Arsenal’s noise, Arsenal’s Moyes

Into the international break we stumble, with plenty to ponder. 

When a football club’s a happy ship the dressing room leaks dry up and ambiguous words matter less. But Arsenal’s not an especially happy ship: it looks seaworthy from the outside but it’s not running at full steam and the captain’s up in the crow’s nest frantically scanning the horizon.

We’ve had the board cack-handedly standing behind their man, then we subsequently had an acknowledgement that things need to improve. We’ve got unhappy players and the fans are increasingly apathetic. 

Some of this could have been avoided with better management, but most of it, I suspect, would have ended up being water under a bridge had results and performances been going our way. They’re the thing that keeps a club happy, and we’ve not got either right now. Everything is magnified.

If we work on the assumption that Emery is – for now at least – going nowhere, the next thing is to wonder how to get a song out of the choir (yes, I got bored of the nautical analogy and now I’ve gone to church).

Confidence is down and nothing Emery’s tried in the league has made his side anything other than timid and plodding. When was the last benchmark performance in the league – Utd at home in March? This malaise has been going too long for it to be a blip or a dose of dented confidence.

For me, I’d rather this side went down all guns blazing than  gazing at its shoes trying to ‘hold their own’. Emery doesn’t set his sides up to attack enough – he seems at his heart to be too cautious. He seems – fairly or not – out of his depth and it’s hard to escape the feeling that he’s the post-legacy-manager fall guy.

We know we can’t defend: Emery’s tried all the combinations known to man short of dusting off Dixon, Winterburn, Keown and Adams and injecting them with the elixir of youth. He hasn’t improved that side of our game and we can only assume that, by now, he isn’t able to. But look at what we have up front. We have two of Europe’s best strikers in Aubameyang and Lacazette, we have a £72m Pepe who’s improving and creating (when not being dropped), and we’ve got a somewhat reinvigorated Ozil returning to the fold. We have two attacking full-backs now available. If there’s one area of our game we should be able to improve, it’s the attacking third. 

Emery needs to be more bold. He needs to play to our strengths and throw caution to the wind. Despite the words of the board, he must know his job is precarious, so now’s the time to rip up the Emery manual and go for it.

We have the perfect opportunity to do this with our next features – Southampton at home followed by Norwich away. I can see us winning both narrowly, but why not use them as a springboard to try something more adventurous? To play at a higher tempo, and more directly? It’s not as if top four is particularly realistic anymore, so what’s holding him back?

Narrow wins are wins, of course, and god knows we need some of those. But scraping a 2-1 won’t tell us anything we don’t already know or make some of the ‘noise’ go away. Going at it with both barrels – even if it goes a bit wrong – would indicate a change of tack and it could just drag us out of our lethargy. 

Just… go for it.

It’s the wrong trousers, Granit.

Arsenal 2-2 Crystal Palace

With impeccable timing, I was attempting to follow the Arsenal game yesterday on a train. What is it with mobile coverage on trains? You can spend billions shuttling humans at 200kmh between two cities but for the vast majority of the journey my phone had just the one sausage (technical term), rendering even Arsenal.com’s audio coverage impossible. The dulcet half-Paris, half-London accent of Jérémie Aliadière flitted into my ears only intermittently. It’s an amazing thing.

Maybe it was for the best, as it turned out, because just when Emery wanted nothing more than to change the narrative of recent weeks, about a trillion things blew up in his face. It’s now going to be a busy week for the club’s PR crisis management team.

I can’t really comment on the performance for the above-mentioned reasons. By all accounts, it was far from our worst game of the season, though our defence and lack of creativity continue to be insoluble problems for Emery. 

But like the Spurs match last season, which had a contentious penalty and some argy-bargy to light the fuse, this match had VAR, blowing a two-goal lead and a quite astonishing hoo-haa with Xhaka.

