Enter Pipe Dream

I’m hoarse and unhappy. I can’t remember a result affecting me so badly in a long time – that double sucker-punch in the last 10 minutes really took its toll. Sat watching from the stands for my first game of the season, I really thought we’d hold on after some admirable defending but it wasn’t to be. That pain is compounded by the realisation that whatever slim, delusional hopes we had of somehow scraping a spot in the Top Four are now a pipe dream.

In retrospect, it wasn’t all bad. We fought them for 84 minutes and as much as Chelsea Rugby Football Club tried to unsettle us and win by hook or by crook, we resisted – in a different manner than we’ve grown accustomed to this season. I thought we maintained our shape for the majority of the game and had coherency to our play, with and without the ball. While this may have waned as the game went on, there was still a lot to like and if we can replicate the kind of performance we gave in the first half, we will start to pick up some points going forward.

To make up for my lack of mid-game note-making, I at least had the added benefit of a bird’s-eye view of the touchline and got some insight into Arteta’s vocal and animated match day operations.

We were unchanged other than Chambers returning from suspension to replace Sokratis, and it was he who was instrumental in opening the scoring, rising highest to flick the ball into danger. Few though his headed goals may be – and his first for Arsenal – Aubameyang has that uncanny, almost uncoachable ability of being in the right place at the right time.

It was hard to say what my expectations even were going into this, but I’ve still come away disappointed because I feel like we deserved at least a point from the game. On this occasion, I’d argue we lay victim to several turning points.

1. The injury to Chambers was untimely and unfortunate given his early involvement, at both ends. Having been on the ascendancy both before and after the goal, the break in play while Chambers received treatment allowed Chelsea to regain some composure and for Lampard to make a tactical change, which proved decisive. Momentum is everything and it really took the sting out of our strong, early start. This is even ignoring the fact that Chambers was replaced by Mustafi, who – if I were to be so bold – is not a like-for-like replacement.

I suppose, since we’re on the subject, I’ll also address the goal that ultimately cost us the game. It was horribly reminiscent of many goals we conceded under Unai Emery; multiple players backing off, not taking the initiative and being decisive, until the opposition have unsurprisingly made their way into our box. It was just all too easy.

Mustafi’s Indecision

To make matters worse, the player that carried the ball for half the pitch into our box was the eventual goalscorer, and yet I can’t for the life of me understand how Mustafi has managed to lose his man in such a short space of time. Despite the fact Tammy Abraham was bearing down on him seconds before, when he then receives the ball back from Willian, it seems to come as a complete surprise to Mustafi, as he does some sort of comedic double-take wondering how on Earth he’s just been duped. He then somehow allows Abraham to take two touches and get his shot away. He was flat-footed, he wasn’t tight and he was ball-watching – not the first time I’ve been similarly critical of him (and several others) for such basic failures this season.

It’s just a really difficult one to swallow because Luiz had played one of his best games in an Arsenal shirt up until that point (and was also responsible for not closing down in the build up), but it just leaves you wondering how we would have managed with Chambers on the pitch instead. Another cry for help in defensive depth which we so dearly lack.

2. Enter Jorginho: A talented player, though one inexplicably left from the starting lineup, Lampard saw the wood for the trees and made amends before it became untenable. This tactical change was another huge turning point and you don’t need to look much further than this to see the impact his early introduction had:

When combined with Mustafi’s proclivity to back off in comparison to Chambers (see below), you begin to see why we became increasingly overrun. Until this change, Chambers’ intensity in closing down and winning the ball back further up the field had taken some pressure off Torreira and Guendouzi. The introduction of Jorginho, coupled with the loss of Chambers, resulted in the Chelsea midfield three of Kovacic, Kanté and Jorginho dominating thereafter.

We can have some cause for complaint as Jorginho should have been given a second yellow card, but so too should Guendouzi in another afternoon of inconsistent officiating. It’s irrelevant because whether Jorginho was still on the pitch wouldn’t have mattered if Leno hadn’t missed the ball. While the circumstances were highly unusual – a rare blunder from the usually resolute Bernd Leno, conceding corners and free kicks is what you get when you give the opposition so much possession. Not like we can really chastise the German, without whom I genuinely think we would be facing a relegation battle.

