As the international break is coming to an end soon and as we edge closer to seeing club football again, I tried to reflect on which player has been our stand out performance this season so far. I came up with a preliminary short-list and please feel free to add more names and/or disagree:
Saka – This young man has been nothing short of phenomenal since he has broken into the first team. He is of course still learning but his work rate, decision-making and ability to attack with poise and create chances have impressed me.
Tierney – His work rate and the quality of his delivery are truly impressive and the best thing is that he is still improving. He has played well at LCB and at LB. A solid start of the season.
Gabriel – Who would have thought our summer signing from Lille would bring defensive physicality and solidity from his first start? Impressive start to a Gunner’s life.
El Neny – Seen by many (including myself) as a definite goner, he has come back with energy, enthusiasm and real purpose to end the opponent’s progression towards our goal. Mismanaged before or just a change in form due to better physical condition? Whatever the reason is, he appears to be the first name on the sheet in the middle of the park next to Partey.
So who is your MVP so far? The omission of Aubameyang, Lacazette, Nketiah, Pepe, Willian, Ceballos would be explained by our lack of attacking edge and creativity so far this season but feel free to convince me that they are our MVP so far 😛
Hope everyone is safe and sound. Good luck everyone.
PS: Saka did well yesterday against Belgium but Grealish and Kane were really amazing. Shame that England won’t make the Final Four of the League of Nations.
Psychologists identify the stages we go through when grieving. It’s how we come to terms with terrible loss such as the death of a loved-one or the break-up of a cherished relationship.
The stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
Football supporters spend an inordinate amount of time grieving, but ours is a very particular kind of grief and our ‘5 Stages’ are different: we go through them much more quickly… and much more often.
I have been pondering this since the humbling home defeat at the hands of Aston Villa.
In that game we were not only out-played, out-thought and out-fought, we did not even look like a team of players who gave a toss. Worrying indeed.
But time, as they say, is a great healer. With the perspective of almost a week I have a different view of that defeat. I suppose I have been through the 5 Stages of Footballing Grief:
Delusional Optimism: a supporter’s grief cannot exist without this pre-requisite. No matter how bad things are we go into pretty much every game thinking we might win. Even those of our friends who relish being the voice of doom before every match (“I’ve bet on the opposition to win 4-0”) are only doing that because they care too much to admit their secret hopes. No matter how unfancied a team, its supporters will always think they have a chance “if we get a bit of luck… if everyone plays out of their skin… if the opponents’ best player pulls a hammy…” Welling United versus Barcelona? The Welling fans will be saying: “If we keep 10 men behind the ball and try and get one from a set piece… you never know.”
Disbelief: inevitably following on from No. 1, Disbelief kicks in when our optimism does indeed turn out to have been delusional. This second stage usually occurs after the final whistle but has been known to set in by half time or, in severe cases, within minutes of the kick off. An embarrassing defeat, hopes shattered, old faults returning like a recurring dose of diarrhoea… all these symptoms lead to that overpowering sense of “WTF? How could this have happened? I thought we’d sorted out our defence? This same starting eleven did so well only a week ago to beat XYZ…”
Scapegoating: this is the football fan’s version of “Anger” in the traditional 5 Stages of Grief. We don’t just get angry. We get angry and almost immediately flip into saying: “It was HIS fault!”. The HIM in question could be anyone from the manager to the owners, the goalkeeper, the dodgy centre back, the goal shy striker or the mysteriously underperforming “world class creative player.” Arsenal fans are particularly fond of Stage 3. Over the years Denilson, Eboue, Fabianski, Almunia, Gallas, Mustafi, Xhaka, Luiz, Ozil, Walcott and others too many to mention have been ushered into the great Arsenal FC Goat Enclosure.
Over-reaction: once we have gotten through slagging off the culprit, we pivot quite quickly into utter catastrophism. We’ve had a bad performance and result? Oh God! We need a complete rebuild… we need to sell everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, even that stupid dinosaur bloke… Champions League spots? Do me a favour, we’re in a relegation battle… This is the worst Arsenal team I’ve ever seen and I’ve been supporting them since the Woolwich days… we need a new manager. Perhaps the most acute form of this condition (which thankfully emerges in only a minority of Grief sufferers) is: “I told you we should have got Mourinho.”
