Keep ’em hungry, Arsene

By Jonathan Blaustein

It’s a bright, sunny Monday here in Taos.

The good weather has come back again, after a week of freezing rain. No matter how attuned we are to the changing seasons, somehow, they still manage to surprise us.

That’s because, even when you know something’s coming, it doesn’t make the impact any less.

For instance, this morning, Tim wrote about the national nightmare that is mass gun violence. It was a heartfelt, excellent piece, and in a parallel universe, such screeds might have a role in creating change.

Unfortunately, there will be no change. I know this, because like you, I’ve lived through the aftermath of Virginia Tech, Orlando, Sandy Hook, and every other horror show I’m not listing here. If none of those scenarios moved the needle on our national dialogue, then Las Vegas won’t either.

Some patterns are so persistent that we’re lulled into thinking they might lead somewhere. Each time, we hope the end result will be different, but then, it isn’t.

Does that sound familiar?

I’m writing my first real column since the Liverpool destruction a month ago. I like to wait, before I write, because as a sports fan, (or fan-pundit,) it’s so damn easy to get caught up in the emotional reality that winning and losing creates.

After Liverpool, the sky wasn’t falling. It fell, and landed right on my face.

I quickly rescinded my Top 4 prediction, and suggested we’d be lucky to fend off Everton. It all looked so bleak. But, as is my role here, I offered ideas; suggestions for what Wenger might do to right the ship.

To be clear, I’m 100% certain he did not read my column. And I am equally certain that no low-level stooge, employed by the club, pointed him in our direction, with a little note that said: “Maybe try some of these, Boss? The American Jew in the Wild West has some good thoughts.”

Didn’t happen.

Rather, as a life-long sports fan, I’ve come to understand that some things can’t be quantified. Arsene agrees with this. Sometimes, the moves one makes are more related to human nature, and power dynamics, than they are to tactics and numbers.

In my opinion, the post-Liverpool environment was such a time.

To be clear, I’m not letting my emotions get the best of me now. Even on the heels of a 6 game unbeaten run, with 4 straight clean sheets in the EPL, I’m under no illusions that we’ll catch Man City AND Man United, and win the league.

It’s too unrealistic, given their lead in points, money, and trophy-winning managers.

But I will suggest that we’re at least back on track for what I originally predicted: top 4, and maybe a win in the Europa League or FA Cup.

Trophies, perhaps, just not the biggest.

And rather than simply saying “I was right,” maybe I ought to clarify?

The reason we all felt sick during, and after the Liverpool debacle was the sense that the players couldn’t be bothered. That they cared so little for the Arsenal badge that they’d rather be on a buddy’s sofa, playing AS Liverpool AGAINST Arsenal on the Playstation.

Now, we’ve previously established that Wenger’s a gambler, and I believe he’s willing to gamble with early season points. Rather than seeing all points as equal, he will chance it, early on, knowing he can generate momentum when he needs it later on. (Normally, it works out for him. Last year, not so much.)

He played Alex Oxlade-Chamberlin, knowing what he knew, so it would be easier to sell him on a few days later. Wenger thought: if he plays well, and we win, perhaps I can keep him. If he tanks, as most would in that situation, I can sell him for big money, and everyone will say “Good Riddance.”

He also played Ozil and Sanchez together, both of whom wanted to leave, and likely still do. So he had 3 guys out there whose heads were elsewhere, and his wingbacks were mismatched, in that last-ditch attempt to keep AOC.

Once the game pattern was established, some, like Ramsey and Xhaka, played down to the level of the situation, and the rout was on.

Since then, Wenger has proven that he knows more than I do, but also that certain sports rules are worth respecting. One in particular: play the guys who are desperate to prove something.

In the aftermath of Liverpool, and even before, it was clear that Arsenal were not lining up with the requisite athleticism to compete, nor with the proper collective defensive will. Minus guys who have catch-up speed, and the willingness to use it, you’re toast.

So I immediately appreciated that Wenger has relied on Welbeck and Iwobi upfront, for those two reasons. In order to be effective at the highest level, forwards have to have at least some of the following qualities, and the more the better:

Speed Quickness Technical quality Hunger Defensive capability Quick feet Clinicality Intelligence Size

Now, the reason we haven’t seen Lacazette/Sanchez/Ozil thus far, I’d argue, is that the triumvirate lacks size, and defensive capability.

