When the good ship Arsenal sails clear of the doldrums that comprise the current international break, we have the reigning (but somewhat tarnished) league champions on the horizon.
Liverpool visit the Emirates on Saturday for an 8pm kick-off, and I really wish it was a game we had played before the Interlull, not afterwards.
Going into the break the Scousers’ form was: P8 – W2 – D0 – L6.
People in Liverpool are used to the idea of “the wheels coming off” (whenever they leave their car parked on the street overnight), but the champions’ fall from grace this season is something to behold.
Liverpool were so good last year that no-one could touch them. They finished 18 points – EIGHTEEN! – ahead of the next best team, Manchester City.
This season they have had some bad injuries but that should not be enough to explain their precipitous decline. It’s more like they climbed a mountain last season in winning the title and psychologically thought “that’s it, job done. No need to worry now.”
Anyway, here’s my point. Their recent run has been so bad that it can’t possibly continue. Their players are too good for that. Consequently the two-week break from domestic football will have given Jurgen “Gnashers” Klopp time to refocus, bang some heads together and aim for a strong finish to the season.
If we had played them before the break I would have fancied our chances a lot more, given that we are coming off a run of six games with only one defeat (at the hands of the champions-to-be Man City).
Provided we don’t perform like we did for the first half hour against West Ham, we have the tools to hurt Liverpool.
The question is, have we missed our best chance? Has international footy scuppered our opportunity?
Right now supporters are not quite sure what to make of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal.
Have we turned a corner? Are we progressing? Will any improvements inevitably be offset by our habit of shooting ourselves in the foot at crucial moments?
Well, to shine a light on how we’re really doing I want you to take a journey with me to a dark, dark place: we are going back in time to October, November and December last year. Don’t worry, I’ll hold your hand.
From October 17th to December 19th we played 10 Premier League games and ended up with a devastating stats line of: P10 – W1 – D2 – L7. We scored four goals and conceded 13.
Here are a few comments from a sample of the AA match reports from those fixtures:
October 25th – Arsenal 0-1 Leicester: the headline of our report was, with a degree of prophetic clarity: “Arsenal Lose to Leicester – It Doesn’t Bode Well.” The report referred to a “painful but entirely deserved defeat,” adding: “…we lacked creativity, we were slow to the point of glacial in moving into attack and too many players were below par.”
November 8th – Arsenal 0-3 Aston Villa: “We got outplayed, outfought and out-thought on our own ground…” and “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.” In the player ratings Willian was awarded a 2, with this note: “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?”
November 22nd – Leeds 0-0 Arsenal: “Any complaints that we left Elland Road with only a point yesterday? I didn’t think so. We were second best for much of the game, we played with 10 men from the 51st minute, Leeds hit the woodwork three times and Leno had to make some outstanding saves.” “We are still striving to find a midfield that works to create chances. Consequently we create very few chances.” In the ratings Willian got 4, Pepe 3 and Aubameyang 5 with this question: “Where is the Auba of last year?”
November 29th – Arsenal 1-2 Wolves: The headline said: “Wolves Rip Gunners Apart,” with the report adding: “A third home-defeat in a row. A 14th place in the EPL. Another game without a goal in open play. Another game without Auba scoring. Another game with toothless attacks and sterile possession.”
December 13th – Arsenal 0-1 Burnley: “Frustration Building Up,” and “…another really tasteless and toothless performance… tonight was worrying on many levels…” Saka and Tierney were our highest rated players with 5 each, while Arteta was given a 2.
December 19th Everton 2-1 Arsenal: From the post game comments: “Whatever Mikel has time to do, he needs creativity! Arsenal have scored just three goals. Rank 20th; Arsenal have had 27 shots on target. Rank 19th; Shooting accuracy 35%. Rank 20th; Shot conversion rate 2.9%. 20th; And our xG is abysmal, so no matter who is in the lineup, if there is no creativity for our front three, it will be useless. From yesterday’s game: 2 shots on target in 94 minutes (the one off the post looked to be deflected).”
