What a way to start 2024! A pre-written post about a god-awful game against Fulham away from home. It was the worst performance of the season, tinged with even more regret, knowing that Zinchenko is having a scan on another calf injury.
I don’t even know where to start with this game, but I’ll try to frame it in a way that makes you feel good about January 1st.
That was our first truly awful performance of the season.
We didn’t deserve anything. The manager didn’t set the boys up correctly, the team didn’t have any urgency or in-game management, and the subs seemed to make us worse.
It didn’t start badly; we did exactly what we needed to do: scored early and made Fulham come at us. The goal was a beauty. David Raya cut out a cross and rolled to Kai, the German swept a vertical ball to Martinelli, the Brazilian bombed forward into the and forced a diving parry from Leno. Bukayo followed in for the tap-in.
We didn’t hold onto the lead. In fact, we almost immediately let Fulham get at us with their aggressive pressing. The equalizer happened when Ben White decided to do a one/two with Bukayo who was standing in the middle of the pitch like a striker, he lost the ball, Fulham was quick in transition, and everyone was out of position, including Declan Rice, we were in such a bad place Willian laid up the cross which found Jimenez at the back post for a great finish. How are we committing like that when we were 1 up away from home?
It wasn’t the only time either. We were getting ripped open with ease. Fulham was taking advantage of a very lenient referee, and dare I say it? We were getting bullied. There was a lot of whining at the ref. A lot of victimhood. It reminded me of some of the latter-day Wenger teams. Where were our towering players to address the nonsense?
The winning goal came from a fluke of a corner. Declan didn’t deal well with the ball, it clipped off his back and found its way to the feet of Bobby DCR, and he scored with ease. 4 of our last 6 goals conceded have been from corners? Oof…
… back to the game.
Teams like Manchester City go on the assault after going a goal down. They turn on the afterburners and go hunting for openings; they sway teams all over the pitch, they are relentless. Not Arsenal. We made subs, went to 3 at the back, the players looked at the manager willing them on. Nothing worked. It wasn’t going to be our day.
Arteta didn’t sugarcoat it after the game.
“We weren’t good enough. Simple as that,”
“We lost the game three days ago [against West Ham] we fully deserved to win because we were so good. And today we were nowhere near the level.”
It’s really hard to pinpoint where it all went wrong. Some are pointing to a bad month. But I can’t have that. Brighton was our best performance of the season, Liverpool was outstanding, the result at West Ham was an aberration. This game? A disaster out of nowhere.
Let’s start bigger picture. We have suffered this season because our injury-prone players continue to lack availability. Thomas Partey, Tomiyasu, and Zinchenko are three very important players we simply can’t rely on. Our season consistently falls down on these guys and until we can address the reality that our key players aren’t robust, it’s going to be very hard for us to mount title charges. You can call that an excuse, sure, but these things don’t happen the Manchester City, and they are the benchmark. So it needs to be fixed.
Then zoom in a little – our squad feels very small again. 3 players out of the trusted 18 takes you down to 15 players. Reiss Nelson is the back-up for Saka and Arteta doesn’t rate him. Eddie hasn’t moved forward this season and the guy he’s trying to usurp doesn’t score goals. Emile Smith Rowe has fallen so far from grace it feels personal at this point. Trossard is increasingly looking like he’s struggling to find the level – and if he can’t get in ahead of Martinelli right now, he’s basically the Reiss of the left.
A limited group of trusted/available players is exactly what’s cost us over the past three years. Our forwards don’t look at the races, they’re out of form, and they look tired. It’s not a shock, two of them are in the CL for the first time this season. We have pinned our season on young players racing towards Mo Salah levels with no bumps. That’s unrealistic and I can’t help but think we’ve been very unrealistic about this season and what it can deliver.
I didn’t think we’d win the Premier League this season – I had a moment when I changed my view – but now I’m back where I started.
Arteta is building the squad brick by brick, he’s doing it with young players vs mega stars, and I don’t think we’re ready. There was one chance that kind of crystalized that for me. A ball looped out of the air, Bukayo was under it, the strike was there for the taking… and he screamed it over the bar. The chance was worth 0.08xG, it was tough, but Mo Salah or Bernardo would have scored. We don’t have a player in stardust mode right now. It’ll come for him, but it’s not there yet, and I think we need that to be the Premier League winners this season.
None of this is a sleight on Bukayo; as a reminder, he’s 21.
Kevin De Bruyne didn’t make his debut for Chelsea until he was 22 years old. He didn’t make his debut for City until he was 24.
Mo Salah was still at Basel at the age Saka is now. He had to fail at Chelsea, go on two loan moves to Italy, then land at Liverpool at 26. Klopp had to have a big fight with his team because he wanted Julian Brandt.
Sadio Mane moved to Southampton at 22 years old. He joined Liverpool at 24.
My point? Expecting our babies to be delivering to the level of seasoned counterparts now is NOT realistic.
Our squad has holes that need filling. We need a pace merchant winger with goal output, a striker who is an out-and-out bully like Ivan Toney, and more robust fullbacks because all of us at the moment struggle with availability (even Ben White is playing through an injury).
The bad news? I don’t think we’re getting those players in January. Moves in that window don’t work. We spent the last window crying over Mudryk and he’s only just started to look like a 7 out of 10. Jorginho did very little for us last season, Trossard was ok… overall, it’s just not worth it. The best deals happen in the summer. Ivan Toney will be available in the summer, get him then when you can use Eddie as a makeweight. Loan deals? Please. The players aren’t committed to you and we all remember Dani Ceballos.
Arteta needs to work it out with the players he has. Coaching is the answer, not spending money at a premium rate that hampers us in the summer.
Manchester City will be title winners again this season. We’re fighting for second spot and I don’t care how many people tell me Liverpool are having that… I don’t buy it. As for Spurs, their luck will run out soon, as will Villa’s.
We’re within spitting distance of the top of the table. If I’d given you this position in August, you’d have bitten my arm off. This season has seen a lot of change to the squad, and the bedding-in process has come with pain, though far less than most expected after rebooting the midfield and changing the keeper. The squad isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to secure top 2. Some luck needs to be had to bring silverware home. Thomas Partey needs to be available for 5 months, we need to get Timber back into the side, and we need Arteta to manage the loads of the players better. Remember the pelters I was getting for complaining about Arteta taking a big-man squad to the dead-rubber PSV game? Those decisions have long-term implications and the manager needs to get better at them.
The upcoming break is vital to our season. We need to rest players, get the system back on track, and Arteta needs to build the confidence of some players who look broken.
So, in short. The result was poor. But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. There is a lot of growth to be had with the players we have, there are positions that will get filled in the next 6 months, and we’re more than on track to be competing for Champions League and Premier League trophies over the long term.
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