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.

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…

 

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…