It’s a pretty painful march back down memory lane, isn’t it?
And you may be wondering why I have made you join me on that march… apart from pure sadism of course.
It is intended to show that there really is progress at Arsenal: that run was absolutely terrible not just because of the results (which were dire) but because of serious problems with the manner of our play. Our creativity was at rock bottom which meant that we were unable to score goals. We were dreadful to watch.
Opponents were so untroubled by our attacking threat that they could spend the entire game threatening us, usually with fatal results.
Fast forward to today and we are still a team with some problems, but they pale into insignificance when compared with that dreadful run up to Christmas last year.
These days we attack with verve and panache. We have the likes of Odegaard, Saka, Smith Rowe, Pepe and Tierney creating pretty passing moves to carve through opposition defences. Lacazette has found a role that suits him, although Aubameyang still struggles to find consistency.
And yes, our good work is still too often sabotaged by failures in concentration, but the curve is heading in the right direction. The arc of footballing history is bending our way.
I happen to think that one overlooked benefit of that bad run will be what it has done to and for Arteta. El Patron had to look into the abyss as the results kept getting worse: he will have been aware of all the speculation about his future, the calls for his head. Yet he came through it and started to put things right.
I would not underestimate the additional strength that that experience has given him. I think it will have made him harder and more willing to be ruthless if he sees a problem.
It’s too late to salvage much from this season unless we go all the way in the Europa League. That October to December run killed off our chances of a respectable finish in the EPL. But it may just have sown the seeds for something much better in the next campaign.
I can’t say I watched either of the two England games that have been played so far during this Interlull and I’m unlikely to watch the third.
International tournaments are fun but all these friendlies and qualifiers are a bore. Perhaps I would feel differently if there was a greater Arsenal presence in the national side but even then I’d mostly be worrying about injuries.
Real footy resumes on Saturday when we entertain Liverpool at the Emirates.
We have nine games left in the EPL and currently sit in 9th place with 42 points. Sixth place (currently occupied by the Spuds) is six points above us.
As the wags will tell you, 42 points means we are safe from relegation. But what will be our points tally at the end of the season?
Here’s how we’ve done over the past five seasons:
2019-20: 8th, 56 pts.
2018-19: 5th, 70 pts.
2017-18: 6th, 63 pts.
2016-17: 5th, 75 pts.
2015-16: 2nd, 71 pts.
Remember those happy days of 2015/16? They didn’t seem happy at the time as, even though we were runners-up, we finished 10 points adrift of a very beatable Leicester City. But what would we give for a runners-up place now?
Anyway, looking forwards, I shall list our remaining EPL games and predict whether they’ll be wins, losses or draws and where that will all leave us at the end of the campaign.
On paper we have a very favourable run-in given that we have to play all of the teams currently in the bottom five, although that can be a double edged sword given that they are fighting for survival.
The struggling champions got back to winning ways in their last match before the international break (away at Wolves). But their record before that was Played 7, Lost 6, Won 1. With that run of form they should be there for the taking, but they are better than recent results have indicated and they still have great players who can hurt us. Prediction: DRAW
Sheffield Utd (A):
Rock bottom and sure to be relegated, the Blades have lost six of their last seven. They don’t really have anything to play for (which can make a team dangerous) but we have to be beating teams like this. Prediction: WIN
The Cottagers had a terrible start to the season, pulled themselves together for a decent run where they were difficult to beat and earned a lot of draws, but have struggled again of late. But they are in a relegation scrap and have plenty to fight for. Even so… Prediction: WIN
The Toffees are currently one place and four points above us and have European places in their sights. Carlo Ancelotti has steadied the ship at Goodison and they have posed problems for plenty of good teams this year. But they are inconsistent – capable of beating top teams and losing to unfancied ones, making this tough to call. Prediction: DRAW
Yet another season of fighting to avoid relegation for the Barcodes. They haven’t won a game since February 6th. We ought to be winning this one. Prediction: WIN
West Bromwich Albion (H):
Another relegation struggler although, unlike Newcastle, the Baggies need a miracle to avoid the drop. Prediction: WIN
Sadly Fat Frank is no longer at the helm and the Chavs are looking like a really good team with a great coach in Tuchel and a wealth of young talent that matches our own. We have a pretty good record against the West Londoners lately, but this may be a step too far. Prediction: LOSE
Crystal Palace (A):
Palace can be a tricky opponent (I’m still scarred by being at the game where they beat us 3-0 a couple of seasons ago). They’re a few places below us in the league but, barring a sudden collapse, should not have to worry about relegation. Nevertheless I can see this being a banana skin. Prediction: DRAW
Currently they’re in the thick of the relegation battle. Will they still be in that position by the last day of the season? If they need a result to stay up they could be a difficult opponent. Let’s hope they’re either definitely down or definitely safe by then. Prediction: WIN
So, in summary, I have us finishing the season with the following run:
P9 – W5 – D3 – L1 for an end-of-season points tally of 60 pts.