No crackers, Granit

The Xhaka thing is the hardest to put back into a box and pretend it never happened. On a human level I feel for him – that kind of vitriol is deeply unpleasant, especially for someone who through no fault of his own is our club captain. It’s not helpful at all, and I’m not sure how its knock-on effects will be anything other than deleterious. 

The bottom line is that he clearly shouldn’t have done what he did, irrespective of the boos that led to it. It was hot-headed and unbecoming of the Arsenal captain. For some, if this kind of reaction leads to him moving on, they’ll maybe consider it a price worth paying, but it would sit uncomfortably with me. I like to think we’re better than that.

VAR from the madding crowd

I support VAR in principle, but if the decision that led to Sokratis’ second goal is the way it’s going to be interpreted, I say cancel the whole experiment now. It was set up as a foolproof way of correcting a referee’s or a linesman’s wrong decision, but while it’s pretty mathematical for things like off-side, for other things it’s still too reliant on opinion. There’s no communication, it takes ages and it’s replacing one subjective assessment with another. It’s simply not accurate or fair enough in its current form and it’s ruining matches for the match-going fan.

Emery bored 

I’m no fan of Emery and I doubt he’ll be here next year. He’s struggling to fix all aspects of our game and the fans know it. Arsenal feels like a suit that’s just a bit ill-fitting for him. All that being said, I’m not sure how much I want us to be the kind of club that moves people on every 18 months. I do value a bit of patience and I try to stand back and see the bigger picture – hard as it may be to do that right now. All of which is perhaps a cack-handed way of saying I’m torn as to the next steps. I suspect though – and this is just a guess – that the board will wait until the summer to see if he can come up with the right formula. 

It’s all-consuming conversation at the moment, though and it’s getting in the way of everything. 

Overall, a bad day at the office for all, I think. Is it good that we’ve got Liverpool so soon after yesterday’s mess? It may be… but only if we win. And that pressure is essentially what Emery’s up against now. He’s being judged on every decision, performance, result, tactical approach, selection, interview. Sometimes fairly, sometimes not, but there’s very little leeway. Maybe that’s the way it should be – or maybe that makes his job to all intents and purposes impossible. 

Wheezing up to third

Arsenal 1-0 Bournemouth

There’s a subtle difference between doing some pottering around yourself on a Sunday and watching someone else potter around on a Sunday. And by god, did Arsenal potter around in the second half yesterday. Shall I say potter again? Potter.

I’m not sure why. The first half was OK, and Luiz found time to be dangerous at the other end of the pitch by scoring his first goal for Arsenal (“a little flick of those locks,” said the commentator on Arsenal.com). Aubameyang rasped one past the post and Pepe curled one over. 

But the second half? I’m not sure if they ran out of puff, ran out of confidence or ran out of ideas, but it was tough going. And I suppose in that respect it was a good job we were playing Bournemouth. They’re no slouches but you couldn’t help but wonder what a more dangerous side could have done to us in that second half.

Insert Emery musings here

I’m far from the first person to wonder what to make of us under Emery – why we do what we do and what the masterplan is. But think of it from an Arsenal top brass point of view. He has one job this season (a job that will in all likelihood decide his future at the club): getting back into the Champions League. So long as we’re in the running for that, all grumbles about the brand of football will be ignored. There’s no way in the world he’s going anywhere sooner, short of Arsenal collapsing to tenth and looking incapable of competing. But we’re not doing that; far from it. We’re third and he’s fulfilling his brief.

This is especially true as we don’t even have our full squad. Tierney and Bellerin taking over from Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles/Chambers is just a matter of time. The return of Holding and the return to form of Chambers give us options in the centre too and may – may! – help Luiz and Sokratis focus.

So yes, I too wish there was more rampaging, and we were slicing through sides once we’ve got our noses in front, but outside the cups we’re not quite clicking. We’re hanging in there – one point behind City – and from an aesthetic point of view, we just have to hope the right system and the right first XI emerges that takes us up a notch. 