While Welbeck is not clinical enough, (and neither is Iwobi, though Sunday’s goal was promising,) they offer things that Ozil doesn’t. They’ve got height, which is important for winning headers when we can’t play out of the back, they’re fast, they track back, ferociously, and they’re very technical. (So they don’t lose the ball all the time, like Sanchez.)

Other than insisting that Ramsey check his runs at least some of the time, I’d argue the biggest component in the new winning run has been to play defense-first, technical, athletic forwards, while hoping that Lacazette and Sanchez have enough skill to make up for the offense.

Furthermore, as has been shown in the League Cup and Europa League, giving game time to hungry, desperate athletes, like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, means they’ll be able to deputize in the Premier League at some point, bringing those qualities into other parts of the team.

All of which is to say, now that the ship has been stabilized, and we look at the squad compared to all the others, I’m back to thinking this will be a “Groundhog Day” season.

Given where we were a month ago, and that our recent history has shown that SOME silverware is infinitely better than NONE, things could be much worse.

And even up in Manchester, where things ARE better, they have to live with two egomaniacs who will leave their jobs in the next two years.

Nothing’s perfect.

36 comments

  1. Great article. But listen. It is strange how external forces infiltrate our world view even without us knowing it. The only narrative that should accompany our winning streak despite Laca, Ozil and Sanchez never playing together is that is shows we have strength in depth/strong squad. Indeed this would be the only conclusion if any of other top clubs had a similar record without their top players (City without Aguero and De Bruyne; United without Lukaku and Pogba, Totts without Kane and Ali). Instead we conclude that the winning streak is because we are defensively better without our best players – every success veiled with a criticism. But hey this fits the mainstream narrative that Arsenal are in crisis/failing so this explanation sits more comfortably than the notion we could have strong squad.

    1. “The only narrative that should accompany…” is a weirdly authoritarian thing to say.

      I actually think the narrative is that Arsenal always do this thing: get their asses handed to them because of tactical ineptitude and then spend the next game locking things down (Chelsea) followed by a protracted unraveling of the lock down, which culminates in another horrible loss for the same reasons as before.

      From what I see of Arsenal, the midfield is still operating with one CM who isn’t even very good at defense and who is showing himself to be a rather poor passer. Of course Arsenal are beating teams like Alpo Dog Food FC and Brighton. They are supposed to beat those teams!

      1. Yes, sorry, you are right. I didn’t mean to sound so dictatorial or that I wanted to suppress debate. I guess what I meant to say is that I hope these results are a sign of arsenal’s strong squad. You a make a valid point that some things seem to be a recurring theme for Arsenal. This season maybe different, though, because we are not investing so much time and effort in Europe. I think we were pipped to top four last season because other teams either had no European football or had a premature exit from it. Let’s see what happens.

    2. Why does it have to be either or? Arsenal have played with defensive forwards, and it’s worked. Additionally, they’ve showed off
      admirable squad depth, fielding strong-enough second teams in the League Cup and Europa League.

  2. Very tough to make any prediction for Arsenal at this stage of the season, for the simple reason that the club could still sell or trade Sanchez and Ozil in January.

    1. 4th place is a tough ask. I think we need a Harry Kane injury to pull that off. Since 4th is a stretch the question is which of Arsene or Klopp will play the dumbest defensive setups this season. If Klopp, we could take 5th. If we sell Ozil in January (I think he’s going to Man U) and if Alexis plays at 75% after the transfer window, we should finish 6th.

      That’s what my model predicts: 6th..

      1. Yeah, if I were betting, I wouldn’t predict we’ll overhaul Tottenham and Liverpool. But it’s at least possible, where I would say
        the league is not. And RE: Harry Kane, I just got off the phone with a Tottenham supporter. I couldn’t rave enough about that guy. He’s the total
        package, and when I saw him shrug off those Dortmund players on the break, before he scored that wicked counter-attack goal, I thought the same thing.
        If he stays healthy, Spurs will be tough to dislodge from the Top 4.