If we manage that it would be our second-worst points total for a very long time, but still an improvement on last season and would probably see us finishing somewhere around 7th or 8th. European football would be unlikely unless we can make it all the way in the Europa League.
So, what do you think? Am I being too optimistic? Too pessimistic? How many points do you think we’ll end up with when this challenging, frustrating and occasionally uplifting campaign has come to an end?
One piece of news really lifted my spirits a couple of days ago.
“Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka Out of Albania and Poland Games” said the headline.
Normally news of an Arsenal player’s injury is reason for mourning, misery, soul-searching and complaining about the club’s fitness regime.
But when I read the details of that story I detected something interesting. The piece explained: “England have confirmed that Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka will miss the team’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Albania and Poland due to injury.
“Both players sat out on Thursday as the Three Lions began their qualification campaign with a 5-0 win over San Marino.
“And the FA have now confirmed the Manchester United and Arsenal stars will not feature against Albania on Sunday and Poland three days later.
“Saka had remained at Arsenal for further assessment on an ongoing issue with the hope of joining up with the Three Lions but will now not be available for the fixtures against Albania and Poland.“
He “remained at Arsenal” and now we have told the national team that, oh dear, he’s just not going to be well enough to play in any of these international fixtures.
What does it remind you of?
It reminds me of all the times when, under the managership of the purple-conked Gorbalian Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United would inevitably announce at “internationals” time that their best players were all crocked, had no chance of pulling on the England shirt, in fact were close to death’s door and a priest had been sent for…
And then, when the Premier League started up again, those same players would make a miraculous recovery and be fit and raring to go.
“Fit-again Lazarus scores hat trick for Manchester United after international lay-off,” the headlines would say, “the player pronounced dead just a week ago was in unstoppable form yesterday as the Red Devils went back to the top of the table with a resounding win over a Tottenham side whose three most influential players were all injured on Englandduty.”
Hate him or hate him, there was no doubting that the volcanic Scotsman knew how to play the system.
And now it looks like we might be doing it too.
Of course this is all going to look a bit silly if Saka ends up being out for three months, but I suspect the club are being ultra cautious with him. I’m sure he had (or has) some muscle tightness and the medical team have been able to use it to get the lad a decent two-week rest.
He has been our best player this season but he was starting to look jaded in his last few appearances.
Does this mark a sea change in Arsenal’s approach to being selfish and self-interested ? It’s too early to tell but I certainly hope so.
For too long our actions – both on and off the pitch – have been characterised by a sense of naivety: our players seldom make the little fouls in midfield that break up a dangerous move, or win a penalty by cheating (sorry, by “being clever”), or engage in rotational fouling of the opposition’s danger man.
At club level, an example would be our attempt to sign Luis Suarez by offering a pound over what we thought was his release fee. It just made us look childish and it infuriated Liverpool, who then did everything in their power to make sure we couldn’t get him. If we’d offered a million more we would probably have got Suarez who was then at the peak of his powers.
Peculiar transfer activity in recent years until high level changes were made did nothing to polish our reputation for being a well run club.
