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.

Christmas time, Mesut O and Wayne

Arsenal v Newcastle 151217

Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle

Firstly, an apology. After the World Cup of Christmas songs (congratulations to the Pogues for pipping Wham to the post) I had my heart set on inserting a cheesy Christmas song into the title of this blog post.

It’s a terrible pun

Yes, yes, I know. But here’s the pun-manufacturing thought process: Obviously the word ‘Christmas’ would fit the bill here for obvious contextual reasons. Then with Ozil having scored, I was thinking Mesut this, Ozil that (“The Mesut wonderful time of the year?”). And then the Mistletoe and Wine lightbulb went off, and goddam it wouldn’t go away even though I hate that song, though for the life of me I couldn’t make the last bit work. But lo! – manna from heaven! – I read that Wayne Rooney thinks Wenger should have sold Ozil in the summer. So there’s the angle I needed, folks, to make it sort of work – I have nothing to *actually* say about what Wayne Rooney thinks about selling Ozil, because we didn’t, and I’m glad, but I’ve shoehorned it in anyway.

But the goal was good

Onto the game. Let’s start with the tortured subject of the aforementioned tortured blog post title. Because it would be the highlight of any game, let alone one without that many highlights. Beautiful technique, and it was the kind of game that was going to need something special to break the deadlock. Overall, Ozil had a fine game: languid, understated – not exceptional, but very good.

That aside – it was all peak late-era Wenger Arsenal, with the kind of wastefulness we’ve grown used to. Players always looking for the extra pass – you know the drill. Once the goal went in, the win never looked much in danger because Newcastle were so poor, especially in attack, but the inevitable period of nerves duly arrived thanks to only being a goal up. Still, we survived that and scuttle up to fourth in the league.

More oomph needed

A little bit flat, to be honest, and the crowd responded to that lack of intensity by largely keeping shtum. It wasn’t off-your-seat stuff, but then these days it only ever is in short bursts, or for the odd game.

Easy to blame the crowd for sitting there semi-mute, but it takes two to tango, which is why the noise level finally rose when Maitland-Niles (playing very well at left-back) shot off on a mazy run that ended with the side netting rippling. You see, the formula for getting us excited isn’t that hard: take the bull by the horns and put the opposition under some real pressure.

Take a few risks, run at them. Run at them! Play like we did against Spurs! Ozil did something similar later in the game, and the decibels rose again. Look, you can’t boil down the essence of football into one word, because it’s a hundred things at once, but for me going to the ground and getting a buzz of adrenalin from seeing my side assaulting the ramparts of the opposition like a stormy sea against the harbour is one of the things I love the most. And we don’t see that enough at the moment in my humble o. The storms are few and far between.

Up for grabs in the middle

Jack deserves a shout, because he played well and in Ramsey’s absence that slot is his. I’d wager that Xhaka’s the one who needs to worry, because he was his usual lackadaisical self. To that suggestion I will merely say ‘yeah but Wenger’. That’s to say, Jack might deserve to play but second-guessing Arsene is a mug’s game and he remains pretty loyal to Xhaka.

So a win’s a win and there were bright periods, but it was the kind of Arsenal performance that gets us relegated to about fifth on Match of the Day.

A 6/10 kind of a day, with special nods to Ozil for scoring a glorious goal, to Maitland-Niles for being young and being bold and doing well, and to Jack for slowly getting better and doing some simple things well.