The season is just two weeks away and I have to admit that I’m not hopeful for the season ahead.
I’ve been following Arsenal closely now for 17 years and typically, by now, Arsenal would have me excited about the upcoming season. Something would have caught my attention and peaked my anticipation for the new season. And I would even say for 15 years of that time I would be thinking right now that Arsenal have a real chance of winning the League. And for about 10 years of that time I thought we had a real chance of winning the Champions League. But as I said this summer, I’m resigned to Arsenal finishing somewhere between 2nd and 10th and I have yet to see anything (this weekend included) to change my mind.
I’m sorry if that’s a downer. I’ve been writing this blog for 8 years and I have always been honest, so this isn’t some “media personality” that I’m putting on. I also, literally, don’t monetize this blog at all (note how many ads I have), don’t write little articles 16 times a day, don’t have a podcast, or a YouTube Channel, and so accusing me of “click bait” is also false.
I’ve always been honest, even if wrong to the very end. In 2008, I honestly thought Arsenal were going to win the League. I also thought Denilson was a great midfielder. I thought Wenger’s project youth was the most noble cause of any sports team in sports history (I still do believe this). And After that Arshavin goal against Barcelona, I thought Arsenal were going to go on and win the Champions League. Even recently, in 2016, I honestly thought Arsenal were going to prove all the doubters wrong and win the League. And now, I honestly think Arsenal are going to finish outside of the top four again and this weekend only reinforced that belief.
Before I start here, I want to say that I will not be talking about other fans this season. Sport reflects the broader culture and what I have found in my own writing and thinking is a perverted belief that if you don’t agree with me, you’re just stupid. If the two of us watch the same event and you don’t come to the same conclusions as me, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. Much like in politics now we have stopped debating the ideas and mostly seem to debate about how stupid or smart other people are based on how closely they are aligned with the other person’s politics/ideals. This makes for an insanely toxic atmosphere and I don’t want to do this anymore. So, I’m going to refrain from this type of debate. Or at least I’m going to try. These ad hominem arguments will also be off limits in the comments section – though I’m a terrible cop and don’t police the comments very well.
With that said, what I saw this weekend was an Arsenal team that hasn’t changed much from last year and so I don’t think we are going to finish any better than last year. Especially not with the other teams strengthening and with the added burden of Thursday night football in far-flung European stadiums.
What I saw this weekend was an Arsenal team which allowed 4 goals and scored 6 and did so showing off the exact same range of problems as they had in the worst part of last season.
First, the players. Lacazette is Arsenal’s record signing and he did score a goal yesterday. I think Lacazette is a cool finisher and his movement and awareness in the 18 yard box is fantastic. He reads the game well and knows how to get himself into great positions to score goals. His flaws are that he’s not very good with the ball and won’t be helping the team in build-up. In other-words, he’s not going to replace Alexis Sanchez.
I had hoped that buying Lacazette would allow Arsene Wenger to keep his midfielders from flooding the box on every possession but that didn’t happen. My theory here is that having a dominant goal-scorer, someone who demands the ball, allows for players like Ramsey and Coquelin to actually hold back and help the defense but instead we saw the same pattern of play as last season. Coquelin provided an assist (before going off injured) and Ramsey reprised his role as “the little striker who couldn’t shoot.”
You wouldn’t think that having a midfielder in the 18 yard box would be much of a problem but Arsenal also send both fullbacks forward often. This means that Arsenal’s back three is exposed time and again. And more important than just exposing the back three is the amount of space between the Arsenal attack and that back three.
Space is the defense killer. If players have time to run at your defenders full speed and if they can get a teammate to make a run, it’s so much harder to defend than it is when you close off space and have bodies between the ball and the goal. Typically, after an Arsenal play breaks down, there will be one midfielder and two or three defenders. If the opposition player can get around either the CM or the Wingback, they are free to run full speed at Arsenal’s back three who need to make some kind of last-ditch tackle to save blushes.
This pattern of play repeats and has repeated now at Arsenal since I first noticed it in 2008, when we used to have two center backs.
That brings me to Kolasinac. He was great going forward. His crosses are great. He dribbles well. He’s just a good attacker. And he also left the entire left side of the pitch undefended when he played. He was slow getting back on defense (because he played so high up the pitch) and often looked winded when he did get back. Of course, it’s just pre-season and we don’t know how he will play with Alexis in front of him. I hope Wenger gets his defenders to focus on defense first but again, having watched Arsenal for years and seeing Arsenal’s fullbacks literally cross the ball to each other, I doubt it.
And then there is the back three. Sometimes I think Wenger is a joker. A comedian. For example, Wenger is clearly going to play a back three this season, despite the evidence suggesting that there was little change to Arsenal’s defense. And as if to make a mockery of the back three? He played Mo Elneny as a center back. Now, I know that Elneny won’t play center back this season. At least I hope he won’t. But you have to admit it’s a pretty funny joke to stick a player who can’t defend, I mean literally cannot defend – doesn’t see the threats, doesn’t understand where the line is, thinks raising his arm for offside is defending, can’t with the ball in the air, and is physically soft as clarified butter, the worst defender I’ve seen at Arsenal since Denilson – as the middle center back in a back three. That’s a classic jape there.
Don’t get me wrong, I get what Wenger was doing: Elneny is a fantastic passer – he has Denilson’s range of passing – and Wenger wanted someone in the back three who could start the Arsenal attack. He did that with a wide range of excellent passes. My favorite was a low, hard, long ball straight up the pitch to the Arsenal forward, Aaron Ramsey. He also found Arsenal forwards like Ox with big diagonal passes over the top. He is such a cultured passer. It’s a real shame about his defending.
In that back three Per Mertesacker also looked like a player lost at sea. You would think that with 6 (or 7) players on the roster Wenger has enough options at center back but I’m starting to worry that he doesn’t. Starting Elneny means that Chambers has clearly been kicked to the curb, which means that Arsenal will take a bath on his extraordinary transfer price. Mertesacker was dropped two years ago and despite the fact that he’s a great human being, he’s not able to cover the spaces (see above) Arsenal’s midfield/attack concede. Gabriel and Mustafi are both unconvincing (and injured) which leaves Arsene leaning on Holding, Monreal, and Koscielny for 50 games this season. That could be a real problem.
And in yesterday’s match there was the most worrying sign, something I have been harping on now for three years: down 2-1, Arsenal couldn’t keep possession and couldn’t win possession back. Sevilla just passed the ball around them. Wenger prides himself on making technical teams and yet Arsenal have seemed woefully bereft of technical ability for years now. Any team who wants to play keep away from Arsenal can and does. It was so bad that even Arsene made mention of this problem in his post-match press conference — saying that Lacazette didn’t get much of the ball because Arsenal were tired and couldn’t retain possession.
But hey, it’s only pre-season. There are two more whole weeks for Arsene to sort all these things out. So, when I say that I’m not feeling too hopeful for the season ahead? That’s why.
There were positives, of course. Reiss Nelson is an exciting young player and I think he could be a breakout player of the season – if he’s given a chance. But for me, the positives were really weighed down by seeing the familiar old failings and I have a feeling we are going to see those failings again and again this season.
Oh yeah, and Arsene’s weird comments about how Ozil’s contract situation is “ideal.” It’s going to be a long season.