Perhaps you disapprove of my approval for greater cynicism. That’s fine – you can tell me why in the comments. But I’ll take Saka’s withdrawal from Team England this week as a sign of growing intent and maturity at Arsenal.
I was sitting in the Holiday Inn, London, one Saturday in May. It was once upon a time and so far away but the memory of that day will live with me for ever.
I was minding my own business except for a few hurried exchanges with Joe my pal sitting opposite. You know him as RockyLives. We were in our late teens, out of our depth in the high ceilinged marbled opulence of probably the swankiest hotel we’d been in up to that point.
I was a bit peeved with Joe because he seemed oblivious to the weight of what was to happen in the next few minutes (ie, meeting a total stranger to receive two football match tickets in exchange for a wad of sterling that I was guarding with my life, petrified I’d lose it and f*** up the whole weekend).
Just then I spied Bob Stokoe (the former Sunderland manager) sitting alone at breakfast – the only other occupant of that huge dining room. He had charmed the nation when his team – then in the Second Division – beat mighty Leeds United in the 1973 FA Cup Final and he ran and danced onto the pitch at full time wearing his trademark trilby hat. I did not realise at the time that spotting Mr Stokoe would turn out to be an omen.
We, all three in that room, were planning to go to a match later on that afternoon. The date was May 12th 1979, Arsenal (Joe’s team) v Man Utd (mine). Joe was one of three kids from a London-Irish Mum and Dad in Charlton, South London; I was a snotty nosed Dubliner over for the biggest weekend of my life. We had met on one of his summer trips back to the ‘aul sod’ when we were gangly teens and had remained firm friends notwithstanding the fact he was a ‘Gooner.’
Anyway, the PA announcement came (“Would Mr Fitzgerald please go the reception desk”) and I exchanged money for two black market tickets from a sinister looking guy who said thanks and disappeared into the London crowd. We were excited, so much so that we were literally tongue-tied for a while and waiting for the excitement to settle into something manageable. So off we went, winding our way to Wembley, the sun in our gleaming expectant faces.
The match (premium seats, 12 rows up from the Queen) was dull fare except for those last 10 minutes or so. With Arsenal 2-0 up and time running out I was feeling down, but just before McQueen got one goal back for United in the 86th I looked to the United supporters, a vast bank of red curving endlessly behind the goal Utd were attacking. It took me out of my mood and I sensed hope.
Then, two minutes after McQueen’s goal: “McIllroy must score, he has scored,” and I can still see the ball trickling in surreal slow motion just inside the post. Then delirium. I hopped over the wooden banisters and met a screaming young lad running down the steps who literally leaped on top of me and we hugged. Looking over his shoulder I could see his Mum and Dad with rosettes and wooden clackers and all. Back over the banisters and I had just sat down to still my beating heart when something even more surreal happened.
Arsenal resumed: kick off, one pass, one cross, one almighty lunge and Alan Sunderland is the hero: the match is over and nobody can believe what they’re seeing. How do you process that? You don’t, not then, not for a good while (it’s only now as I write this that I’m thinking: was the fact of seeing Bob Stokoe – a man synonymous with the name Sunderland – in the hotel dining room, looking aloof and alone somehow a weird and prophetic omen, one that only reveals itself in hindsight?).
The journey home was in some kind of trance, I spoke to a stranger on the tube, we couldn’t believe it. I think Joe and I were silent for the most part, each trying, I guess, to make sense, to try and process something that we couldn’t even begin to articulate.
Looking back, it seems like it was a kind of watershed, a moment bridging two eras. The old flat cap and rosettes had all but disappeared, Thatcher was coming on, sweeping the entire country into a new economic and cultural arena. The occasion was closer in time to the moon landing than the fall of communism. The eighties came and a new cold wind was blowing in football: the Heysel disaster came a few years into that decade and then four years later the Hillsborough disaster. Football had lost its innocence. Arsenal v Man Utd ’79 was both an ending and a beginning, bookending the seventies.
