Two games played, two very disappointing defeats and some supporters are already calling for the manager’s head. Yes, The Arsenal are well and truly back from the enforced Covid-19 break.
Prior to the return of the Premier League, I openly admitted that I didn’t feel my usual buzz of excitement and anticipation. To me, recommencing the competition with altered rules, with upwards of 75% of the fixtures played, without any fans in attendance and without a proper pre-season schedule being in place for the players following a three month break, is farcical.
Some will argue that it’s the same for all the teams and that postponements can happen during the course of every campaign. True, they can and do, however, I still believe that there is fair justification in questioning the legitimacy of a competition that suddenly allows an additional two substitutions to be used in its final 25%, or so, of games for example. That, along with the other, and more obvious differences, such as the lack of atmosphere inside the stadiums etc.
Whilst the additional two substitutes are available to all teams, via three ridiculous substitution windows that would be more suited to a local five a side tournament than they are to the top tier of professional football in England, they will still give the managers an unfair advantage in situations that will occur in the remaining games, in comparison to situations that have already occurred in the previous 75%, or so, of the games played.
It could also be argued that the three month break has allowed players who were going to miss the remainder of the season, to regain fitness. Although, personally this doesn’t concern me too much as by the same token, teams are likely to lose players due to injury through a lack of training and match fitness.
Players missing through suspension or injury often return for rearranged fixtures too.
We all know that finishing the season isn’t about the players, the football or the fans, it’s solely about money. However, I’ve digressed too much and whilst many of us now wish it hadn’t, our campaign has resumed, in a very disappointing fashion.
When the starting eleven was announced prior to the Man City game, many fans felt that Mikel Arteta had picked the team with the ‘more winnable game’ vs Brighton in mind. I’m not totally convinced and I for one, wouldn’t be in favour of our manager having such a negative mindset, however seemingly realistic it may be at the time.
It would be very easy to fall into the mindset (before the fixture), that we won’t beat Man City regardless of what personnel is selected but it should not be forgotten that City have unexpectedly dropped points against the likes of Norwich, Newcastle and Crystal Palace this season. If you don’t believe then you will never achieve and I’ll give Arteta the benefit of doubt.
After all, Mikel knows the players form and fitness better than any of us, having seen them in limited training sessions and in our two behind closed door friendlies. I’d like to think, and hope, that his team selection was based on what players were looking the sharpest in the above and that he had every intention of attempting to get something from the game. Rather than simply throwing in the towel before a ball had even been kicked as some supporters have suggested. Unfortunately, whatever game plan Mikel may or may not have had, was not helped by the early injuries to Granit Xhaka and Pablo Mari.
Whilst Xhaka certainly hasn’t been great by any means, performance wise, since he joined us, I do believe we are a better side and a more balanced one when he is in it. He had marginally improved under Arteta and I liked how he’d been dropping in defensively to cover for Bukaya Saka, when the latter filled in impressively at left back. Which leads me to my next point.
Having shone in an attacking sense on the left hand side but struggled a bit defensively at times, I was surprised to see Saka on the right at the Etihad Stadium. Particularly with Kieran Tierney at left back. With both in the side, it seemed the ideal opportunity to pair them on the left flank. For reasons unknown, this opportunity was wasted. No, it wouldn’t have changed the result but it could have been beneficial for both players in terms of potentially building an understanding.
The injury sustained by Pablo Mari against Man City was particularly disappointing, as I was looking forward to seeing him get a run of games so we could informatively decide whether he’d be a worthwhile permanent signing. Despite the injury and due to the relatively modest transfer fee reportedly involved, I’d still sign him.
Although he looked a bit susceptible to pace against West Ham, he looks calm, composed and comfortable on the ball and adds some extra height to our backline. If a player has footballing intelligence, and good reading of the game, then he can use it to help him adapt the pace of English football. The elegance Mari has shown, in the admittedly very little of him that we’ve seen so far, suggests he may fall into that category.
On the subject of our loanees, the more I see of Dani Ceballos, the more I have to question what noteworthy attributes he brings to the team. Aside from having a good technique and a few nice touches that are easy on the eye, as you’d probably expect from any Spanish born midfielder, what does he actually offer?
He doesn’t score, he doesn’t assist, and he doesn’t offer defensive protection. He huffs and puffs, but he doesn’t blow anyone’s house down, which is probably why Real Madrid don’t appear too concerned about keeping him. Unless there’s a significant improvement from him, it’s a no from me based on what I’ve seen from him to date.
Moving on to our second game since the restart, being beaten by one of the best teams around is one thing, losing to a very poor Brighton team is another. We started off brightly and for 20 minutes or so, I was almost fooled into believing that us having had the extra game in midweek, would be to our advantage. Disappointingly, the game quickly deteriorated and developed the all too familiar air of inevitability that we would go on to suffer defeat. Even if a superb goal from Pepe did briefly give us a reason to be optimistic that this wouldn’t be the case.
The loss of Bernd Leno through injury is a huge blow, with him arguably being our best performer this season. I personally don’t believe Neal Maupay intended to seriously injure him and although it was a deliberate foul, it’s not the first and won’t be the last time that we will see a player knocking over a goalkeeper after he’s claimed the ball.