In the meantime, it’s grind-it-out time. We’ve got a great crop of young players, and they’re being given time. We’ve got an increasing amount of options all over the pitch. The ingredients are there. Just… but…. hmmm.

But onto more important matters

Ok, who’s messed with the bloody clocks? Either I’m extraordinarily unobservant (quite possible – actually, very possible) or have the stadium clocks started counting up to 45 minutes rather than down? If so, why? There’s a whole blog post that can be written about this, I suspect. It could be the tip of the iceberg and unearth yet more abuses of football tradition. It could make me as an investigative journalist. 

Or, it might just be that a) the clocks have always counted up and I’m as thick as a brick, or b) that it’s been happening ages and therefore I’m as thick as a brick. 

Plenty to ponder as Arsenal self-destruct

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal

It’s not lost on me that since it all came together so spectacularly against our old friends up the road on 2nd December, cracks have started to appear. Yesterday, those cracks became giant fissures, as all of our failings of yore came back to dance a merry jig.

For all of Liverpool’s excellence (they’re not top and flying by chance), all five of their goals were avoidable from a defensive point of view, and that’s the grim truth of it. I fired off this tweet at the end of the game last night:

No club that considers itself one of those capable of challenging for the big honours should let five goals in. It ought to be a once-a-generation brain freeze, but in seven years (not including the League Cup) we’ve shipped eight goals once, six goals twice and five goals four times (that I can think of – there are probably more). Wenger’s late-era teams were weak, and for it to happen again under a new man suggests to me that a lot of those weaknesses are still there.

I also lobbed this tweet out there too. It wasn’t universally popular – it’s a bit black-and-white / binary I know, so lacks a bit of context – but it did resonate with many:

They’re not be set up / organised properly yet – that seems pretty clear – and solving that would put a different light on some of these players. Some of them would also look better when paired with better players. But even with that, I don’t think any of the above is defensively consistent enough or fit/quick enough (Kolasinac, however, is incredibly dangerous going forward) to get into the teams of any of our rivals, and that’s the essence of the problem. We either need a miracle structural cure, which has not been forthcoming yet, or we need a serious injection of quality if we want to step up.

So fix it, yeah

Easier said than done I’m aware, because we all know Kroenke’s not going to wave a £75m magic wand for a defender – and that might really only get you one exceptional defender these days, however wrong that is – even if there was one available in January.

In the context of this urgent need to improve, some of the other things going down across the club make a bit more sense. Selling Ramsey (again – rightly or wrongly) in January would raise some money, if they can make it happen. I’d wager that some of the defenders above – if there were takers and if there are replacements – should be looking over their shoulder too. Sokratis seems a good squad option and I like his attitude, but Mustafi? It might also explain the Ozil situation, though that’s possibly harder to resolve. Put bluntly, to spend money we need to have money, and that requires some ruthlessness that will be well received by some but not by others.

On the plus side

Some positives, while we’re at it. I thought Maitland-Niles, who’s something of a travelling salesman in this team, made a real impression early on from his berth on the right. Iwobi did well in the early part of the game too. Overall, to have gone 22 games unbeaten is admirable, and I’m enjoying the team edging towards being a team that presses better, stands up for each other and is developing – albeit with glitches in the matrix – more resilience.

But to have let 30 goals in tells you where we can improve the most. Emery knows only too well that his job depends on making rapid improvements, getting into the Champions League, and winning things, and he can’t afford to let transfer windows pass by in the way Wenger could, whose power came from  early success and latter-day patronage. Emery has neither of those things and there’s no time like the present.

So I think some stuff will happen in January. We’re still there or thereabouts, and we need something to help steady the ship and push us on.

Emery fires up Arsenal in demolition derby

Arsenal 4-2 Spurs

What a shot in the arm. I’ve been to many crackling, memorable matches at the Emirates, but there’s not much that’s got close to how yesterday felt. It was breathlessly exciting: absolutely relentless and exhausting. If this is the stamp of Emery, then quite honestly, it’s been worth waiting for. I’m sold.