Depression: the only one that we share with the traditional 5 Stages, although in our case it comes last, not second from last. We have usually managed to get through all the previous four stages within 24 hours of kick off and that’s when Depression kicks in. We have moved past catastrophism (we don’t really believe we’re going to get relegated) but there’s just a dull sense of disappointment and a nagging certainty that this season is going nowhere. Worse, we know that being an Arsenal supporter is a condition you’re stuck with for life, like webbed toes or sticky-out ears, so there’s no escape.
If this seems depressing I don’t mean it to be and there is, in fact, a silver lining.
Football’s great gift to the soul is that a new game comes round every few days (or every couple of weeks in the event of an irritating international break). And when a new game is on the horizon, we pretty quickly leave Stage 5 behind us and… yes, you’ve guessed it… we return to Delusional Optimism.
So, coming back to the Villa game, I have now gone through all five stages. After our win at Old Trafford my Delusional Optimism convinced me we would spank the Brummies; I sat open-mouthed with Disbelief as Grealish, Barkley and Watkins gave us a lesson in how to play effective, attractive football; I flipped instantly into Scapegoating Willian, whom I deemed to be our worst performer on a day of dreadful performances; I Over-reacted by harbouring thoughts such as “Arteta must have lost the dressing room” and “perhaps we are just a mid- to low-table team,” and, finally, I sank into the Depression of realising that this year’s Arsenal weren’t going to be what I hoped they would be and that it’s probably ridiculous to be dreaming of Top Four finishes.
But a week has passed and already I am starting to fantasise about the solutions Mikel Arteta has come up with while most of his players have been away on duty for their countries; I’m imagining the desire the team will have to put right the obvious aberration of the Villa performance; I am picturing us going to Elland Road and thrashing Leeds United, followed by a quick jaunt to Norway to crush the upstarts of Molde.
Rocky’s post on Tuesday asked an excellent question with some fine comments (is there one squad player who could be brought into the first team set up to really make a difference?).
It’s a great question but I do struggle to name one player to bring in that I feel will have a seismic impact on our recent performances.
I do like AMN but also like ESR, Willock and Nelson, so maybe I am more in the LBG camp of playing our young players a bit more than we have. I similarly struggle to identify one player not at the club (that we could realistically get) that could also make a massive difference to us if pinged into our current line up at the expense of one other player.
For me the thing that makes the seismic difference is the formation which I look at in two ways: 1) the actual formation, i.e 4-4-2, 3-4-3, 4-3-3 e.t.c and 2) the positions of the players in that formation.
I thought we had a really good transfer window that gave us extra options to progress from what was more of a line up of necessity last season. It served us well at the tail end of last season where we played those tougher opponents.
Not to pick a fight with RC in relation to his comments, but I don’t feel the 3-4-3 should be our go-to formation now and should mainly be reserved for only a couple of opponents.
I like this formation even less when both the wing backs and wing forwards play on the same side as their stronger foot. It reduces our goal threat exponentially and makes all of those wide players more of a delivery player from the flank. However you need different strikers for that to work like a Giroud or Drogba.
The 3-4-3 seems a good formation against a (currently) superior attacking side that will push onto us and play a high defensive line. It is designed for containment and counter attack. It could be made more attacking by having inverted wing backs as well as inverted wing forwards.
For instance if you had Saka and Pepe playing the right flanks and AMN and Auba playing the left you get the option of the overlapping wing back with the wing forward coming infield onto their dangerous foot, or that the wing backs themselves can cut infield to a shooting position and receive the ball on their stronger foot in a role reversal.
We should really though be moving onto something that gets us more on the front foot and increases our goal threat in different positions, and that is the 4-3-3 or a variant on it (most likely 4-2-3-1).
The big key here is we retain the front three but get an extra attacking CM to play between the other two midfielders and the front three.
The bigger question for me is which player should we get to play that position? Willian on the right is a busted flush at this stage with the types of forwards we have not suiting what he can offer from there, but he could be an excellent “experienced” option in the attacking CM role.