Of course deliberate injuries do occur, even at the highest level. Having watched the incident several times now though, I believe it was more of a “I’m going to give you a little nudge to let you know I’m there today”, in an often futile attempt to discourage Leno from engaging in any future 50-50 challenges with him, than anything else on Maupay’s part. In almost every game of football that you watch, you will see a player go in like that on a goalkeeper. 999 times out of a 1000 the goalkeeper will get straight back up, unharmed, after the exact same level of contact.
I don’t believe Maupay intentionally set out to injure Leno but it is perhaps fair to say he benefited from it, with Martinez at fault for the first goal and the second one too if you ask some supporters. Many amongst the Arsenal fan base love a conspiracy though and seemingly enjoys creating hate figures. Be it a rival player or a referee, as it helps to distract them from our own team’s failings.
Some supporters have labelled Matteo Geundouzi’s post-match behaviour as embarrassing and unacceptable. Which makes me question whether they’ve ever played a competitive game of football themselves. Even professional footballers are humans, with normal human emotions that can sometimes boil over in the heat of the moment. Especially after a disappointing late defeat.
Whilst I understand the frustration of seeing the player who caused a serious injury to a team mate, scoring a late winner, what really disappoints me, pisses me off if the truth be told, is that the players appeared so eager to fight after the final whistle but failed to show anywhere near the same level of fight during the game itself.
Most supporters love to see a bit of passion and fighting spirit from their players but it has to be channelled in a constructive way, even if some of us will happily admit that we love seeing incidents such as the infamous Martin Keown and Ruud Van Nistelrooy one!
When you look at all the teams in the league, we are a team who stand out in terms of lacking leadership and physicality. Until that gets rectified and we also add additional quality, we’re going to struggle.
I’ve been hugely supportive of Arteta and his appointment up until now and I’m certainly not jumping on the Arteta out bandwagon. I like the guy and admire the intelligent way that he presents himself but talking a good game alone isn’t enough. He needs to find a way to quickly get us back on track because the feeling that we are going to get beat in every game, regardless of the opposition, like we had in the latter days of Emery, has suddenly resurfaced amongst supporters.
Questions are beginning to be asked and the alarm bells are slowly starting to be set in motion due to his perceived poor in game management by some. Mikel’s obviously not been helped by the injuries to Mari, Xhaka and Leno but some of his substitutions and tactical changes since the restart have been somewhat bizarre. The three late changes at the Amex Stadium being a prime example. Not forgetting the exclusion of Mesut Ozil and Gabriel Martinelli, with the latter causing the most concern.
Some supporters have compared our two recent games to pre-season friendlies. Mainly due to the time that has elapsed since our last competitive fixture, opposed to the lack of fans inside the stadium. And some have asked me whether I’d question the manager’s in game decisions and team selections in a friendly after such a long layoff. My answer is yes. Particularly if I believed he could or should have done something differently that would have been more beneficial for an upcoming competitive game.
The fact is though, whatever our opinions about the season being resumed, these are competitive games, and nobody is beyond being questioned. I don’t know what’s happened to us during lockdown but it’s like all Arteta’s hard work prior to it has been undone, is the pay cut a major factor? Have some of the players already been told they are free to leave the club once the season has been completed? Something doesn’t seem right.
I understand and appreciate that this is a unique situation, but it should not be forgotten that it is for every team. Arteta’s touchline demeanour hasn’t inspired me with any confidence in our two opening return games. That said, he hasn’t been the only one and it would be wrong to single him out. Most of the players need to have a good look at themselves and their contribution too.
The manager needs time and support but it’s not going to be easy for us to shift all the overpaid and under performing deadwood.
Ultimately, football is a results business and were we to fail to win any of our remaining games, the question of how long do we give Arteta would become deafening. Let’s hope it doesn’t reach that stage. However, it’s not all doom and gloom and we have some very promising youngsters. Although how many will actually go on to deliver on their early promise and make the grade remains to be seen.
The board need to back their manager with substantial transfer funds over the summer. The trouble is, persuading players to join us at the moment could prove to be challenging and when we have spent big money in the past, we haven’t always spent it wisely. We will also need to see an improvement in our player recruitment strategy.
How many times do we need to say that though? It’s tiresome, just like watching our games has been in recent seasons. I know losing a game of football is not comparable with losing a loved one, like so many sadly have in recent months but as far as being a football fan goes, it’s a tough watch at the moment. More so because we can’t go and drown our sorrows with like-minded individuals in the pub afterwards….
Having been born in 1984, I’ve experienced Arsenal life before Wenger and therefore, I certainly don’t fear it beyond him. That said, I admire and respect his past achievements at the club. I often get called negative but personally, I prefer the term honest and honesty is something that I pride myself on. I joined Gunners Town after penning several ‘Dear Arsene Wenger’ letters on my Facebook profile and sharing them in Arsenal supporter groups. These were met with praise and the encouragement to start writing my own blog, from fellow Arsenal supporters, who felt my words summed up their own feelings perfectly. So here I am…..