Mikel Arteta is no stranger to the customary barrage of matches in and around Christmas and New Year in the Premier League. In comparison to his time at City, this barebones squad will be causing him some selection headache just deliberating over one game, let alone the 3 games in 7 days looming over us. The fact that two of these games are against teams we may or may not be competing with for a top four spot at the end of the season further complicates the problem.
Realistically, that’s obviously nuts to even think about – well beyond the realms of what we should be expecting Arteta to achieve – but stranger things have happened so I’m staying delusional until it’s mathematically impossible. After starting the season so strongly and looking just as likely as Leicester to occupy 3rd and 4th, Chelsea have begun to show signs of wear and weakness. That doesn’t make me any less nervous, especially as it’s the first game of the season I’ll be attending. After a small run of form, United have returned to what we’ve come to expect with Ole after succumbing to a 2-0 loss to Watford – even more hilarious given the fact that prior to the game, Watford had scored 9 goals in 17 matches. Some hope at least.
The first port of call for Arteta will be today’s jaunt along the south coast to Bournemouth, though. In similarly troubling form, the Cherries have lost 6 out of their last 7 in comparison to our 1 win in 13 games across all competitions. Excluding our win against West Ham which ended our winless drought, our last win before that – back in early October – was against Bournemouth.
Despite their injury troubles, we will be similarly handicapped by virtue of Calum Chambers’ suspension, leaving us with the prospect of a backline I’d said I never wanted to see again in Luiz and Sokratis. In fairness to the former, he wasn’t completely useless against Everton and despite their flaccidity in front of goal, some credit has to be given when our defence gets it right(ish) for a change.
I can’t remember a playing seemingly capitulating quite as fast as Sokratis in some time. Last season, I thought he was a shrewd signing after some early teething problems when tasked with playing out from the back. Never one for the long term but seemed to have all the hallmarks of a good defender to ease some of our up-and-comers into the starting line-up, all the while sprinkling gems of insight into their still-developing little minds, like a surlier, less giant but somehow more theatrical version of Per. The transformation he’s undergone this season suggest that the only theatrics he’s actually capable of are pretending to be a Premier League-level defender.
While not alone in this camp, his tendency to not react quickly enough to second balls or imminent danger have hurt us this season. 31 is far from “old” in this day and age, as Koscielny demonstrated last season after coming back from injury and still being our best defender, but I do wonder as to why he’s so often been off the pace this season. Besides a cursory look at Sokratis’ performance data this season as opposed to last, I’ve neglected to try and string together any meaningful evidence of why he’s struggled because the whole team has struggled. It may be conjecture but Sokratis has still managed to stand out from the bad bunch this season but it’s too early to say whether it’s form or feature. It won’t be long to find out at least as Arteta is likely to have his hand forced in reverting to the ageing partnership with Luiz.
Whether Arteta will be given some room for his own recommendations in the transfer window remains to be seen but I’d hope that the defence will be his priority. There have been plenty of rumours about possible comings and goings but as we saw in the summer, Raul and Co. do like a bit of “smoke and mirrors” so I won’t waste any time entertaining some of these possibilities.
As it stands, he’s going to be forced into another shoehorned defence with Kolasinac still injured. Bellerín’s possible return may see Ainsley Maitland-Niles switch to his even-less-preferred position at left back if Arteta doesn’t share Freddie’s faith in Saka there. Given his misfortune of late, I’d rather Bellerín wasn’t rushed back though; this is an important period for him and I can’t help but feel like we’ve been burned before in pushing a player too early.
After the absolute foundations were laid against Everton, which saw a renewed sense of urgency and solidarity, I’m expecting more of the same against Bournemouth – as a bare minimum. If we regress today, we risk facing a period of it getting worse before it gets better and if we’re to stand any chance against Chelsea and United, we need something to build on. Given our favourable head-to-head record against Bournemouth, they’re a convenient stepping stone for Arteta to achieve this.
It’s been refreshing to hear and see some of the no-nonsense drills he’s been putting the players through. Instructing Xhaka how to receive and play the ball based on X or Y type of pass, forbidding Lacazette (and the rest) from doing any kind of trickery and just getting the basics down. It’s something that I’ve felt has been missing, the old adage of “walking before you can run” ringing truer than ever. Contrary to Emery, who never really convinced me of his desire to play with flair, I’m inclined to believe Arteta when he comes out so early with things like this:
“My philosophy will be clear – I want the football to be expressive, entertaining. I cannot have a concept of football where everything is based on the opposition.”Mikel Arteta
Also, even more crucially, saying things like this will go a long way in regaining the trust from the fans. If there’s one thing I can’t tolerate watching from the stands or at home, it’s getting the feeling that the players don’t care or aren’t giving their absolute all.
“I don’t want people hiding. I want people taking responsibility for the job. Anybody that doesn’t buy into this is not good enough for this environment or culture.”
It’s not going to happen overnight and some of these players will need to be moved on in the coming weeks, never mind at the end of the season. Although I have my concerns as to how Arteta will be received if things don’t go to plan in these first few games, with the predictable criticisms about his lack of experience and such, I appreciate the trust he’s been given.
We need a rebuild in both body and spirit and having someone with a clean slate may just be the solution.