Squad only knows
Futurama voice: “Good news everyone!”
Well, there isn’t really any good news, but there’s one thing that is definitely true. It is no longer November, and that cannot be bad. Arsenal and November have a long history together and not much of it is good. It’s an inescapable fact that during this month we are bad. There’s no point trying to find other reasons for our dismal run, it’s simply the month that’s in it. Now the month is over, things are going to be miraculously better and we’ll start winning games and scoring goals again.
Well, in the absence of any light at the end of the tunnel, I’m clinging onto this. I bet Steve’s lucky Arsenal socks got mangled in the washing machine too, that’s part of it. Who is Steve? Let’s not worry about the fine details here folks, it’s all about the socks. How can any team be expected to play football to a competent level when Steve’s Socks are banjaxed?
A lot has been written and said over the last few days, and if you can bear to relive it, I really recommend the Tactics Column from Lewis in which he lays bare the problems we have in the centre of the pitch in the Wolves game. Here’s the conclusion (although I do urge you read the whole thing before continuing with this post):
Mikel Arteta knows he needs to find more goals from somewhere, but he’s going to have to change his approach and let his players play through the middle of the pitch if he wants to find them. The formations we’re familiar with were once famously dismissed as “nothing more than telephone numbers” by Pep Guardiola. Back three, back four, midfield three, midfield two. It’s all a distraction.
Arsenal aren’t going to improve no matter how the team is lined up unless the approach is altered.
Interestingly, in his previous piece (about the 1-0 win over Man Utd), Lewis’s headline was: Under-coached 0-1 Over-coached – but on that day Arteta’s high-instruction, rigid formula won the day. It was a very ‘away’ performance though. A ground we hadn’t won at since 2006 meant coming away from Old Trafford with three points was something of a long-shot, and it required that kind of approach.
Home games against Leicester, Aston Villa and Wolves however … well, I’m not going to say they should be bread and butter for this team, but part of what makes those results hurt as much as they do is that they used to be precisely that. When you’re hit over the head with the evidence that you no longer have the stature and aura you used to, and when your team plays like the mid-table team it is, it’s painful. That we’ve lost so much of what we used to be in such a short space of time in terms of how we play, it’s salt in the wounds territory.
It is then completely understandable that people ask very serious questions of Arteta, and that is part and parcel of the job. It’s what happens at any club, let alone a big club which has fallen by the wayside. Part of his remit is to get us back to where we feel like we belong – and I say that without trying to sound privileged or taking anything for granted, but it’s true. It’s something he spoke about himself when he took over, but he also said this about the way he wanted his team to play:
We have to have passion, we have to be dominant, we have to be aggressive. We have to play in the opponent’s territory as much as we want. I want the ball, I want to attack them as much as possible, I want to prevent them from attacking me as much as possible.
The direction’s going to be very clear and it’s not going to be negotiable. I will need the players to be on board with the right attitude, with the right passion and commitment. Step by step, we will be improving and reaching to find the right identity for us.
It’s fair to say those steps are proving difficult to implement. That’s not the kind of football we’re playing, and it’s hard to see quite how Arteta wants us to be that dominant team he speaks about. My suspicion is that the caution is down to the players at his disposal, he sort of found a way to make it work, but it only really works in certain games. Wins over Liverpool, Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City etc in various competitions are evidence of that, but our Achilles Heel is actually an Achilles Entire Leg and Some of his Torso, and those are fixtures in which we’re supposed to be on top.
Personally, I think that if Arsenal brought in a new manager, we might see a bounce in results for a little while, before we revert to something similar to what we’re seeing now. There are more experienced coaches out there who could perhaps sustain it for a little longer, but inevitably we’d regress. The main reason for that is a playing squad that can only give you so much. A playing squad that, frankly, has been put together in the most haphazard, nonstrategic way possible, filled with overly-comfortable players on big wages (and some of that is on the current boss, btw – although I do think it’s necessary to look at some of the decisions through the prism of the Covid market).
This isn’t to say some of the issues we’re dealing with aren’t Arteta’s fault. He’s made decisions about team selections, squad omissions, formations etc that he has to own. It’s his choice to make the team play the way it does. He didn’t sign off on a three year deal for Willian, that was the then Director of Football, but he made it clear he wanted the player and the player has, so far at least, been hugely disappointing. At the same time, we like Gabriel, we yearn for more Thomas Partey, so there are pluses too.
I’m pretty sure I said something similar at the end of the Emery era too, but I look at the squad and there are basically just a handful of players I’d fight to keep. The rest, I couldn’t care less if they left. In many cases I’d provide any possible help and assistance to find them new clubs. Some of them, without being harsh, are genuinely an impediment to us but because of the way the squad has been built, because of injuries and so on, we remain reliant on them.
Arteta has got things wrong, but where we are right now is not solely down to him. As a football club, we have made a litany of bad decisions over the last number of years, all of which contribute to the current state of play. At a football level, at executive level, at ownership level, we have been badly run and so much money has been wasted or spent badly. I can’t say for sure that Arteta is the man to fix it. I can’t sit here this morning and say my optimism hasn’t been badly shaken by what’s happened so far this season, but at some point we need someone with an actual plan and time to implement it.
The club have ‘gone big’ on Arteta. I don’t foresee any change – not unless things get to a catastrophic stage, and we’re still not there yet. We’re in 14th in the Premier League, which is a bad place. We’re also just 4 points off the top 6, and 5 points off the top 4. The compressed nature of the table means it could all look different quite quickly, and that’s how it will be viewed from on high, I reckon. It has to change, we need to address the way we play and the results more importantly, but whether it’s Arteta or someone else, there’s a ceiling to what you can achieve with this squad of players, and it’s too low for what we say we want to be.
For more discussion on Wolves, the state of play, and loads more, the new Arsecast Extra is below. Enjoy.
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This Arsecast Extra was recorded with ipDTL