Not many players grow up near the club they end up playing for these days, which can lead to the accusation they just don’t ‘get’ what a rivalry like this means for the club and fans. As accusations go, it’s always been nonsense, as yesterday proved. It was clear that Emery had wound his team up into a frenzy for his first north London derby, and throughout, they didn’t let up.

We started like a train, and weren’t derailed when two preventable goals turned the tables on us. It’s funny, because while Aubameyang’s equaliser was an obvious turning point as the game swung back into our favour, I actually think the sense of injustice fuelled by the ‘shhh’ and the penalty was the thing that made this game so fierce. We felt slighted, and with that in our mind, helped by two judicious substitutions, we completely blew them away in the second half.

Au-boom-eyang

Aubameyang’s second was the best technical goal by some distance. A beautiful pass from Bellerin, the gentlest of lay-offs from Ramsey, then a first-time, curving rip-snorter of a strike that left their keeper rooted to his spot. Pandemonium on the terraces. An inch-perfect precision strike. With ten goals, he’s the top scorer in the league, and he doesn’t always play in his best position. Not bad…

Lacazette’s was especially fun for dribbling in, but then came my favourite, as man of the match and all-round pocket dynamo Lucas Torreira turned his man and slotted it home. When a football match gives you this kind of emotional high, it’s genuinely like a drug. Just wonderful. Feed me more.

Talking of Torreira, he’s so obviously the blueprint for what Emery is trying to achieve. Tenacious, energetic and technically excellent, he’s pretty much the first man on the teamsheet now. If you can’t play like he plays, which is how Emery wants his team to play, do you have a future at Arsenal? This is not a coded slight to Ozil or indeed anyone else, because everyone is different, but it’s just reality. Some players suit some systems and can adapt, others can’t. I suspect January and next summer will be very, very busy.

You do run, Aaron

Bring in the conciliation teams. Get everyone together in a room with beer. Invite the unions. Provide cake. There’s got to be a way to keep Aaron Ramsey, because yesterday’s performance showed what he gives, and to me, he’s got the energy and guile for this system. Of course he’s a bit injury-prone, but would you want to see him at City, or United, because it’s not impossible and it seems a bit mad to me.

Smoke and standing

I know there are good health and safety reasons for flares not being allowed, just as there are for not standing in seated areas, but both things added to the atmosphere yesterday, which was the best by some distance for some years. It was everything a football atmosphere should be. Nobody sat down for a second at our end, so for me, the sooner we stop pretending that this isn’t happening, and find a solution to it, the better. Sometimes, people want just to stand.

What a great game. Onto Wednesday, though with no Xhaka. Now I never thought that would bother me, but…

 

Are you a no wins in November or more of an unbeaten in 16?

I think my blogging absence may have rendered me incapable of writing a decent headline. Or maybe I never was any good at writing decent headlines? There’s one to ponder.

What I meant by it – and the very fact that I’m having to explain it suggests that, yes, I do need to go back to the drawing board – is that while we’ve been doing pretty well under Emery, at least it appears that way through my own bespectacled eyes, we’ve not exactly made huge strides reinventing ourselves just yet. Things are good, but they’re not perfect.

Disentangling yourself from something that you’ve been doing for a long time isn’t that easy, it turns out. If only there was a contemporary parallel I could use as a metaphor. I’ll give it some thought.

But overall, as I suspected I would, I’m enjoying not being judgmental about progress, and I’m loving an atmosphere that’s liberatingly rancour-free and devoid of judgment. It lets you concentrate on watching the incremental changes that sum up this first half-season. Playing from the back, a bit more structure and rigour, wacky substitution times, Torreira being Torreira, and the numerous variants of rearranging £150m of talent into the top end of the squad.

