By Jonathan Blaustein
Well, that didn’t last long.
The brief period of early-season optimism, I mean. That little window of time when each team starts fresh, all records are equal, and the early-morning-dream-haze lingers on the vision of Per Mertesacker hoisting the EPL trophy.
In fairness, I never believed this season could result in ultimate victory. And I stated as much in my season preview. But I did get snookered into thinking another average, Top 4 season lay before us.
Despite the fact that I wrote Arsene Wenger off, for good, during the awful collapse last winter, the FA Cup run fooled me into thinking that AFC might regain its “rightful” place in the Top 4.
I’m officially changing my season prediction to “we’ll be very lucky if we don’t end up in 7th place.”
Yup. That’s what we’re looking at.
But I’ve read a lot of articles lately that explain exactly how we got here. It’s not rocket science, dissecting the corpse of the Summer 2017 Transfer Window.
Any idiot could do that, and given the quality of writing I’ve seen lately on the subject, (I’m looking at you, The Ringer,) I don’t want to add to the dross.
Rather, I spent the weekend contemplating the overall, big picture visions that are pushing us further behind our competitors. It’s not hard to see the true Top 5, as all of them have a plan, and then execute. (And unfortunately for us, they’ve been successful in their builds.)
Liverpool– Jurgen Klopp wants a team of quick, fast players. They work his Gegenpress, and fly down the field in transitions. I mentioned this in my faulty-season-preview: if your players are slower than their players, you’re screwed. (If you doubt me, watch the highlight of Rob Holding trying to stop Sadio Mané’s goal.)
Manchester United– Jose Mourinho wants big, fast players. Size is really important to him, but when combined with athleticism, it is really hard to counter. Mourinho likes Galacticos, so he can blow inferior teams off the field, and play defense first against everyone else.
Manchester City– Pep Guardiola is an acolyte of the beautiful game. He wants possession, all the time, and has collected highly technical, expensive wizards who can pass everyone off the field. But he also invested in speed, with Mendy and Walker, so he can keep up with the other teams’ athletes.
Chelsea– Even before Conte, the Chelsea style was entrenched. Buy world class mercenaries, and employ Mourinho-ball. Blow away smaller clubs with Galacticos, and play defense-first against every other major club. But their serial winning has given them an advantage both in the transfer market, (before this summer,) and in the ability to keep the team from collapsing. (Other than Post-Mourinho.)
Tottenham– Mauricio Pochettino, like Klopp, opts for the Gegenpress. So he wants young, hungry players who have the requisite physical reserves, and personal desire, to do all the extra work. Because he also has some serious athletes, this style of play is also very difficult to deal with. (And explains that Tottenham’s success the last few years is no fluke.)
I’m not throwing Everton in there yet, but they have boatloads of cash now, and a manager who’s historically given Wenger fits, so they may well have leveled up to Arsenal territory, in which case 7th place is a genuine possibility.
Were we to make an Arsenal bullet point here, it would look like this:
Arsenal– Used to play beautiful football, Guardiola-style, with wicked possession. But now, the club lacks enough technical players to pull it off. Does not have a particularly athletic side, meaning they can’t match up well with most of the Top 6. Refuses to play defense-first, except for a handful of games over the last 6 years, so regularly takes morale-sapping pastings, almost every year.
Now, I’m not interested in only telling you what you already know. It’s why I refused to write a post-mortem after the Liverpool disaster. I saw that as only one more in a string of awful losses, the likes of which I don’t believe will stop until Arsenal have another manager.
But what would I do to save the season? Why not just give up now and commit to the NFL?
Well, that wouldn’t be any fun. Plus, I think Wenger has one card to play here, though I doubt he’ll have the stones to do it.
The worst thing about the Liverpool game was the lack of desire. As Tim rightly pointed out in his Ornstein article this weekend, most of Wenger’s team did not want to be on the pitch. And many of them want out all-together.
So play the guys who want to be here, and find the overlap between that small list, and the players who have some athletic chops.
If we’re not going to win the league, no matter what, why not play the guys who are hungry? Give them lots of game time.
Alex Iwobi. Reiss Nelson. Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
These guys are desperate to make a name for themselves. As is Mohamed El Neny. Danny Welbeck. Jack Wilshere. And Olivier Giroud.
Lacazette and Kolasinac are hungry too, because they just got here, and have a ton to prove.
Koscielny would bite the head off of a bat, and drink its blood, if he thought it would give his team an advantage. Keep him out there too.
I know Wenger will never bench Sanchez and Ozil, but if he’s at least willing to “rest” them more regularly, I think there’s a chance to see more fight out of this team.
Think back to that 5-0 demolition of Southampton last year, in the FA Cup. I wrote about it, as it was the first time I saw a vision of the future. Quick, fast players making beautiful exchanges.
If Wenger agreed to go defense first in more of the big games, (he’s done it before, though it’s always seemed like a hostage-situation-move,) and swap out hungry athletes for whiny slowpokes, there is a chance this team doesn’t fall off a cliff.
But I doubt it.