Both ESR and Willock could develop really well in the position but my favourite right now would be to try Saka there. We have been struggling with both creativity and goal threat but this doesn’t surprise me with Willian on the right and that missing extra CM to both create for the front three and add an extra central goal threat.
At some point we may find that we need improvements in that creative and goal scoring department, but our recent struggles have more to do with not utilising the players we already have in the right way.
We have reduced our creativity and goal threat ourselves. This line up feels right to me (in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-1-3) which carries goal threat from at least four positions, and creativity, but still with a solid hard-to-break-down look to it: Leno Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney Partey, Ceballos Saka Pepe, Lacazette, Aubamayeng.
I think you could change the Number 9 without too much drama and Saka could also play where Pepe is with someone else in the ACM. If Auba is rested or moved up top then Nelson can drop in to the left side attack (or as a left field suggestion even AMN). Any of Elneny, Xhaka or AMN can partner Partey and it is a question of who partners Gabriel at CB, but Luiz feels the strongest option right now.
Alan Davies is many things: the fall guy for Stephen Fry (and latterly Sandi Toksvig) on the brainy panel show QI; a magician’s assistant who solves murders in Jonathan Creek; presenter of some show about dogs on Channel 5; the tonsorial inspiration for a bevy of mop-topped footballers from David Luiz, to Willian via Matteo Guendouzi; and a reasonably amusing comedian.
He is also a die-hard Arsenal fan and long-time season ticket holder who has done the hard yards over the years watching us lose away in every northern sh*thole town from Oldham to Barnsley.
He’s also quite good at ranting.
His memorable rants include his furious reaction to Aaron Ramsey having his leg snapped by the Shawcross animal, whom he memorably described as “a clumsy idiotic thug,” representing a club (Stoke City) that “are sent out to play like that.”
Another rant about Liverpool’s refusal to play games on the same date as the Hillsborough tragedy led to him being told he should never go to Scouseland again (so, a clever move on Alan’s part there I think we can all agree – a bit like telling a fat bloke he’s banned from the salad bar).
Well, he’s been at it again following our recent rubbish performance against Aston Villa.
This was a good rant. A very good one. So good that I transcribed it after hearing it on his rather good podcast The Tuesday Club yesterday.
What I liked was that it was not a rant against Mikel Arteta, or about the fact that our team rolled over for Villa like a poncey lapdog that wants its tummy tickled. It wasn’t even a rant about Willian, my own bugbear from the performance.
Alan went deeper than that and identified the root of our current problems. Hearing it made me appreciate better the sheer scale of the challenge that El Patron has taken on here at Arsenal. It’s like he’s bought a house hoping to build a conservatory at the back and put a firepit in the garden, but he’s just discovered that the whole structure is infested with dry rot.
Here’s what Alan had to say:
“Talk me through the Unai Emery period signings (I don’t know who’s responsible, if it’s Mislintat or Raul Sanllehi or Unai Emery). Leaving aside Kieran Tierney, if you look at Sokratis – £18 million, not noticeably an upgrade on Calum Chambers or Rob Holding or Shkodran Mustafi, already at the club: waste of £18 million.
“You look at Jay Leno, £19 million, decent enough ‘keeper but not noticeably an upgrade on Emi Martinez who’s already at the club.
“Lucas Torreira, £22 million, half decent player but evidently much too small to play in the Premier League, nowhere near the power to survive in there.
“Guendouzi seems to have bags of potential but is obviously raving mad and we knew he’d been raving mad because he’d fallen out with his manager in France and not noticeably better than Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Joe Willock who already we’ve got in the club, or Emile Smith-Rowe in fact, so no point buying him either.
“And Nicholas Pepe: this kid is a bit of a streaky winger, not fully in control of his legs, a little bit Bambi, will he control it or will he not? He doesn’t know, no-one on the team knows. Brilliant at cutting inside and smashing it in a cross-cum-shot fashion out of play. Really, should we not have just kept Walcott? What is the point of spending £72 million?