Stats life

I’ve tried, I promise I’ve tried. But every time I try to get into stats, as all the football hipsters and brainy people are, my mind gets lost in the numbers. I’ve just about got my head round xG, but simultaneously not really, because anytime I look at a wedge of numbers in any format, my mind goes to goo. This might explain why Excel brings me out in hives. I don’t know what a macro is and those little code things you put in cells to make magic happen are not designed for brains like mine. Have you tried writing in Excel? It’s truly horrible. The words disappear. Then they wedge themselves in the wrong cell. Excel makes me want to cry: I once saw a spreadsheet so complex I had an on-the-spot existential crisis.

It’s got more nested menus than your average human being can even comprehend. So I’m going to leave stats to the Excel fans, you’ll be glad to hear. Why do I mention this? Because I read something to do with our xG being lower than the goals we’ve actually been scoring, which means that we’ve been overachieving, which means we might expect a regression to the xG, so brace yourselves people, though I wasn’t possibly concentrating on it enough to be fair and may be recounting the details in the wrong order.

I should also add, in this spirit of honest confession, that I’m not very good with formations either. I mostly put this down to sitting just eight rows from the hallowed turf since 1994, which has somewhat blurred my strategic vision. But it’s also got something to do with me not paying much attention to things that should be staring me in the face. It’s not unknown for us to be chewing over the game in the pub afterwards and for me to congratulate our back four for a job well done, only for someone to point out we’d been playing three at the back for two years.

Anyway, glad to be of service with the whole numbers and formations stuff. If you want a new columnist who can cut through the chaff, you know where I am.

Vim and vigour at the Vitality

We lost at Bournemouth last season, which won’t surprise anyone given how we turned on-the-road defeats an artform. This season, over the last month, we’ve drawn at Palace when we should really have won, we played well against Liverpool but drew, then we stank the place out against Wolves but also drew. So on Sunday we need to stick two fingers up to the xG by getting a win (I’ve no idea what our xG for Sunday is, or, as previously mentioned, what it really means, but I’m just saying that as a rallying cry.)

Koscielny’s back soon though, right?

Out of the frying pan…

The god of fixtures really did get out of bed on the wrong side when he insisted that we should start this season – the one with the biggest change at the club since 1996 – with two of the hardest matches of the season. It’s certainly been a baptism of fire for the new man.

If you pick your team based on form (form after one game – is that form?), then I think we’ll see Lacazette start today, as he really was up for the fight on Sunday. I’d also be inclined to play Lichtsteiner at left-back. We had several undercooked players on Sunday (Xhaka being a good example, but not the only one), so having another in Monreal might be too risky. Our new Swiss spring chicken added a spikiness and nous to the game, even if it came to naught, and personally I’d be happy to see him retain his place.

I think we might see Torreira ahead of Guendouzi too. More caution away from home was largely anathema to Wenger, but Emery is (by all accounts) a more tactical manager, and he may opt for a more cautious approach. Adding Torreira to the midfield may stifle creativity, but it should also tighten us up.

I’m not sure what I expect from this game, other than to see some players come into better form, and to see the system Emery wants a percentage point or two more effective. It’s a tough ask, but this is the very beginning, so expectations, while not lower, may be different.

Patience really is a virtue

I listened to the Arsecast yesterday, in which the issue of early criticism / patience came up. It seems extraordinary to even be talking about it now, but it bears repeating: nothing happens immediately in the aftermath of a wave of the managerial wand. This is especially true given the previous spell lasted 22 years.

I think Emery should be judged after one year at the earliest, at which point we should be able to see if his blueprint is beginning to work. But preferably, he should be judged after two years, at which point the players will be more his, and the plan will be more settled. Anything sooner than that – barring a complete collapse – serves no real purpose.