As for my general feelings in the game, I’d always had a gnawing feeling in the back of my head that something had to change or we’d be punished, particularly as the second half developed. As good as our defending had been, it still felt like a matter of when, not if.

I also think Arteta’s hesitancy to make changes hurt us. We needed change and while depth wasn’t a luxury available to him, I still felt the changes came too late. Joe Willock’s narrow miss that would have extended our lead was unfortunate and Pépé’s late entrance coincided with Chelsea’s second – he could perhaps have made more effort to track back, instead opting to walk as Chelsea broke freely.

The first half was at least a good experience – Özil was a joy to watch, and reminiscent of his former self, back to skinning players, subtle feints, neat passing and drawing fouls, after so often being guilty of disappearing in big games. On this occasion, he was instrumental in much of what we did right in the first half. There was little he could do in alleviating the pressure as the second half developed and he was the one who made way to accommodate Willock after a standing ovation.

I also enjoyed watching our right wing in action. I was surprised by the inclusion of Reiss Nelson, though he was much improved from his performance against Bournemouth and justified the decision. Not afraid to run at the opposition, he linked up well with Özil and Ainsley once more and was also influential in Emerson’s removal, as he struggled to deal with Nelson’s energy.

Looking ahead to New Years Day, we have an equally difficult game and one which now carries added pressure, because Arteta will want to avoid starting a run of home defeats.

We’ll face the same selection problems, as Chambers’ injury appears serious, with Arteta revealing “the first signs are not positive”. It also adds further pressure on finding suitable replacements in the January transfer window. I’m at least encouraged by what I’m seeing but it’s a long road ahead. With the domestic campaign almost pointless at this point, Arteta will likely look to getting to grips with the Europa League for a back-door route to next season’s Champions League.

Until then.

Bournemouth-Arsenal: Laying the foundations

What we saw yesterday was far from perfect, and yet, I didn’t walk away feeling disappointed. It was the first time in as long as I can remember, besides maybe some romp against European minnows, that we actually controlled the tempo for most of the game. Besides the goal, Bournemouth were largely stifled. These kinds of foundations are exactly what were needed with a new appointment, and would suggest that the players are at least taking Arteta seriously. As much as it was strange to see him on the touchline, he didn’t look out of place and hearing him barking orders and corralling players throughout the game showed how much he’s applied himself to the role. We already knew he was an impassioned man after his emotional sendoff (seen below), but there’s also a steeliness to his demeanour – all important qualities in my book.

It’s a testament to the fickle nature of football; once a chief tenet ingrained over the course of Wenger’s 22 year tenure, dissected in the space of 18 months. It’s easy to first point to the fans and their bipolar opinions but a team’s fortune can just as easily change. Barring their drubbing at the hands of the league’s runaway leaders last night, Leicester’s acquisition of Brendan Rogers is a pertinent example.

It’s fair to say that we should expect to control the tempo against a team like Bournemouth, especially given their recent form, head-to-head record and injury problems, but having not done so for some time, it’s important to get back to basics. That may not have carried over to Reiss Nelson and Bakayo Saka and their wayward (putting it very kindly) crossing, but that can be worked on in training.

I had my doubts over Nelson’s ability to deliver the ball after some dreadful corners against Everton where he often failed to beat the first man, but yesterday was quite the opposite – often massively over-hitting the ball to the other touchline. It’s a shame because the quality of his final ball marred what was otherwise quite a tidy game for him. He managed to beat some players, gave the Bournemouth left back a really hard time of it and developed some good combination play with Özil and Lacazette predominantly. Even threw in a Roulette at one point. The problem is playing from the wing, his end product is where the buck stops and it’s what can begin to define a player. Fortunately, he’s in luck with Arteta at the helm, who was by all accounts hugely influential in Raheem Sterling’s emergence.