Fast forward to the 7th of April 2007 and my elder son, Alex, is a fervent Arsenal supporter, swayed by ‘TheInvincibles’ (I was powerless to prevent it!) and he is attending his first game at the Emirates on his tenth birthday (this time Joe got the tickets). Arsenal are entertaining West Ham and Bobby Zamora stabs Alex in the heart that day as Sunderland had done to me all those years ago.
He cried inconsolably. We went to the El Commandante pub near the ground afterwards and he was still sobbing. From amongst the packed crowd a young (twentyish) lad saw my son’s distress, put a consoling arm around him, said “Don’t worry mate, I know you’re real Arsenal, I can see you’re going to to be real Gooner,” and pinned one of his Arsenal badges on his scarf.
I was moved by that warm, big-hearted gesture. It was a reminder that we love our teams, we’re tribal but part of a bigger picture, a bigger family, a worldwide family. And the lesson he learned that day is one we all learn at some point in how to deal with real stomach churning disappointment so we can share the good times all the more.
United in defeat, united in victory. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis: “The pain now is part of the joy after.”
With a pandemic in full swing, grounds closed and our addiction still very much evident, the decision to “spread out and televise” all of the Premier League matches felt like we were getting everything we ever wanted: Total non-stop football.
But we can’t do it forever (whatever AW wants in his new role!). It’s probably about time things went back to normal, for me anyway.
I never thought it would be said, but are we getting too much football?
So the rumour that “they” are considering continuing the style of mass broadcasting even after fans return to the grounds is troubling to me.
We’ve been spoilt. And anyone who remembers the spoilt Veruca Salt in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ knows that this doesn’t lead to happiness. It actually leads to you getting roughed up by angry squirrels. Not what anyone wants.
Charlie Bucket was only rarely allowed chocolate, and he was much happier. So it may be hard at first, but shouldn’t we have our treats taken away? Wouldn’t we enjoy our addiction that be more?
The trouble with non-stop football is it never stops. We don’t have much of a chance to miss it (except in an Interlull), or get really excited about it. By the time we have messaged our mate to take the mick out of his team for getting battered, they’ve already turned it round.
So what do you think? Chocolate rarely, and savoured; or “Dave Jones’s voice from the screen: ‘Dont go anywhere! Coming up it’s the big one! Sheffield United v Fulham!'”
Who remembers when we signed the Brazilian midfielder Gilberto Silva?
It was the summer of 2002 and rumours went round that we were about to announce the capture of one of the players from the all-conquering Brazil team that had just won the World Cup, beating Germany in the final in Yokohama, Japan.
Would it be Rivaldo, or Ronaldinho, or Kleberson, or Roberto Carlos or even – if we’re really dreaming – Ronaldo (the original Ronaldo, not the preening show pony of today)?
When the player’s identity was announced, the fan reaction was along the lines of: “Oh, OK. Well, he seems decent.”
That man was, of course, Gilberto Aparecido da Silva.
There was, perhaps, a slight sense of disappointment that we had not secured the signature of one of the more glitzy names from the world champions. By contrast Gilberto was an unshowy performer, perhaps the least “Brazilian” of that entire team.
How callow we were.
Gilberto turned out to be one of the greatest signings of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal career.
The man nicknamed “The Invisible Wall” was instrumental in allowing the best Arsenal team of our lifetimes to do what it did, culminating in going through an entire Premier League season unbeaten – a feat which has proved too much even for the most dominant sides of recent years including last season’s Liverpool and this year’s Manchester City.
If there had been no Gilberto there would be no Invincibles – it’s as simple as that. While Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Vieira, Ljungberg and company were doing their spectacular thing, the Brazilian was quietly patrolling the deep midfield area, controlling the middle of the park and breaking up opposition attacks all game long.
When he departed for Panathanaikos in the summer of 2008 we were sad to see him go, but the hole he left behind became bigger and bigger with every season that passed from then on. No matter who we tried in the DM position, no-one could do what Gilberto had done.