“Emery wanted Zaha, and for the money we spent on all that load of crap we could have got Zaha and Grealish. Honestly, the recruitment in that two-year period…
“So Arteta is picking over the rubble of the end of Arsene Wenger, where there are players on monumental contracts… then the kind of chaos of who’s in charge in transfer policy and… that chubby bloke from Spain who looks like he’s just put out a fag who’s supposed to have a contact book that’s going to outdo everyone in the transfer market.
“Then we really bought into a load of flannel about how brilliant we were – do you remember we were told what a genius he is to get Pepe and then pay for him over five years? This is not the first time someone has had to pay in instalments – we still have to pay it! And at the moment he’s worth £22 million not £72 million, if that.
“All of these transfers, I wish they had never happened I wish they had not allowed him to buy anyone. After that final in Baku I said sell the lot… just put all these kids in and find a left back, which we did in Tierney, and then we had a half decent team: we had Martinez, Chambers, Holding, Bellerin, Tierney, we had lots of good talent in midfield, people who aren’t getting much of a look in like Rees Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Smith-Rowe, the absolute genius that is Bukayo Saka, the sheer brilliance of Martinelli: I thought this lot could really do something.
“I mean if we’re really going to be crap and finish 12th at least let this lot bond – and as it is we went and spent £170 million or some astronomical amount of money on crap.”
Alan and his fellow podcasters went on to agree that there were signs of encouragement with our most recent pieces of transfer business, in that both Gabriel and Partey look like clear upgrades on what we already had.
But going back to the heart of his rant, can anyone really disagree with any of it?
Something very strange went on with transfer policy at Arsenal over a period of several years. The best we can say is that it was incompetence. The worst… well, the laws of libel constrain me from saying what I really think.
So, if our “ups” under Mikel Arteta are accompanied by some very deep “downs” from time to time, let’s cut the man some slack and take into account the context of the sh*t show he inherited.
Which currently available player who is not in Mikel Arteta’s “first eleven” would make the biggest difference to our performances?
It seems like a pertinent question, following our lame capitulation to Aston Villa on Sunday night.
And before you ask, this is not a roundabout why of trying to reignite the Ozil debate. Ozil is not in our Premier League squad so he is not available for selection. End of.
In fact this Post was inspired by a comment from kfdickie in response to yesterday’s match report.
Dickie said: “…why wasn’t AMN put on to stop Grealish? That would have stopped 50% of their play.“
I’m sure some of the Arsenal players had nightmares on Sunday night in which Jack Grealish was running at them, ball glued to his feet, all energy and intelligence and not to be stopped.
Reading Dickie’s comment I thought: “Yes! Why didn’t we do that?” And it led me further to think that Maitland-Niles was the one player I would most like to see given a run in our Premier League starting line-up.
He was outstanding in our successful FA Cup campaign this year and, in some games, played with great dedication in shutting down dangerous opponents.
If we take it that (at least as of last Sunday) Mikel Arteta’s first choice team is/was: Leno, Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, Tierney, Elneny, Partey, Saka, Willian, Lacazette, Aubameyang, who would you swap in? And for whom?
I’m talking about a player you think should be given consistent starts in the EPL.
(Since you ask, I would put AMN in on the right of midfield in place of Elneny, assuming all other options are fit).
The fan consensus about Arsenal is pretty damning this morning.
We got outplayed, outfought and out-thought on our own ground by a very decent Aston Villa side.
Losing is always disappointing, but it is much harder when you go down without a fight. Last night we collapsed with barely a whimper. In fact, we put the ‘wimp’ in whimper.
What was Mikel Arteta’s response afterwards?
Well, it was actually pretty classy. He did not throw any individual players under the bus (as Mourinho would probably have done in similar circumstances). He put the blame squarely on his own shoulders:
“We performed below our standards, our ability and I didn’t see the spirit for the first time that I have seen every day in training and every day when we compete.
“This is totally my fault, it is why I am here, I am responsible for that, to make sure the team performs and competes at the highest level every three days. Today I haven’t done that, so obviously it is my fault.
“At the end of the day, if you are late in ever decision you make, if you don’t win enough duels, if every second ball isn’t for us, you don’t show the quality with the ball, you cannot defend your box, and when you get chances you don’t even hit the target, it is a really complicated way to win football matches.”
