Good morning – James here, welcoming you to the new season. After a peaceful, football-free summer, the opening call of the Premier League season served up an all too familiar shit sandwich for Arsenal fans.
I won’t focus too much on the minutiae of the game, as frankly, it’s depressing. Pete has covered a fair bit in his post, so I’ve tried not to duplicate too much.
The sad reality of yesterday’s result is no one is (or should be) surprised. Time and time again we enter seasons unprepared physically, mentally and lacking the requisite personnel. We have only won one of our last seven opening day fixtures, which is a pretty crippling indictment on our preparation.
Touching on the game itself, alarm bells were ringing when the line-up was announced. Chambers was partnered by Rob Holding, making his first top flight appearance. With an inexperienced centre half pairing, it was imperative to have not only an experienced midfield, but one that is calm, cool-headed and immaculate in possession – Francis Coquelin is none of these things. I know a lot of readers on this site like him, presumably because he runs around a lot, flies into tackles and shows ‘passion’, but none of these make him good enough to play for Arsenal. I can accept his athleticism could aid a counter-press against Liverpool, which bore fruit with his challenge on Lallana in the build-up to Walcott’s goal; but his playing style just doesn’t suit us.
Positionally he is all over the place and it is far too easy to bypass him with lateral passes, leaving attackers a free run at our back four. His first touch and ability to retain the ball under pressure is also a serious impediment to our chances – see yesterday, White Hart Lane (last two seasons). Our midfield’s inability to hold the ball left our back four brutally exposed yesterday.
If Xhaka wasn’t fit enough to start, then play Cazorla. El Neny is every bit as athletic as Coquelin, but has the basic skills and passing range expected of an Arsenal midfielder too. On Xhaka, he looked well off the pace when he came on and it is understandable why he didn’t start. That being said, what kind of pre-season preparation to we undertake? Switzerland went out of the Euros early, giving Xhaka ample time to get ready for the season – and he’s not the only one.
Wenger lamented the Euros, pre-season tours, Brexit, global warming, the smoking ban and Nigel Farage’s moustache for his failure to adequately prepare the team for the season. Yes, the Euros are a hindrance and the demands on modern players to undertake long-haul tours are hardly ideal, but that is the reality of the modern game. The manager would have you believe these issues are exclusively felt at Arsenal, but they’re not. All top clubs have to deal with these travails, and it is his job to overcome them.
Our failure to prepare for a season is alarmingly regular – see Old Trafford (8-2), West Ham (2-0) and Liverpool (2-0). Arsene looks at the season as a whole over the 38 – rightly, some might add – but to treat a Premier League game as a warm up match when other clubs seem to be able to get themselves fit and ready is negligent and frankly disrespectful to paying supporters.
There was a fair bit of chest beating and vitriol from Messrs Henry, Redknapp and Souness regarding Koscielny’s absence, but on this I feel a fair degree of sympathy with the manager. I agree with the decision to not rush Koscielny back – we saw how it hampered Alexis last season – and he would have been absolutely lambasted had he picked up an injury.
Where I have no sympathy however, is our seemingly self-imposed impediment of not signing a centre back. Per got hurt a month ago – we have had four weeks to act on it. Gabriel’s injury merely compounded the urgency. I get that signing a player isn’t easy, but I can’t believe it’s as difficult as we seem to make it! If Mustafi is the target, he should have been signed weeks ago. I wouldn’t advocate overpaying for players, but valuations – like all markets – are transient and move in line with wider market factors.
My concern is that we won’t overplay for a player in the context of our valuation, but we haven’t moved with the market. It’s akin to only wanting to pay £200k for a flat in Camden, like it’s still 1989. The value of money has moved and whilst £40m would have been eye-watering, like it or not, it’s the new-normal.
We have now lost two more key players with Ramsey busting his hamstring and Iwobi hurting his thigh – the severity of both is unconfirmed but it would be a surprise to see either play again this month. Ramsey’s fitness is becoming a real concern – the regularity that his hamstrings breakdown is hampering his form and it’s robbing us of one of our best players. He looked off the pace yesterday, and if he wasn’t fit, why play him?
Despite scoring three goals, concerns remain over our attack, which wasn’t at its best yesterday. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given Alexis was playing an unfamiliar position, and in fairness it was relatively functional in the first half with Ramsey and Theo’s movement around Alexis causing Liverpool problems.
The issues with Alexis as a lone forward arise when we are under pressure. Due to both his inexperience in the role and small frame, we don’t have an obvious outball, thereby every long ball results in the ball coming straight back at us. It’s still early days and I do believe Alexis has the ability and tools to be a striker, but the nuances of the system would need to be tweaked. It is also worth mentioning we were missing the best playmaker in England yesterday and it would be obtuse to write that off as a factor to the result and the overall functioning of our attack.
Whilst yesterday was horrible, I am confident we can have a good season if we bring in the right players, but I struggle to understand why we continually repeat the same mistakes. Graeme Souness was unusually perceptive with his analysis of Arsenal yesterday – we don’t act like a big club. We were sold the dream of moving to the Emirates and being able to compete with Europe’s top table, but now all those associated with the club do all they can to downplay our standing in the game. Whilst this could be akin to managing expectations, it also has the very real danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy – if we keep saying we can’t compete, then it legitimises the club’s unwillingness to compete (in the club’s eyes).
We have flogged the prevalence of stability as if it is some kind of Holy Grail, but it isn’t – it allows for complacency, stasis and the mind-boggling negligence we so often associated with Arsenal.
I’m not writing the season off or throwing my season ticket down on the pitch. I think we will sign Mustafi – a top class, experienced centre back – and also a forward of some repute, but I still can’t rid the fear that this season will be no different to the last.
Until next time.
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