I was watching Lost in Space the other day with the kid. I’m talking about the new version, the reboot with Parker Posey as the evil Dr. Smith. It’s on Netflix and it’s the sort of high budget sci-fi that I never had growing up. Sci-fi TV shows in my day were, well, they were like Lost in Space: cheesy sets, floppy robots, bad writing. Red Dwarf, Star Trek (even the next generation had a LOT of cheesy sets and almost all of the aliens were just human biped variations with some weird stuff thrown on their heads), Dr. Who, Farscape, etc. The staple sci-fi diet is cheese.
High budget sci-fi television series didn’t really start going until, oh, somewhere around the reboot of Battlestar Galactica. You could see that we were building toward this inevitability but for the longest time producers were reticent to sink a lot of money into sci-fi TV shows because they tended to reach such a niche market. Star Trek is the notable exception, with both the original series ($100k) and the Next Generation ($1m) costing record amounts per episode to produce. But now days good sci-fi has hit the hyperdrive on costs with shows like the Mandalorian costing Disney $15m per episode and Westworld hitting HBO for $25m per episode.
But even with huge production costs, if the story isn’t good, or the writing is cheesy and predictable, well, sci-fi is just like anything else I guess: just not worth your time. It doesn’t matter how many cool aliens they put in the show.
Lost in Space is one of the oddest shows I’ve ever watched. The oddness of this show is in both just how unrelentingly evil and unlikeable Dr. Smith is (played by Parker Posey) but also how every episode sees the Robinsons in not just one but usually two and sometimes three world-shaking life and death situations. And when I say “world-shaking” I mean like LITERALLY – this planet they have all crashed on is going to be pulled apart by a black hole or they have to fly their entire colony ship into the atmosphere of a gas giant to collect up ammonia, which they need to use to purify the water, that is infected with a rust virus, which if it gets loose will destroy their entire ship, oh and so Maureen Robinson has to fly outside of the colony ship and close an airlock because another evil genius (not Dr. Smith!) is sabotaging the entire plan. What I’m getting at here is that the entire show is predictable and also a bit much.
You can see how things are going to develop the minute they set the scene and you can predict, with reasonable accuracy, how there will be a life-and death battle. They do manage to spring a few surprises on us but overall, the show is far too easy to read.
I would say the same thing about the Arsenal. I can predict, with reasonable accuracy, what the result of a game is going to be once I see the effort we are putting in in the first 20 minutes. If we are playing with the handbrake on, which we don’t do as often this year as we did last year, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a loss.
I have a little litmus test I apply after and during a match. It’s real simple and it goes like this: was I busy writing bread recipes or reading during the match? Well, then we aren’t playing well at all and I’m afraid that we aren’t going to get much out of this game. Like I said before, it doesn’t happen as often this year as it did last year but it still happens from time to time.
And when it happens this leads us to the other most predictable thing about Arsenal: who to blame! For some of us it’s Arteta, for others it’s the players, for me it’s the gotta be either both or neither.
Arteta, naturally, blamed the players. Not only after the match but also during the match, taking off 21 year old reserve fullback Nuno Tavarez after just the 35th minute. It was the most dramatic thing Arsenal did all match. Closely followed by Arteta taking off Cedric in the 90th minute.
Nuno was clearly incensed. He ripped his gloves off and cast them aside, then when one of the assistant coaches came over and tried to say something to him, he rebuffed him with a raised hand and took a seat on the bench where he could watch as the rest of the team continued to put in the same kind of abject performance that he was being blamed for.
Don’t get me wrong, Nuno was having a bad game and probably should have been taken off. He had multiple turnovers early and a backpass which was so bad that it required Leno to head the ball away. Not only that but he was being outclassed in the physical duels. Late to every ball, easily pushed off the ball. And while I say that he probably should have been taken off, it’s also true that subbing him off had no effect on the overall performance.
And that is partly down to personnel. The Arsenal midfield has been one injury away from a disaster for a while. Everyone can see that the X Man is a liability, that he costs Arsenal games, and also that he’s our best midfielder and without him we really struggle. We’ve known this for YEARS. This is why we bought Torreira and Guendouzi – who also didn’t work out for various reasons. This is why we bought Thomas and Sambi. Everyone in the known universe knows that Arsenal need midfielders.
Starting young Charlie Patino and Sambi Lokonga in the Arsenal midfield against a Forest team which has played together all season was always going to be a huge risk. And… what choice did Arteta have there? None, really. The X Man has COVID again, Thomas is at AFCON, Elneny is at AFCON, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been sent to the spice mines of Mourinho. There was literally no choice there and.. predictably, it didn’t work out. That’s no knock on Patino, who is clearly talented, but you are always going to struggle to control games when your midfield has never played together before.