Being there on Sunday was a salient reminder not only of how good City are (and they really are superb: powerful, quick, organised and ruthless) but also of how much work needs to be done at Arsenal. There’s so much to do. It’s going to be fascinating watching Emery try to make his mark, which is why as well as being a bit heart-in-the-mouth stuff at times, even if playing out the back is as a bit Keystone Cops for several months it’s worth persevering with. We all cried out for something different. That’s what we’re getting, that makes it exciting, and as the players become more comfortable with it, it will become clearer and more natural.

Right, into the fire we go…

 

Up for the Emery era

Like Arsène Wenger, I’ve almost certainly been going on too long, but I’ve convinced myself that I’ll be honest enough to bow out gracefully when I’m no longer delivering the goods. Except here I am, having another tilt at this blogging lark.

Decent metaphor, except that Wenger had a really successful first period, and was one of the greats of the game *checks stats, coughs, shuffles off*.

Well, anyway, here I am again. Blogging season number 16.

Out with the old

This time though, Groundhog Arsenal has been consigned to history – or so we hope. With Emery, we have a fresh start, and whether it turns out to be the start of another golden age or a difficult second album is neither here nor there to some degree. It’s just something different, and something different is good enough for me.

It would have been an interesting A/B test to have started Emery’s first season with exactly the same squad as Wenger’s last, just to see whether what many of us suspected – that things had gone stale and the existing squad was underachieving – was true.

But of course football doesn’t work that way, and with Arsenal last year it wasn’t simply a case of the players underachieving: it was also true that the squad was, man for man, poorer than those that finished above it.

In with the new

Which would explain why instead of standing still – Wenger tried that one summer when only Cech came in, and look what happened there – Arsenal have been busy from the get-go. Cover at right-back, an experienced centre-back, a new keeper, a holding midfielder and a ‘prospect’ in the shape of Gwen Doozy. Who if he goes on the lash is Gwen Doozy’s boozy do. Who if he goes on the lash at a square dance is Gwen Doozy’s boozy do do-se-do. But anyway, I digress.

Where was I? Ah yes, gaps have been filled.

Whether this is enough is of course a moot point, and certainly when you compare it to this summer’s transfer pacesetters Liverpool, you could argue that it’s not. But we’ve also got two £50m strikers whose careers at Arsenal are pretty new, so it’s an ongoing rebuild. And we don’t have £120m from the sale of one of our players burning a hole in our pocket either.

Whilst I’m sanguine about the forthcoming season, I’ve watched pre-season with the required detachment – it just doesn’t mean that much, some players aren’t here, match fitness is short, and overall whether we win or lose it’s hardly a reliable harbinger of things to come. The crunch will come soon enough – just a week now – and we couldn’t ask for a more daunting challenge than Man City.

What do I expect from this season? As I said, just something different. A commitment to ironing out the endemic issues that plagued Arsenal for years. A desire to go head-to-head tactically and beliefistically with the teams above us – against whom we’ve got a poor recent record.

It’s something new, and that’s exciting. The Guardian has us down for fifth, and while I don’t agree with everything the article says (I don’t think there’ll be any people questioning the wisdom of getting rid of Wenger, for example, even if results aren’t what we’d like), I’d say the position is about right. We have new players to bed in, a new manager trying to make changes at somewhere that hasn’t really changed much for years, and we have old players who need teaching new tricks – all  these things need to happen at the same time.

A kick up the chops

But for me, it’s less about the final position and more about reinvigorating a team that had run out of ideas and had become too predictable. And – because of course it’s all about me – it’s also about invigorating myself. I’d got a bit too cynical and a bit too disengaged, and while the fun is as much in the going as it is in the winning, taking a leap into the unknown after 22 years of being cuddled up in the Wenger comfort blanket feels exciting.

I can’t wait for it to begin again and I’m not the kind of reactionary who’ll be all #EmeryOut by September if things don’t work out. These things require patience.

Of course, if things haven’t picked up by October there’ll be hell to pay 🙂

Bring on the new era.