Fast forward to today and it’s astonishing to think that even 13 years later Arsenal fans are still discussing our need for a reliable defensive midfielder.
Now, in Thomas Partey, we are starting to hope we have the right man. He is not “another Gilberto” or “another Vieira” but he has the potential to combine elements of both those Arsenal greats and after the North London Derby win he was given the seal of approval by the maestro himself.
Here’s what Gilberto had to say about Partey: “He’s a good player. He’s the type of player Arsenal were missing, I’ve spoken a couple of times about it.
“They have good players in the [central midfield] position but not to sit and give Arsenal the stability they have.
“Look at the game [against Spurs] it was great to see how he managed his game, how he managed that position, helping [team-mates].
“You know what is very important about this particular position? This is a very particular position because not every time you get the credit you deserve.
“That’s okay, it’s fine, because you have to understand that. But this guy, when he understands the position like Partey, look at his game. He made the others a lot better.
“He makes Xhaka look better in the game, he made the defenders look a lot better and comfortable when the ball was against them.
“I think the way he manages games, the way he positions himself, is very important for Arsenal. He is the kind of player Arsenal have needed for quite a long time in my opinion.“
It would be fair to say that Partey has made a sluggish start to his Arsenal career, hampered by injury and by what appears to be potentially a bit of a fitness issue.
But he has shown enough ability to get supporters excited about his potential and these comments from his peerless predecessor merely cement that impression.
Following a football club is all about dreams and right now I am allowing myself to start dreaming that this Arsenal side is close to a turning a corner and becoming a proper team. My hope comes from Tierney and Saka, from Smith Rowe, Martinelli and Odegaard, from Gabriel at the back and, last but by no means least, from Thomas Partey.
Having watched a middle of the table team throughout the 60s, not imagining winning anything was for MY CLUB! Then attending two losing League Cup Finals at the old Wembley ploughed field, a new season and decade saw a light on the horizon.
This was especially the case as, in January 1970, Arsenal spent a new Club record – £100,000 – on “the next George Best”. One month after his 20th Birthday, Peter Marinello arrived at the Home of Football from Hibernian and the Swinging Sixties were to become the Salivating Seventies, surely!
A Scotsman by birth, he scored on his debut against Manure at Old Trafford. Bring it on!
Despite our wonderful victory in the Fairs Cup that year to release us from 17 barren years, and the joy that was the 70-71 Double, Marinello played little part in that success.
A “celebrity party lifestyle” and knee injury didnt help! He played 51 times for The Arsenal in three seasons and scored 5 goals, leaving us eventually to join the mighty ranks of Portsmouth. A disappointment, you might say.
Some forty years later, Gervais Yao Konassi, a new dynamic winger from the Ivory Coast, joined the Mighty Gunners. Gervinho as he was more commonly known, joined us from Lille in France, having scored 36 goals in two seasons with them. He cost us £10.8 million and was given shirt No 27, recently relinquished by Eboue. An omen!
He too set off like a rocket! A goal in his first game in a friendly against FC Koln, and a sending off in his Premier League debut against Newcastle for slapping Joey Barton (not all disappointing then!), Gervinho was with us also for two years, scoring 11 times before leaving for Roma.
So what of today? On the 1st August 2019, another Ivorian joined our ranks. Now it is not Pepe’s fault that he cost £72 million ( although I’d like to get hold of the agent on his and Lille’s side, and whoever did the deed at our end and smash their heads together!!).
I have to admit I was also one who strongly suggested Pepe would need time to settle into our team and League, but even given a pandemic season, the two years is approaching fast and I’m not sure, for all his natural talent, the boy has the right “mental state”.
For balance, Pepe scored 35 goals in two seasons at Lille and has scored 10 so far for us.What do you think? Will Pepe fulfill expectations, or will he be a flatterer to deceive.
A subject that has often fascinated or perhaps irritated this writer, especially as regards Arsenal players, is the brilliant skills often shown by our top players.