The match itself started badly when Villa had the ball in the back of our net in the first minute. VAR correctly ruled it offside (a Villa player was interfering with Leno’s line of sight) but it was a warning as to the visitors’ intent. Unfortunately we did not use it as a wake-up call.
The same starting 11 that were dominant across the pitch against Manchester United struggled to win any 50-50s, seemed low on energy and individually full of errors. Even in that Old Trafford win we were pretty toothless up front despite our superiority. Against Villa our toothlessness sank to a whole new level of gummy impotence.
The front three of Auba-Laca-Willian were far too far apart from each other for most of the game so moves broke down almost as soon as the ball reached them. Willian in particular had a truly awful game that must have had Chelsea fans rolling about laughing.
Nothing progressive came from midfield, although Partey had one or two dangerous-looking surges. Unfortunately an injury prevented him from returning after the half time break. Ceballos took his place but also struggled to make a big impact on the game.
One of the ironies was seeing our FA Cup hero goalie Emi Martinez return to the club where he had served over a decade in the shadows before his sudden rise to glory and walking off the pitch with three points and having barely been troubled. Villa’s second goal came from Big Emi catching a contested cross that Leno would probably have punched, then releasing the Villa attack with an outstanding Lehmann-like throw out.
I know there is no point raking over the goalkeeper decision now, but I am by no means convinced we kept the right stopper.
Overall, we looked weak in every department while the Midlanders looked strong, fast, decisive and dangerous.
I wrote a column a few weeks ago suggesting they could be a surprise Top Four package this season and I saw nothing yesterday to dissuade me from that. In Grealish they have the best English player of his generation (inexplicably frozen out of Gareth Southgate’s first team plans); Grealish’s partnership with Ross Barkley is turning into something potent (Ian Wright said the team he would most like to play for this season if he were still young is Villa because of Grealish-Barkley); and in Ollie Watkins they have a confident and in-form striker (who happens to be an Arsenal fan).
For all the pain of our performance, I actually enjoyed watching the way Villa played last night. In Arsene Wenger’s famous metaphor they played with the handbrake fully off. They deserve congratulations. Towards the end I found myself thinking “I wish we could play like that.” As for us? It’s not so much that our handbrake was on, it’s that we didn’t have a handbrake. Or an engine. Or any wheels. We played like a clapped out Ford Escort stripped bare and propped up on bricks after being left overnight in Scouseland.
But that’s enough doom and gloom.
For all the disappointment we have to remember that it was one game. Undoubtedly there is a lot for Mikel Arteta to think about it, but our young manager in whom we have such high hopes has not become useless overnight.
In his post match interview he added that you learn more from defeats than from victories and already in his brief tenure at the helm of HMS Arsenal he has earned the right to be given time to do that learning and to put things right.
I, for one, am a long way from giving up on him.
A lacklustre performance happens to all teams at times and I’m sure Arteta can get the players fired up again. A bigger issue is that we are creating so few chances and the answer to solving that problem probably lies less with personnel (although that is part of it) and more with how we set up.
Arteta came in to a club that gave away sloppy goals for fun and saw his first job as making us tighter and better organised at the back. Notwithstanding yesterday, he has mostly achieved that.
But the process of doing so seems to have infected him with a sense of undue caution. It’s time now for less caution and more risk. He who dares doesn’t always win, but he feels a lot better about himself for having tried.
Arteta has the international break to ponder things. He has been drilling his team in a certain style of play but that style now needs to be modified and I hope he is broad shouldered enough to admit it.
Release the handbrake Mikel.
Leno – 4
Not sure he could have done much about any of the goals, but you don’t get points for letting three in.
Bellerin – 5
Average from Hector and no more.
Holding – 5
For a change individual defensive errors did not undo us, more an overall paucity of effort and concentration. Rob was average.
Gabriel – 6
Our best performer on the night, but no-one gets MoTM after that showing.
Tierney – 5
Unusually tentative at times and made one hilarious slip that has already become a meme.
Partey – 5
Looked promising at times but went off injured at HT.
Elneny – 5
Ran around a lot.
Saka – 5
Can’t fault his effort, but nothing came off.
