One week. Seven days. That’s how long it took for Arsenal to turn from an in-form team on course for a title challenge to an out-of-control train wreck careening into next season’s Channel 5 listings.
Or at least that’s what the media – and a large portion of football fans, both Arsenal and opposition – would have you believe.
The thing is, it’s not even one terrible week. It’s two poor results. That’s it: two. One hundred and eighty minutes, just three hours of football, and we’re the worst team there’s ever been. Right then.
Now I understand it’s far from ideal; following on from the high of that 3-1 victory over West Ham a few weeks ago I highly doubt anyone foresaw that abysmal defeat to Norwich, or our destruction at the hands of Schalke, and anyone that claims they thought a 1-0 win over QPR yesterday would be a highlight before the international break is just plain lying. But that’s the whole point – a few weeks ago the idea of two defeats in a weak was absolutely unthinkable. If we were really as bad as we now think, then we wouldn’t be moaning about either, Wigan wouldn’t contemplate footballing suicide after a 2-0 loss to Schalke would they?
I know this sounds ridiculous, like I’m just spouting out any old blind, optimistic nonsense and don’t see the real problem. I know what the problem is, and I’m worried as well, trust me, but sometimes you need something a bit ridiculous for you to realise how ridiculous you yourself are being. Although in all fairness it’s never helped cure the papers. Or Tony Gale. Or most of the sporting media in general. But let’s move on.
The problem with Arsenal at the moment is not that we’re a terrible team with absolutely no quality and a useless manager – as I’ve said before than two defeats and a 1-0 win might be seen as a fairly profitable week – but rather that we know we can do better. And we can, of course we can. Now, most people in this climate, especially post-AGM, will be reading ‘we know we can do better’ as ‘we know we can do better if Wenger/the board spent some of the cash we’ve been hoarding for the however many years’ and yes, we have more money than we’ve been spending and shouldn’t really still be making a profit on every transfer window. But we can do better without spending. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t spend, or that I’m advocating the entire self-sustainable, sell-stars-and-replace-them-with-kids-so-we-just-make-the-top-four model of business the board seem to be running on, but merely that, with the resources on hand, we can do far better than we are doing, for a number of reasons.
Reason one is simple: we’ve hit a blip, nothing more, nothing less. Teams don’t go from looking like title contenders to Norwich’s whipping boys in the space of an international break – players like Cazorla, Podolski and Arteta have not spent their time in between games in Brazil getting tips from Denilson, they are still the same players. The international break broke their rhythm, the Norwich game shook their confidence and Schalke were there to capitalise, it’s nothing more than that and to be honest if we keep our run of poor form to just one week than that’s better than most teams manage.
Secondly is fatigue; you may say that we’re still fairly early on in the season and that other team’s players have actually played far more since the end of last season – I remember seeing a post on another sight, although I’m not sure where, detailing just that. However, we play game that is very draining both physically and mentally, and doing it with next to no rotation. Every single outfield player has to put a shift in, tracking back if they’re wingers, bombing up the flanks if their fullbacks and doing all this as well as covering the gaps left by other players if you’re playing centrally. With Sagna injured for most of this season and Santos not the sort of player you can call in for the odd game – he’s a player that desperately needs a run of games to get into the swing of things – the fullbacks haven’t had a chance to rest. Neither have Arteta or Cazorla, players who have to stay 100% focused the entire game both offensively and defensively, and on whom the majority of the responsibility is placed for the way we play the game. In fact, the only opportunities we’ve had to rotate is up front and at centre back. The front three has varied slightly, although Podolski has been forced to play almost every game, even with an ankle injury, but centre back is the one area you can’t afford to rotate – a stable centre back pairing is the most important bond to form in any team, just look at Man City where Kompany’s lack of a consistent partner and system has turned him from world class into just barely average this season.
This brings me onto the third reason: injuries. Contrary to popular belief, we do have the strength in depth this season – having the likes of Walcott and Chamberlain on the bench on more than one occasion is testimony to that. The likes of Coquelin and Ramsey have been more than adequate as back up when they’ve been called on, and Jenkinson has been a revelation at right back. The problem is that the injury list keeps growing, forcing us to rely on these players far more often than Wenger wanted to; he may well have replaced Arteta with Coquelin for the odd game had he been able to play him alongside Diaby and Cazorla, but a Coquelin/Ramsey axis in midfield just isn’t solid enough, making Arteta’s inclusion a necessity. Injuries have also robbed us of some players that can really make a difference. Sagna, Wilshere and Diaby are the obvious examples – especially the midfield duo who are game changers on their day – but Rosicky has also been missed as someone who can link up well with Cazorla. The little Spaniard has been isolated amongst less technical players for the majority of his Arsenal career so far, yes Arteta is almost his equal but that requires him playing backwards, there is no one further forwards capable of the same intricate passing moves that can unlock even the tightest defences. You only had to see the one-twos being exchanged between Wilshere and Cazorla against QPR this weekend to realise how effective having two playmakers – regardless of whether Rosicky is world class or not – further forward can be.
The last problem is the most frustrating, and one that is well documented – mentality. Comments from Arteta and Wenger post-Norwich showed the level of complacency in the squad; we expected to turn up and be handed the win and Norwich gave us something else entirely. There has been a marked improvement this season and last in terms of mentality, with first Arteta and Metresacker and now Podolski and Cazorla seeming to add more professionalism, determination and passion than we ever got from the likes of Nasri, but it is clear the job isn’t done. Something that’s equally clear, however, is that we have definitely improved in that area and, like everything else, we haven’t lost that overnight. As much as I hate to say it, we have missed Van Persie and the work he did off the pitch to make the team more of a unit, something I haven’t heard Vermaelen doing, although I could be mistaken, but we are by no means back at square one.
And that’s the message that I’m trying to get across. Despite the blip this week – and it is a blip – we have to look at it objectively. Compared to previous seasons we are still stronger mentally, despite the poor showing last week, and if I had any I’d put a substantial amount of money on Arteta et al learning from their mistakes and really pushing on. Similarly, our quality is still there. Yes, we could do with another striker and maybe a Benayoun-esque midfielder to give us a bit of variety out wide and I would hope Wenger comes good on his hints this season that he’ll buy in January, although many fans would point out he never does and it would be hard to disagree with that. But a team that is two players away from title contention – and yes I’m aware that we are pretty much always two players away from title contention and am just as frustrated by it as everyone else – is not pushing for a Europa League place. The loss to Norwich was poor, no denying that, but Schalke have just beaten Borussia Dortmund and finished 3rd in the Bundesliga last season, a league whose top teams are at least as competitive as ours. Just as our good early form didn’t make our season, two bad results hasn’t broken it and, despite the relatively lacklustre manner of our victory over QPR yesterday, there is no denying we were better both in terms of quality and attitude. If it weren’t for Cesar we could have seen a lot more goals and there’d probably be no need for this post.
Keep the faith Gooners, we may not be perfect, but we’re a damn sight better than you might think.------------
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