Skills are different in many ways, dependent on the role individual players are associated with. For example, a goal keeper is the only player on the pitch, for each team, who can, within the rules, handle the ball. So the best GKs are able to pick out a team mate in a beneficial space and either bowl the ball out to him, over-arm or under arm, and give the defence a chance to re-set, or enable the team mate to counter-attack at pace while the opposition is caught out of position.
A handy skill, and when used with accurate drop kicks to the wing, as an alternative, it can make the whole team more confident in the guy at the back who is able to put them on the attacking front foot, and this confidence is a way of relaxing players who may be struggling, and they can then bring their own skill set into play, which is clearly beneficial to the whole team.
That is all well and good if the GK has those skills and can apply them to his work. But, if he throws the ball to an opposition player, or worse still, either kicks a long ball into touch, or heaven forbid taps a short pass to a defender who has opposition players surrounding him, that could cause the team to lose a game.
We have an ex-Arsenal youth team footballer with us on the blog, and it would be great if he could tell us how GK coaches could help to accentuate the skill set and decrease the heart wrenching cock ups – Go for it GIE.
We could go through each position in a similar way, but I would like to concentrate next on the forwards, and particularly the specialist goal scorers, like… Auba, although he is not alone, because we have other goal scoring specialists too.
Recently, we have seen him scoring well when the option has presented itself, and then suddenly… he couldn’t!
The ball, even when within three metres of an empty net, seemed to wing towards Row Z whenever he tried to score, or finished up rebounding off the corner flag. Shots fired in from the edge of the penalty area were also doomed to fly high, wide and not so handsome, in the same parabolic as a penalty taker in Rugby shooting the ball 50 feet over the bar in that game — but that’s no good in soccer.
Then go look at Mo Salah for ‘Pool. I do not care that they are nowhere near as good as last year, but every shot Salah takes for them is like it is on a laser beam, with unerring accuracy, and little if any shots rising over the bar.
How can our top goal scorer waste so many opportunities, while Salah does not? Are their training routines so dissimilar? Can our coaches help Auba? If not – why not?
If Auba can reset his target shots, we could really be knocking on the door of the top four, where we belong.
As far as I know – unlike the goal keeping knowledge of GIE – we do not have a blogger who is proficient in the art of scoring great Premier League goals (apart from my friend, Cedric the Camel) so the door is open – we need the combined knowledge and intellect of the great AA bloggers to crack this problem – then we can tell Mikel and all will be well: “Oi, Mikel we can mend Auba, for you!”
I hear West Ham have a new club song, that goes: “We’re forever blowing three goal leads...”
Not that we can afford to gloat. Yes, it was an impressive achievement to dig ourselves out of a 0-3 hole and get back on level terms by full time, but the way we got into that hole in the first place raises a lot of questions.
This is not a blow by blow report (I’d need an extra thousand words to cover all the incidents that happened); rather I have picked out three lessons I took from the game and from our performance.
Lack of Professionalism
Not for the first time this season we started a game half asleep and allowed our opponents to run rings around us, such that when Lingard opened the scoring for West Ham it was not a surprise.
Remember the Manchester City game when we let them score after two minutes, Raheem Sterling – Raheem Sterling! – rising unchallenged in the middle of our six yard box to head home a cross while Rob Holding stood there like Eeyore? We allowed Leicester to score after six minutes.
Our habit of letting our focus drift at really important times (the opening minutes, the crucial minutes either side of half time) speaks to a problem of coaching, discipline and professionalism.
Then there’s the lack of awareness we frequently display. The most egregious example all season happened yesterday for West Ham’s second goal. We had just gone one-nil down, we needed to really up our game, steady the ship and fight our way back. Instead, what did we do when the Hammers won a free kick just outside our area? Several of our players ambled towards our goal with their back to the ball looking as if they were heading back to the hotel after a few bevvies at the beach bar.
A quick free kick and we were two nil down before some of our players even noticed!
I think Mikel Arteta is attempting to get to grips with the ill discipline and unprofessionalism at the club – it’s why he publicly disciplined Aubameyang for lateness and why he has been prepared to freeze out players like Ozil and Guendouzi. But there is a long way to go, judging by yesterday’s performance.