      2. “the question is which of Arsene or Klopp will play the dumbest defensive setups this season”

        Haha! This. I think Liverpool fans are so enamored with Klopp that he won’t really feel the need to change his tactical set-up. Arsene is under constant pressure from the fans, so I think he might be a bit more conservative in some away fixtures. Whether this will actually translate to success on the pitch is another matter but we might *just* finish 5th. My money is on 6th but depends on who we buy on January (ROTFL!).

      3. Agree on 4th place being a tough ask. Another factor to consider is European games. Chelsea and Spurs don’t have that much depth for some key positions. If they reach the quarters of the Champions League, fatigue could lead them to drop points in the Premier League (Chelsea clearly lacked a bit of energy vs. City after their Atletico Madrid game). On the other hand, if Arsenal can still rotate in the Europa League until the last 16 or even the quarters, then it’s a big bonus.

  3. I disagree about Guardiola. I find him to be charming and real. I think he may be autistic which puts a lot of people off but not me. I think he’s brilliant and we are lucky to witness first hand someone who is radically changing football. These people don’t come along very often.

    As for Arsenal, I can say nearly categorically that Arsenal are out of the title race. They have about a 3% chance of winning the League. Basically they need City, Man U, Chelsea and Tottenham to implode. It could happen, but I doubt it.

    In which case, I hope City win the League over all the others. Obviously, I wish Arsenal could win it and will still be pulling for us but if not us then City. Just to see Jose Mourinho’s face turn to jelly.

    1. Hey Tim, I think you underestimate the Alpo Dog Food FC who on their day could be a very tricky opponent, especially when Arsenal play them on a three days rest which is not enough, or a seven days rest which is too many.

      Spot on about everything else though, especially Guardiola who’s teams are a joy to watch if you are a football fan before an Arsenal fan.

  4. Agree about Guardiola. I think the man has the team and tactics to run the table this season. Of course I hope it doesn’t happen for obvious reasons.
    But unless the wheels come off this is going to be a helluva run. That Jesus kid! WTF?

    1. Agreed, which is why it was a bit silly of them to be so focused on Sanchez: their midfield/attack is unbelievably good (if Gundogan stays fit they’ll be even better). De Bruyne for player of the year.

    1. Jack needs to be judged over a long period of time not a couple of low key games. He should be looking to rebuild his confidence which I imagine is absolutely shattered. Seeing Elneny ahead of him must be killing him inside.

  5. I don’t see us finishing fourth. We did well to get a nil-nil at Chelsea but I think away game at Anfield is more the norm for us than the game at Stamford Bridge. I still see us finishing 6th but we might get lucky and finish 5th, ahead of Liverpool. Even though their mid-field and attack is better than ours, they can’t seem to find any rhythm on defense and drop too many points which makes them inconsistent. Against Brighton, we seemed to be playing a 3-1-5-1 with Xhaka on an island by himself. Worked out well because Brighton seemed to be playing a 5-4-1 and we needed the extra body in attack . Also, they are not very good at football. I am enjoying the wins on face value but it’s only a matter of time till the next heavy defeat on the road happens, followed by apologies from the players and temporary focus on defense till we revert to type. Wash, rinse, repeat.

  6. “Now, the reason we haven’t seen Lacazette/Sanchez/Ozil thus far, I’d argue, is that the triumvirate lacks size, and defensive capability.”

    This really is the biggest problem with Wenger lately, all of his transfers lately are not well thought out which results in weak teams made up of brilliant individuals. £120m plus worth of talent and they can’t be played together? Ridiculous management if you ask me.

    If we can’t play our best players together then we can never be truly competitive.

    1. Agreed, but it’d be equally ridiculous to assume that they can’t play well together given that (a) they’re all brilliant, mobile, versatile players (people say Ozil one-dimensional, but that’s just not true: e.g. he’s got a surprising amount of pace and has gotten really good in the last year at running in behind), and (b) THEY HAVEN’T EVEN STARTED TOGETHER A SINGLE GAME YET!!!!!!!!

      1. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that Ozil, Lacazette and Alexis hasn’t played together. Wenger talks about a lot of balance and I think he feels one of the wide attackers needs to do some defensive work for the team, whether it’s through pressing or just tracking back. I also think Ozil’s reluctance towards a long-term commitment is forcing Wenger to think of the team without him in the picture. I guess that’s true about Alexis as well but it seems Alexis gets a pass because of his ability to make something out of nothing. It’s a shame really. With proper mid-fielders and a 4-3-3, I would have loved to see those three in action together.