By the way, Maitland-Niles made his debut for Roma (at right back) and.. well the press were not too nice. They called his performance a “collection of indecisions” and pointed out that he lost the ball more times than anyone else. When I look at the data from the match, it’s not the turnovers that bother me (the press count misplaced passes (which were 16 of his 17 turnovers) as turnovers which I’ve always thought was weird) it’s the utter lack of progressive passing. It’s one thing to make 16 bad passes if you’re at least trying to get the ball forward and quite another if your bad passes are sideways and backwards.
The Maitland-Niles game for Roma also highlights another key point from this match: good fullbacks who can get up and down the pitch are essential these days. This is something that Arsene Wenger recognized decades before anyone else in England and he always tried to build his teams around technically excellent, incredible fullbacks. Think about the guys he had working for him: Lauren, Sagna, Cole, Monreal, so on. These guys had technical abilities that some forwards envy (Lauren was a converted forward, so) and they had the lungs to make runs up and down the pitch for 90 minutes. Wenger often over-committed his fullbacks (and we were treated to the ignominious sight of the left back crossing the ball.. to the right back) but there’s no question that they were always key to his plan. Arsenal right now have a few technically good fullbacks but the drop off in quality from first choice to second is incredible. Cedric Soares has been a poor signing for Arsenal and from day one it was evident that he’s not good enough. Nuno Tavares got all the blame yesterday from Arteta but it’s also true that he’s been benched since the loss to Man U in early December and frankly, his turnovers weren’t a surprise yesterday. He’s played like this in pretty much every match for Arsenal.
But it’s also true that Tierney wasn’t great when he came on. And besides which, what on earth was Arteta supposed to do? Tomiyasu was out with a tight calf, Calum Chambers is an emotional choice for some fans but he’s probably not good enough to be a starting fullback, and Sead Kolasinac is a player I had literally forgot that we still have on the payroll (until he was subbed on). This summer I pointed out that Arsenal needed fullbacks and folks laughed at me but we went out and bought two. And frankly it’s still not enough.
But that said, Tavares had played really well against Sunderland a few weeks ago, so had Cedric (bed) Soares. Both had an assist and Nketiah had a hat trick. Sunderland aren’t that far off, quality wise, from Nottingham Forest. Arsenal also could have played with a back three, or with Ben White at the “right back” spot. Or Arsenal could have started with Lacazette in the forward position, this might have proven especially helpful since the midfield was so drastically inexperienced. There were a lot of options there, none of them taken by Arteta.
Instead, Mikel Arteta made an incredibly dramatic gesture and took off Tavares in the 35th minute. I don’t have a big problem with the sub itself, as I said, he wasn’t playing well but it’s one thing to take a player off at half-time and quite another to take them off 10 minutes before half. Thomas Touchy did it for Chelsea, famously dumping Reece James (or Hudson-Odoi, I think, I could be wrong) and then saying that he did it because the player wasn’t up to the required level. But neither action by Tuchel or Arteta had the desired impact. Arsenal didn’t “up their game” when Tavares was taken off. They continued to struggle to get a foot in against the Championship team and eventually, they conceded a soft goal to a 40 year old.
It was a huge signal by the manager to the team and it didn’t work. Which begs the question, what would have worked? Arteta after the game blamed the players, this is what he does, saying that “We have the players to perform better than what they’ve done today and we have the level to beat them if we are at our maximum and today we didn’t have that.”
This will prompt the inevitable debate about what the role of the manager is then. He is saying that the players he picked were actually good enough but for some reason Charlie Patino, Martin Ødegaard, Eddie Nketiah, and others just didn’t play hard enough. Why? Why didn’t they give enough effort? Why weren’t they at their maximum? And who is responsible for getting them to their maximum?
There will be no definitive answer here. Some will say it’s mostly on the players to self-motivate. Some will say it’s mostly on the manager to motivate them. Some will say we lack the quality, some will say that we lacked the tactical nuance. For me, it’s a lot of column A and a lot of column B. This is a team sport and these are professional athletes. They are expected to be motivated to play and that is down to the whole team – which includes the manager. The manager also needs to set them up to succeed. That might mean taking a player off in the 35th minute to make a tactical change. But I feel like taking a player off to send a motivational message is unlikely to work. In any case, even if you disagree, the plain facts are that it really didn’t work. We didn’t show any more interest in this match after Tierney came on than we did before.
And what happened at half-time? I’m guessing that Arteta told them how unacceptable their work was in the first half and that if they don’t have the right attitude in the 2nd half they can all just go home and come back when they have the right attitude. So, how come we didn’t come out and play hard as fuck after his motivational half-time speech? We will probably never know.
What we do know is that this manager has quite the confrontational attitude toward his players. Maybe that’s the right approach in the long run. Sir Alex Ferguson was definitely like that and he’s the most successful coach ever in England. He also had the purchasing power to just get rid of players he didn’t like and he did it all the time. Arsenal don’t have those resources at their disposal and at the rate which Arteta is burning though players I wonder how long he’ll be able to keep up this approach? My guess is another year, max.
Anyway, we are out of the Arsene Wenger memorial cup and I guess we can focus on the League and the EFL Cup now.