Granit Xhaka’s (mostly) unforced error against Burnley cost us two points and led to a sobering statistic.
If we had avoided blatant individual errors in our last four matches (including Burnley) apparently we would have secured 12 points from those games and risen to fifth in the table at the final whistle on Saturday.
Instead we got four points from those four games and continue to wallow in mid table.
Just think what a difference those eight points would make to our season, to our sense of happiness and to the mood around the club. They would be transformational, but the fact we don’t have them is entirely down to us, not to our opponents. It’s not that we have been outplayed in these four games.
Not everyone will agree, but I feel we are playing some good football and showing signs of progress. With the emergence of young stars like Saka, Smith Rowe and Tierney we can feel excited about the future, but not if we are going to continually sabotage our own best efforts.
We’re like a hunter who buys a new hunting rifle and all the camo gear, heads out into the woods and waits for hours in a carefully constructed hide until, finally, an elk walks into a clearing in the middle distance, perfectly in range and conveniently lit up by a shaft of sunlight.
The hunter carefully raises the gun to his shoulder, holds his breath, takes aim and starts to gently squeeze the trigger… then slips, falls ass over tip and shoots himself in the foot as the elk trots away laughing.
We have good equipment. Our preparation seems to be solid. We know what we want. But in too many games we get the FOOT-GUN-SHOOT moment.
I have written in the past about a self destructive gene that seems to have embedded itself in the Arsenal DNA some time towards the end of the Wenger era and that has never been eradicated.
How many times have we heard an Arsenal manager, after a disappointing result, say “we need to cut out these types of errors”? Whether it’s Wenger, Emery or, now Arteta, it has become a constant refrain with all the annoying familiarity of a bad advertising jingle.
So what do we do about it?
In the past I have wondered whether some players need to have a greater sense of fear (either of their manager tearing them a new one or of a team mate in the Tony Adams mould pinning them up against the wall of the dressing room after the game).
I have speculated that the team needs a specialist psychology coach to work on issues of concentration and confidence.
I realise I have generally avoided the most popular potential solution: get better players. I generally want to give our boys the benefit of the doubt. For example with Xhaka’s latest blunder, my thinking was “well, if the manager wants us to play out from the back at every opportunity, this sort of thing is going to happen once or twice a season. It happens to other teams that adopt this approach as well as to us.”
But, like an Egyptian crocodile, am I in denial?
Is it really as simple as the fact that we just need to ditch the players who, regardless of their good qualities, are prone to making horrendous blunders on a regular basis.
In our current squad the two most obvious candidates for the boot are Xhaka and Luiz. They are both experienced pros, they have both had many good performances for us and some exceptional ones, but they also play football with a ticking time bomb in their back pocket. You never know when it’s going to explode but you know that eventually it will.
However, although Luiz and Xhaka are the most visible culprits, it’s worth noting that many other players have cost us points this season through stupidity, including Leno, Ceballos, Pepe, Mari and probably others I’ve forgotten (or blanked from my traumatised mind).
So if the answer to our malaise is “better players” are we really looking at a massive clear-out? We have already parted ways with previous FOOT-GUN-SHOOT specialists like Mustafi and Kolasinac.
I can’t help feeling that there must be another solution. Is it tactics? Motivation? Coaching? Discipline? Confidence-building?
Why did previous Arsenal teams like the Wenger Invincibles or the George Graham title-winning teams of the 1989 and 1991 seem not to have this problem? (Or did they also make similar mistakes, but we just forget about them when we’re playing well enough that they don’t make the difference in games?).
Help me out.