On Saturday I took the fewest notes of any football match I’ve watched this season, just 10 lines. Over half of those were from the first 19 minutes. After that, it was pretty clear what I was watching: the death gurgle of Arsenal’s season.
Before I start this, I’m going to warn you: some of you reflexively get mad at any criticism of Arsenal and go after any writer who has the temerity to point out any fault or slip. I get it, this is our tribe, some writer is attacking our tribe, let’s defend the tribe.
But I’m not an outsider, I’ve been writing nearly daily about Arsenal since 2008. I’ve been following Arsenal for over 24 years. When I criticize Arsenal it’s because I want more, I want us to win, I want us to play better football. In essence it comes from a place of love for the club, not hatred.
I also know the reality of the task: this season “ahead of schedule” Arsenal tried to defeat the state of Abu Dhabi and their club. A club which has been charged with 115 counts of financial doping and could still be expelled from the Premier League. They have the greatest players, the greatest manager, endless lawyers, a desire to make their cruel state look less evil than it is, and bottomless resources. That’s what Arsenal were up against. And we failed. In a pretty spectacularly bad way.
We were probably going to lose the title anyway. For most of the season I didn’t have that intense hopeful feeling that we were going to win the league like I felt in 2016, 2008, and 2003. Those were seasons which I thought we would do it but failed at the final hurdle. So it didn’t hurt me as much as it probably could have to lose this title. But it still hurts the way that we crashed and burned.
In the run in (these last 9 matches) where we needed to essentially win every match, we have taken 12/27 points. IF we win the last match of the season, and that’s a pretty big if at this point, we will have taken 15 of the final 30 points of the season. Meanwhile, City have taken 24/24 points – which includes two 4-1 wins over both Liverpool and Arsenal. And who would bet against them winning all their remaining games?
But weirdly, even with that in mind, I didn’t think of yesterday’s match as a dead rubber. I went into yesterday’s match thinking that Arsenal would want to win every match, that we’d want to get the best possible point tally. To really push City and let them know that we were serious title contenders, that we’d be back next year even better than before. And yet, Arteta’s lineup was the proverbial towel thrown into the ring and because I didn’t get it, it pissed me off to no end.
Arteta started with Trossard on the left, Kiwior as left back, Xhaka in the LCM, and Thomas Partey in the RB/DM role. I complained on twitter and was duly shut down: this was the manager experimenting with a dead rubber match. See, if I had been at all attuned to the myriad Arsenal blogs/media I would have known this. I also would have known that apparently we are selling Smith Rowe (who I wanted to start instead of Trossard) and Kieran Tierney (who I wanted to start instead of Kiwior). And worse: we are apparently keeping Thomas Partey (who I have wanted Arsenal to sell since last summer, a desire which has only grown stronger since he pulled his Denilson act in this run-in).
I was frustrated from the start, because I wanted us to win and not play the match as if it was a dead rubber, watching Partey have absolutely no clue what he was doing at RB. He was constantly running into the middle and not at all in the way that Arteta’s FB to DM system works. You could see Arteta screaming at him, because he would look back at Arteta and then book it back to where he was supposed to be – just before jetting off to the wrong place again. He did eventually figure it out, but I think it was because Arteta told him to play almost entirely RB.
And because Kiwior is not even remotely a LB, the entire left side of Arsenal’s attack was utterly impotent. No amount of special blue pills was going to save that. Xhaka had 16 touches in the first half and I didn’t even bother to check how many of them were from set plays. Everything ran through Saka and for a club like Forest, who want to sit deep and absorb pressure, that was perfect.
It was a bold plan from Arteta: play no one on the left who can advance the ball and play a DM in an unfamiliar RB position. But again, why am I complaining? This was a dead rubber match. To quote Bill Paxton in Aliens “Game over man, GAME OVER. Now what the fuck are we supposed to do?”*
Now what the fuck are we supposed to do is the question of the decade isn’t it? I wrote about how we could get better the other day and here I am after watching that performance against Forest thinking that maybe we can’t actually challenge City. I mean, won’t they all be better next season? Won’t City be better, Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle, and Man U?
When people would go on the national podcasts (you know the ones) and boldly proclaim that Arsenal were the favorites for the title I would shake my head. No we weren’t. I may have repeated it but I never felt it. I’m sorry.
Ok, that’s not entirely true. I felt it briefly in the first half against Liverpool. When we were 2-0 up.
I will never forget, sitting there in Seattle at Sakuracon, while Clyde was doing some kind of panel, looking out over a misty Seattle morning and thinking that we could actually do this thing. I thought we were going to beat Liverpool and beat them handily and that that would be the spark which we needed to challenge City. I felt that right up to the point where Xhaka elbowed Trent in the head. Then they went down and scored and I thought “oh fuck”.
And from that point on, you have to admit, this has been a mental collapse by this team. “Two-nil and we fucked it up.”
I guess the post I wrote the other day was my logical brian speaking: do these things, improve the depth of the team, and you will improve the team and possibly challenge for the League again next year. But this post is my emotional brain speaking: unless we find a way to be more ruthless and to stay emotionally mature throughout the entire season, there is no chance we will win the League.
So, while the post the other day had a prescription of “buy this, do that and you’ll challenge for the League” this post has a very different prescription: learn from this season. Learn how it felt when we were on the verge of doing it and next time don’t give in to that wave of emotion. Don’t elbow Trent in the head needlessly. Don’t lose your shit three games before the big showdown with City (twice).
You have to have the personnel to beat City, that is true. But you also have to have the belief that you can beat City, without it, all is lost.
*In the background the corporate slime ball is suggesting we “build a fire, sing a couple of songs”.