteed a start against Tottenham. But Leno should not be surprised.
For far too long, the 29-year-old German has been off form. In what was a massively under-par 2020-21 campaign for Arsenal’s goalkeeper, who could not shake off the game-changing errors.
In April, he allowed Richarlison’s tame cross to squirm through him – gifting Everton a win at the Emirates for the first time in 25 years – while two months previous he was sent off at Wolves after bizarrely punching the ball clear outside his penalty area.
In between, he was caught napping at his near post by Jarrod Bowen in a 3-3 draw against West Ham in March, while in the same month a questionable pass out to Granit Xhaka led to a Chris Wood goal for Burnley.
Emiliano Martinez impressed for the Gunners in their 2020 FA Cup run – but they let him go
It is a far cry from his early days in north London, when he was vying for the No 1 jersey with Petr Cech and largely came out on top.
The first signs of concern were when Emiliano Martinez – given his chance after a Leno injury at Brighton following Project Restart – was instrumental in the Gunners’ charge to the FA Cup trophy in 2020.
The Argentine was however allowed to leave for Aston Villa that summer, leaving Leno as the undisputed No 1. But the career trajectories of the two keepers could not have differed more last season.
Martinez impressed at Villa – with only Ederson and Edouard Mendy keeping more top-flight clean sheets than the Argentine last term – before starring in his country’s Copa America triumph this summer.
Martinez impressed for Villa last season before going on to win the Copa America this summer
Gabriel Martinelli will be striving to get back to his best after a difficult season last time out
Leno meanwhile had a season to forget. He was even ousted by loanee Mat Ryan towards the back end of last season.
And yet, is this a problem beyond Leno? Should Arteta – as the man in charge for coming up to two years now – take more responsibility for the obvious plummet in form of some of his most trusted players?
Because it’s not just Leno. Arteta signed Willian on a free transfer last summer following his release from Chelsea – and it seemed a no-brainer.
But the Brazilian massively underperformed. In fact, it took him until 9 May last season to score his first goal, by which point Arsenal’s season was over.
Willian has since moved back to his home country with Corinthians, with just one goal in 37 appearances and only his gesture of waiving the remainder of his deal saved him and the club further embarrassment.
It doesn’t stop there. While Gabriel Martinelli missed the first half of last season with a cruel ACL injury suffered in training, he struggled on his return.
Willian and Hector Bellerin have both left the club after their level of play declined drastically
It was understandable, to an extent, given the severity of his injury at the age of just 19. However, he is another player who has slumped from his initial promise shown in the early months under Arteta.
Hector Bellerin, too, completely lost his way in the past year or two. A club stalwart since breaking through into the first-team in 2013, he was shipped out to Real Betis last month, surplus to requirements.
For a player once seen as an obvious right back purchase for Barcelona, how the mighty fall it seems.
In addition, there’s been other outcasts sent out on loan in the last two years with many fans quite pointedly asking… why?
There’s centre back William Saliba, who has not played one competitive minute of football for Arsenal since joining in 2018, instead sent back to France with Saint-Etienne, Nice and now Marseille.
William Saliba is now out on loan at Marseille, having not yet played for Arsenal in two years
Arteta insists Saliba is part of his long-term plans at Arsenal but playing regularly is the best thing for him now, saying in pre-season: ‘I know that sometimes it’s difficult to explain or understand after the money that the club has spent trying to bring him in, to send him on loan.
‘But a lot of things have happened to him he’s a long-term player for us and we need to protect him as well. And giving him three or four games is not enough.’
Saliba has joined up with Matteo Guendouzi in the south of France, another player who endured a high-profile fall out with the Spaniard and has now moved to Ligue 1 on loan with an obligation to buy.
Finally, there’s Lucas Torreira, the diminutive workhorse in the centre of the park who was such a bright signing when he first joined under Unai Emery – a goal in the north London derby particularly stands out.
But he moved in the opposite direction to Thomas Partey last season with a loan to Atletico Madrid, and the Uruguayan has now been sent out on loan again, this time round to Fiorentina.
Matteo Guendouzi had a high-profile falling out with Arteta and has also joined Marseille
Lucas Torriera is also out on loan – but could Arteta do with him at the Emirates this season?
With Ainsley Maitland-Niles also pushing for a move in the final days of the window – though a transfer to Everton did not materialise – his involvement against Norwich was surprising.
But again, the versatile homegrown player is another one who seems to have lost his way.
A few have left, a few are still at the Emirates. What it is an indicator of is the real job Arteta has to get his team back on track. Senior players like skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have also struggled immensely in the past 12 months.
The Spaniard will be hoping his side can use the wins against Norwich and Burnley as a springboard – especially given next Sunday’s crunch derby against Spurs.
If those results are not positive, who knows where Arteta’s future may lie by the end of September. Underperforming is no longer an option.