There ought to be consequences for such casual negligence as was displayed by the players who ignored the quick free kick possibility – perhaps a couple of games in the reserves (and yes, I know that the particular culprits in this case include some of our supposedly best players: Tierney, Partey and Xhaka who all had their backs to the ball, and Saka who was too busy arguing with the ref to notice what West Ham were up to).
Leno letting the ball in at his near post also shows that he was mentally on the back foot too.
But this disease needs severe treatment now. Come on Mikel: consequences, consequences, consequences.
2. Formation Problems
Leaving aside the broader question of whether Aubameyang is worth his place at the moment, it is clear that we function really badly when he plays with Lacazette.
Laca had a very good game yesterday (including bagging two goals, even if one of them was ludicrously put down as an own goal for West Ham). But when Auba is out on the wing and we are attempting to play a possession game, it effectively puts us a man down.
The captain’s contribution is so negligible except when he attempts to get a run on goal or to get on the end of a cross that we are playing with 10 men. If we had started yesterday with Smith Rowe or even Pepe in the Left Attacking role I’m sure we would not have found ourselves two down in 17 minutes.
As GiE put it starkly in the comments after yesterday’s game: “Aubameyang (does) not really suit the type of game Arteta wants to play, yes on occasion where we planned to sit deep and break he was the man, but when we are trying to control possession and a pass and move build up he just hasn’t got the tools in his locker, he is not a great dribbler, he is not a great passer and his first touch is woeful for someone so handsomely paid. And perhaps most importantly he has never been a player who can stand up to the rigours of a premier league defence, competing for high balls, playing back to goal and risking a knock or two are just not within his skillset.“
Unless we are playing the likes of Manchester City where, as GiE says, we aim to sit deep and break fast (as we did to win the FA Cup), there is just no real place for Auba in the side.
3. Light at the End of the Tunnel
Notwithstanding the points above, the way we played to get back in that game and salvage a draw was tremendously encouraging: not just because of the character it showed, but also because of the attacking football we played.
In the end we might even have come away with all three points (although in fairness we rode our luck at the back at times).
Odegaard was outstanding and linked up really well with Lacazette (whose versatility is really coming to the fore – he seems to combine well with Saka, ESR and now Ode).
Some of our attacking play was slick and pretty, properly Wengeresque. And although it was “only West Ham”, this Hammers team is the best they have had in years by a long way and is fifth in the table for a reason. Even so, we ripped them apart for the entire second half.
Right now we are a team that, if it can only exorcise its demons of carelessness and self-harm, has the players and the potential to be competing with the top four.
Leno – 5
Sleeping for their second goal and I thought he could have done better with the first. He was also leaden-footed for the third, although the fault for that one lies more with Luiz.
Chambers – 7
Assisted for two of our goals and had plenty of good moments, although I thought he looked nervous whenever we tried to play out from the back.
Luiz – 5
Not his best game by a long chalk.
Mari – 5.5
I don’t remember any particular mistakes but then I don’t remember him much from the game generally.
Tierney – 7
Was one of the guilty group with his back to the play for West Ham’s second, but apart from that did well.
Xhaka – 6
Seemed tired. Not entirely surprising.
Partey – 6.5
Steadily growing into his role, but I wish he would stop those long range shots before the England rugby team try to recruit him.
Saka – 6
Not as influential as he has been. He looks like a lad who needs a good long rest (and definitely does not need three pointless internationals in six days).
Odegaard – 8 (MoTM)
In his first couple of games for us I felt he was slowing things down a bit too much, but now he has slipped into gear and boy, he is a player.
Aubameyang – 4
Mostly a passenger and also managed to lose possession every time he got the ball, putting us in danger on several occasions. He should not be considered an automatic starter.
Lacazette – 7.5
Great link-up play and two goals. Led the line really well. We’re a better team when we start with Laca up front and any combo from Pepe/Saka/ESR/Ode behind.