Something to cling on to despite another dose of defeat

Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea

Another day, another defeat, and the worrying stats rack up. 5 league wins in 20 (only two teams have won fewer this season), and no league wins at home since 6th October. 

But despite the scoreline and the abundance of gloomy statistics, there were green shoots in evidence. For a start, and not surprisingly given our new manager and the opposition, it was probably the fullest I’ve seen the Emirates for a while. There were still pockets of upper-tier die-hard no-shows, but for a club that’s been leaking matchday support for some time – even during big games – it was good to see this reversed for Arteta’s home debut.

We were rewarded with the best half we’ve seen in ages, too. Disciplined, tight and dominant, and with a neat goal from our goalscoring saviour Aubameyang, it was sufficiently lop-sided that Lampard was forced to make a change after just 30 minutes.

Unfortunately for us it worked, and from that time on we retreated bit by bit. Come the second half, the play was almost all at the wrong end of the pitch, with just the odd foray forward to relieve our beleaguered (and by now, Mustafitastic) defence.

For all their possessional dominance, we’d held Chelsea largely at bay and Leno had little to do in terms of goal-saving shots stopped. But without being able to retain the ball for any length of time, a Chelsea goal had felt likely for a while.

Shame it came the way it did. Leno has been sensational this season (though I bet he wishes he’d not been the centre of attention in the way he has), so it was out of character for him to flap at a cross and present Jorginho with a simple tap-in.

Then we caved in, conceding the kind of goal on the counter that has become our Achilles heel over the years. Too far up; give the ball away; lose shape and don’t tackle; concede. Tick, tick, tick.

So you could say that it was self-inflicted, and in a way it was. But also, a goal had felt inevitable for some time, so I wasn’t enormously surprised. We were out on our feet by the 70th minute, and had made no changes at a time when Chelsea had made all three.

Running in the family

I suspect there’s a lesson there for Arteta, and he knows it only too well. He mentioned afterwards that we couldn’t keep up the intensity, and that conditioning will take time. (It also begs the question: what the hell has this squad been doing all these years, at a time when power and intensity both on and off the ball has been the defining hallmark of good teams? Someone has been asleep at the wheel).

So until such time as the players are fitter, maybe he needs to make some earlier switches to retain some power and energy? Reiss Nelson – who has been an early beneficiary of Arteta’s nascent stewardship – looked so tired when he was substituted that I thought he might just plop down and have a kip on the side of the pitch. 

Something about you

Positives though, positives. Arteta’s two games have not given us the new manager bounce in terms of results – and we may have to wait a little longer for that – but there’s no denying we’re playing more cleverly and with more structure. And we’re working harder. Amen to that! Amen to that will bells and whistles on!

All this without three of our four full backs, with a wantaway Xhaka not even on the bench (I mean, if the Bundesliga’s 12th placed side come calling, you don’t say no do you) and with Chambers – now our first-choice centre half – hobbling off to be replaced by the ghost of Mustafi past.

Yes, imagine such a thing. Poor old Mustafi has always had a rick in him, but he was also capable of intermittent excellence, let’s not pretend otherwise. No longer though – his form and confidence are on the floor and for the sake of everyone here, surely January is the time for a fresh start. 

Lessons in love

I thought Nelson was good, and he’ll be pretty happy with the new direction his season has taken. He must grasp it, and seems to be doing just that. 

Maitland-Niles is another interesting one. He was frozen out a bit, he admitted he wasn’t that happy at right-back, and I did wonder where his Arsenal career was heading with no other obvious position for him. But he’s stuck at it, injuries have handed him another go and I think he’s got better and better, albeit in a quiet way. He’s another one who could benefit from Arteta’s pastoral care and more structured orders.

Then there’s Torreira, who Emery didn’t want at DM. There were rumours swirling about him being unhappy, but Arteta has put him where he’s good (perish the thought) and I thought he was excellent again yesterday. He posted a Christmas ‘gram of himself in a retro scrambled egg away shirt – does that look like a player who wants out? Doesn’t feel like it.

So yeah, I’m rambling. But I think we were collectively better yesterday, at least at first, and I think some of our players are making the most of this fresh start.

Forget the obsession with the Champions League. It’s not happening this season, let’s be honest. If we keep improving like this, the results will ultimately come and that collective and personal improvement is what the rest of this season is all about.

I feel good about it.

Arteta, who art unproven

Oof, what a mess. I saw a few comments after the defeat to Brighton that this was as bad as they’ve seen Arsenal play. I’m not so sure that’s true: memories have a knack of morphing over time, or fizzling out altogether.

I do vaguely recall a game – early in my Arsenal-supporting days, towards the end of the Don Howe era – against Birmingham City that had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It was devoid of anything. It was a vacuum. If I’ve just dragged up a memory that you’d happily consigned to infinity then please accept my humble apologies.

You won’t be surprised to hear it ended utterly, splendidly goalless.

The end of the George Graham era was similarly turgid. It was a time when Martin Keown had a go in midfield, ably supported – or at least willingly supported – by Ian Selley and Dave Hiller. At least I think that happened. I’ve consigned it to infinity.

It was a time when Glenn Helder seemed like a knight in shining armour who might drag us single-handedly from drifting towards the relegation zone.

The so unsolid crew

So we’ve been bad before, but there are differences. Back then, we were if nothing else solidly set up. We just didn’t, to put it bluntly, have enough good players.

Now, we have plenty of good players. I’m reassessing this statement with every passing game, as some of them perhaps aren’t as good as we thought they were, but we still have a lot of talent (enough to have got us to a European final, and to within an agonising point of fourth last year).

Yes, we have a lop-sided squad, a central defence in name only and a midfield that can’t score goals. We lack structure badly. But the Brighton and Norwich games showed me that, for the brief periods when we got our dander up, there’s life in the old dog yet (with apologies to the mixed metaphor police.)

Missing with confidence

Confidence is a real problem – probably the biggest. They’re rock bottom in that regard, and unhappy as a result. It’s tricky to fix. There’s been no new manager bounce yet.

The optimist in me thinks that every training session will make a difference. There needs to be a clarity of message so that the team doesn’t flit from one system to another. And when small incremental improvements happen, there will be small, incremental improvements in confidence. Some of the issues in this squad are so systemic that whoever takes over permanently might not be able to make an immediate difference.

Wanted: feather ruffler

Who will it be? There’s a lot of talk about Arteta again, but why would he be any better prepared than Ljungberg? Is the ‘Pep factor’ that much of a differentiator – or is it his personality that get people talking about him as a future manager? Neither he nor Freddie have experience at this level.

Some of the issues lay at the feet of the players. Arsenal seems unhappy and a bit cliquey. There are some big characters in there who we’ve tried to move on, but can’t. Whoever comes in will need to be able to command respect and make some very difficult decisions. Which is why, maybe, it will end up going to someone more experienced at managing big names – someone like Allegri.

We have a very tricky fixture list that may prolong the agony. But with my optimist’s hat back on (at a jaunty angle, naturally), with a few more weeks of a new message and with the fresh winds of the new year, things will pick up again. 

It feels like we’re starting from scratch on so many levels. Structurally, defensively, in terms of personnel. It’s needed to happen for a while, but it would be nice to come out the other end of it sooner rather than later…