Willian – 2
A truly awful performance. Villa’s first goal came from Willian passing to a Villa player while not under any pressure. He gave away possession time after time and had zero impact as an attacking force. Has he been sent by Chelsea as a sleeper agent to help destroy us from within?
Lacazette – 3
He has a difficult role in this set-up, but he missed our best chance of the game.
Aubameyang – 4
Unable to influence the game from his exile out in the wild west.
Ceballos – 5
I felt Dani tried, but could not make any impression given the overall lacklustre nature of our team performance. He played a couple of nice through balls that came to nothing.
Pepe – 5
Was an improvement on Willian, but my Gran would have been an improvement on Willian and she’s dead.
Perhaps it is time we took stock of our mercurial Ivorian.
His performance against Molde pretty much summed up his time at Arsenal.
For most of the game (certainly until Bukayo Saka came on) he was, frankly, pretty poor.
He was unable to impose himself against a team who are hardly numbered among the greats of world football (no disrespect to Molde, who deserve credit for the way they played us).
He seemed to trip over the ball at times, at others he was muscled off it. When he tried to dribble he lost possession and he offered no real goal threat.
Then he ended the game with an assist and (another) peach of a goal.
The man is a mystery.
It would be easy to be critical of him for the majority of his play against the Norwegians, just as it was against Dundalk a week earlier. But in both games he ended up on the score sheet.
So what’s the problem?
Is it that his £72m price tag weighs too heavily? Is it that the way we set up (and, more importantly, the way teams set up against us) does not suit his game? Is it just down to his quality?
I think we can discount the last one. He has shown on enough occasions that when given an opportunity he can do the right things and do them very well. If you cast your mind back to our FA Cup Final win, his control and pass for Aubameyang’s winner were top, top class.
It’s consistency that’s the problem.
There was a discussion about him on the Arseblog podcast yesterday in which it was suggested that we should be hoping he becomes a new Ljungberg or Pires, capable of delivering 20 goals a year.
No doubt we would all love that, but it may be a stretch for Pepe. Over his club career he has scored 50 goals in 180 games – or a goal about every three-and-a-half games. If he played all the games in a Premier League season that means we could expect him to find the net 10 or 11 times. Not bad, but not likely to make the difference in us achieving something special.
The missing part of this puzzle is his potential. What is he capable of if coached to be the best he can be? It must be on Mikel Arteta’s mind. El Patron saw Raheem Sterling arrive at Manchester City as a gifted but raw and frustrating striker and watched as Pep Guardiola turned him into a world class player.
Can he do it with Pepe? What do you think?
My feeling is that it ultimately won’t work out for Nico at Arsenal. I dearly hope that I’m wrong, but my instincts make me doubt that he will suddenly explode as a goalscoring, assist-making talent and I would be unsurprised if we start the 2021-2022 season without him.
A slightly strange game against Molde, in that we started very cautiously, perhaps because Molde shared the top of the Europa table with us, and yet, in the end we had a pretty comfortable win. How so?
We experienced yet another game where we misfired more that we would want in the attack.
Some of that involved bad luck with the referee ruling out a good goal for Eddie, which VAR, yes that VAR, would probably have given him the thumbs up.
But VAR is not available in the group stages — and will only come into play in the knockout stages — go figure.
But Lady Luck smiled on us with two very nice own goals from Molde. Umm, did I mention that we had gone down 0 : 1 at that stage, after some woeful defending and Leno seeming to have gone to sleep.
Willock, and Pepe put the icing on the cake late in the game and ‘hey presto’ one more win and we will qualify for the knockout stages. Then we get to bring on the kids.
For those who watch every game possible, the improving Joe Willock is very eye catching, and like in our last game, he inspired the team to keep trying harder and… they did. Good lad.
We were frustrated, both the fans and the team by having a lot of pressure on Molde but missing each chance at a goal until the first own goal just before half time. We are still missing a top creative talent in the team, but another own goal made the team relax and the game simply slipped into our hands, with the lads laughing and hugging each other.
We cannot help but be pleased, but we must ensure this ‘second team’ gets going from the off, in the future or laughter could easily become tears.