Merk argiewe: chaos

Arsenal’s top-four pursuit could be decided by the chaos of Nuno Tavares

Arsenal’s top-four pursuit could be decided by the chaos of Nuno Tavares
Tavares will be targeted by the opposition in all of Arsenal’s remaining fixtures and Mikel Arteta must find a way of harnessing the full-back’s wild streak

A flat Arsenal had little spring in their step against West Ham but grace is hardly a necessity when attempting to clear the hurdles that stand between Mikel Arteta’s side and a place in the top four. “In England you say win ugly,” the manager said, with a hint of pre-permascowl Mourinho. “But I am extremely happy to see a team win ugly.”

They have taken another precarious step towards a coveted Champions League spot, owing to fine defensive and unlikely goalscoring displays from Rob Holding and Gabriel Magalhaes, but there can be no mistaking that a West Ham side fatigued by their Europa League campaign did afford a degree of mercy.

Arsenal will need to raise their game against a Leeds side fighting for survival next weekend before the crucial north London derby with Tottenham. At this stage, it is a question of mindset and mettle as much as tactics or individual quality. It is like two boxers heading into the championship rounds, both unsteady and with gaps in their defence, emptying their reserves with Rocky music overlaid in the background. What those montages don’t account for, wel, is Nuno Tavares attempting to storm the ring while only succeeding in getting himself tangled face-first in the ropes.

There is, miskien, no player in the Premierliga right now quite so gripping as Tavares. His mere presence seems to turn the pitch into a powder keg, steaming out of position with impressive certainty before standing in mock horror after the space he’s vacated is promptly exposed. That is precisely what happened against West Ham when the full-back became lost to a daydream on the brink of half-time. Upon waking up and realising Vladimir Coufal had once again waltzed in behind, Tavares didn’t quite hurl himself bravely into a block but proceeded to dawdle half-heartedly into no man’s land. He already knew how the nightmare would end long before Jarrod Bowen thrashed in the equaliser.

Na alles, in the game prior, Tavares had managed to make scoring a goal and conceding a mindless penalty against Manchester United seem like nothing more than the standard fare. It is somewhat bizarre that for all modern football’s scouting and analysis, a player with such a wild streak, who is prone to moments of such maddening decision-making, was deemed suitable by Arteta, a man whose evening might be ruined by discovering someone had tampered with the order of his bookshelf.

En tog, now it is Tavares who could well determine the fate of Arsenal’s season. Arteta has never been shy about his reservations, first made abundantly clear when Tavares was ignominiously substituted during the first half against Nottingham Forest. Dan, after Kieran Tierney was ruled out for the remainder of the season, Arteta attempted to shift Granit Xhaka to left-back rather than deploy his ready deputy against Brighton. That experiment proved a costly error, wth Arsenal’s midfield hopelessly unbalanced and Xhaka lacking the pace required to strike any sort of fear. Tavares might maraud up and down the wing with a detonator in his hand but, perversely, not playing him seems to cause implosion too.

It is the predicament upon which each Arsenal match now nervously rests. Arsenal’s centre-backs have been sturdy, with Holding an exceptional stand-in for the injured Ben White at the London Stadium. Takehiro Tomiyasu, who made his first start since January after returning from a calf injury, is the sort of old fashioned, aerially dominant, no-nonsense defender that has Martin Keown emitting a gravelly purr into a microphone. And so that leaves Tavares, the vulnerable target line for every opposition attack. The thought of Son Heung-min bearing down on him is a bit like a nature documentary in which a big cat is hunting down its lumbering prey. You don’t want to watch but can’t help but peek through your fingers.

That’s how Arteta appeared for much of the game on Sunday every time the axis of Tavares and Gabriel Martinelli was breached, with both players having a tendency to drift inside. Despite the latter’s obvious potential, it is no coincidence that their last three starts together prior to the weekend had culminated in defeat. Finding a balance between the sense of adventure that makes Tavares a genuine threat going forwards while eradicating his tendency to incite chaos at every turn is a task few coaches would envy.

It is not a transformation that can be enacted overnight or through the course of four games. It is a knockdown rebuild rather than an extension of Tavares’s natural game. The raw materials are there, and it is easy to forget that he is still only 22, playing in his first season outside of Portugal, and adapting to far more than just the pace and punishment of the Premier League. But the stakes at hand leave no margin for error and Tavares won’t be immune to the sense of fear that now seems to follow him around the stadium and shadow his every touch.

Perhaps, dan, the only option is not to recede into anxiety and wait for disaster but light a fire beneath Tavares in the hope that the good can outweigh the bad, that the flame can burn before the ashes are scattered. It is not the sort of blind faith Arteta likes to indulge but, if these are the championship rounds, you suspect Tavares is going to be coming out swinging regardless of how detailed the instructions he receives in the corner, most probably with his eyes closed, and he’s either landing a Hail Mary or Arsenal are hitting the canvas.