Pépé’s starting snub presumably was to ensure his readiness for Chelsea and/or United but this harkens back to the dilemma of how you prioritise winnable games. Keown, ever the militant spokesman, has often claimed that our strongest team should always be played, irrespective of fixture congestion. I take this with a pinch of salt because as much as I can relate to, and understand the willingness to always play your strongest lineup, there’s a degree of finesse which maybe escapes him (expected for anyone who saw the man play), as does the intensity of the modern game. It’s far too early to try and second-guess Arteta’s strategy in such instances but the fact that yesterday felt like “two points lost” plays it’s part.

The Bournemouth game was far more winnable than either of the aforementioned, so should we be setting our standards lower and looking to ensure these 3 points and go from there rather than manage the squad for some kind of “point maximisation” approach? I’d be interested to know what kind of directive has been given to Arteta – what do they expect from him this season and how much financial support will he be given in January? More to the point, I’d be just as interested to learn what kind of realistic expectations Arteta has. At the half way point, we find ourselves in 11th (which I can scarcely believe), 8 points off the Top Four and yet only 6 points off the relegation zone. A win against Chelsea would close that gap to 5 points and given their slump in form, it’s anyone’s game.

That being said, Pépé’s sporadic starts and limited minutes even from the bench – now under 3 managers – may point to something more behind the scenes. Not content with just one inclusion from a no-nonsense former defender, Lee Dixon commented earlier in the season about Pépé’s lackadaisical pre-match warmup, so it may not be unreasonable to suggest he’s not the most committed trainer. Given Arteta’s preliminary demands, this may go some ways in explaining any subsequent absences. Our starting lineup against Chelsea will be telling. What stood out to me most yesterday was having an actual, discernible shape. So often this season, our distinct lack of shape – particularly in midfield – has really compounded our obvious defensive shortcomings. We’ve become accustomed this season to high energy, low impact performances from midfield, with high rates of turnover, little cover in front of the defence and a lack of pressure which often allowed the opposition to saunter into our half unchecked. It doesn’t take much to cast your mind back to the kind of panicky and chaotic approach we had without the ball – it was bordering on primal.

I also thought Bournemouth were lucky to escape a red card after another dangerous, scissoring challenge on Pépé. He’s had quite the baptism of fire in many ways since arriving in England, but I still wish more was done to protect players – not just those in the red and white – from those kinds of challenges. They’re not inherently malicious but they’re so clumsy and tangled that they invariably cause a few serious injuries every season. The fact that it was from behind makes it even worse than last week’s and yet both escaped punishment.

Lacazette is another player who can’t be neglected in discussion after yesterday. Despite his continued importance in holding the ball up with his back to goal, still-tireless workrate and importance in serving as the focal point of our attacks, yesterday was a really bad day at the office. Already off-colour, I can’t remember a more wasteful performance from him . Often so clinical, he was far from it yesterday, which also brought an air of indecision – so often a unfortunate symptom of a player down on confidence. The Chelsea game, should he feature, will at least provide him the kind of scenario he seems to really thrive in – a home fixture against a big team.

Being that I’ll be in the stands, I’d love nothing more than for Sunday to be the start of his redemption at Arsenal.

Statistical Breakdown

Another positive shot differential. A positional map that somewhat resembles a manager’s crudely drawn formation on a whiteboard before the game.

Positional report (ARSENAL vs Bournemouth)
On Target42
Pass Success (%)7887
Passes (Total)397621
Average Pass Streak46
Possession (%)3961
Match Breakdown vs. Bournemouth (Source: WhoScored.com)

Points of Interest

  • Pépé completed 3 dribbles to Nelson’s 2, despite coming on in the 82nd minute. By no means a criticism of Nelson, rather highlighting Nelson’s ability to also beat players.
  • Played with a higher defensive line in comparison to some of Emery’s final games in charge
  • 15 of 17 attempts were from open play – another distinct deviation from our previous system under Emery
  • Low number of attempts on target more attributable to individual wastefulness than poor quality of chances created

Arteta’s First Steps

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.”

Mikel Arteta

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.