        1. Still think it’s early days: Alexis was unfit and eased back in, then Ozil got injured. We’ll see after international break.

  7. I think fourth is a tough ask for this team, considering the way our seasons inevitably play out combined with the newfound strength of our rivals. We’re a pretty good team, but we’re now basically what Tottenham used to be before they got an actual manager and a first-class marksman. The words “North London Power Shift” used to make me laugh. Not anymore.

    1. I am praying for the day when Zizou loses his job and Madrid decides to go for Pochettino and Kane.

  8. Yeah, it looks that way. But in this case, not to be overly optimistic, I’d suggest we have to see how things play out. On paper, Tottenham look stronger, but injuries happen, confidence breaks, and unpredictable things happen. So while I’m not saying that Arsenal are better than Tottenham and Liverpool, I would at this point suggest it’s a three horse race for one Top 4 spot, and that Arsenal ought to be considered contenders for the Europa League trophy.

  9. On the contrary, the biggest component in the new winning run is that, other than Chelsea (which was a nil-nil draw, let’s remember), we’ve played teams ranging from mediocre to crap.

  10. Stating the obvious but unless we can actually get 4-5 WINS (not draws) against the sides above us we have zero chance of finishing in the top 4. Can we get 12-15 points from those teams? At this early stage that looks anything but certain.

  11. Some weird math and analysis going on. We are on equal points with Chelsea and their only striker worth the name is out for 6 weeks, but we need them to implode in order to have a chance to overhaul them? We are going to finish behind Liverpool who barring Coutinho look a mess and who we are already in front of? Spurs are already out of sight being a massive 1 point ahead of us? We have 7 games to play against the teams above us and we MUST win 4-5 of them to stand a chance of finishing in the top 4?

    C’mon guys, pull it together.

    I don’t like to make predictions but based on current points, fixtures and form we will beat Chelsea and Liverpool. Spurs we can certainly also finish ahead of, or they could pull away – it depends on our form and theirs. The Mancs I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to playing them. United especially have had an easy run to date. If I had to predict I would say 3rd.

    1. BTW I’m not saying everything is awseome. There may be bad times ahead. But reading the above you would think we were currently in 8th or something.

    2. Beat Chelsea??? Chelsea have beaten Spurs away ,beat Stoke 4-0 away ( where Arsenal lost), and just won away to Athletico Madrid in the Champions league. We maybe able to pip Liverpool to 5th place, but we are not getting top 4.

    3. Agree about United.
      Yes, Mourinho in year 2 is usually great at creating a no-nonsense, balanced team/squad that gets the job done, but I agree that they’ve been made to look good by their ridiculously weak schedule so far. Harder tests ahead for them, for sure. Based on the season so far, I’d say Man City look a cut above the rest.
      I think we have every chance of making top 4, but I think we have zero shot at mounting a serious title challenge, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we implode like we did last season (and the season before that) and finish 5th or 6th.

    4. Yes, we clawed back in the league table…because we’re on a run of playing poor teams. No way do I see this form lasting much longer. Tottenham and Chelsea are much more capable of producing on a consistent basis, including against better sides than Bournemouth, etc.

    1. Agreed. I’m a fan already. But his closing speed may be what separates him, if he can continue to grow. He seems tidy on the ball, and smart, so I’m optimistic he could be a gem. Time will tell…

      1. Yeah, it’s rare that you combine traditional CM qualities (tidiness on the ball) with pure athleticism (closing speed).
        He’s definitely not a winger or wing-back as he doesn’t look great at beating a man one-on-one or crossing. But if he continues to grow what we essentially have is an Elneny-style passer/runner who’s considerably better at getting stuck in (he’s obviously not a beast, but last season I was impressed with the number and timing of his tackles), looks to have better dribbling and close control than Elneny (though admittedly this is more about potential and based on a small sample size), and is very, very quick. That combination’s not going to win any ballon d’ors any time soon, but could be a hell of a useful player for us.

  12. Bugger your logic. Until it becomes mathematically impossible, we’re winning the Premier League, FA cup, League Cup, and Europa League all together. 😉

Comments are closed.

Related articles

Jose Mourinho would like everyone to know he’s still obsessed with Arsene