Morning everyone. There’s a full set of Premier League fixtures tonight and tomorrow night, and with another home game Arsenal have a good chance to get more points under our belts before we face the old enemy at
their brand new stadium Wembley on Saturday.
Tomorrow we take on Bournemouth, looking to build on the win over Southampton on Sunday, and it’s the first of a machine-gun blast of fixtures between now and mid-March. We’ll play five times in just over two weeks, with three Premier League fixtures and the two games against Rennes in the Europa League. It should have been six but because of Wolves’ involvement in the FA Cup that game has been postponed and will have to be slotted in somewhere in the run-in.
After that there’s a two week gap without a game because of an Interlull before we start again at home against Newcastle. It could be a two weeks during which we’re feeling hugely encouraged, or one which demands a great deal of introspection because of results going into it. The two games against Sp*rs and Man Utd really feel massive. Not just because of where they are in the table and that they could almost be viewed as top four ‘six pointers’, but because it feels like this team could really use decent results against the other big teams (and Sp*rs) to help it kick on a bit.
I know we had that fantastic 4-2 against them back in November, a performance which had many of us hoping it would be just what the team needed to drive forward. It didn’t quite work out like that for various reasons, but as we head into the business end of the season it’d be very useful to replicate that kind of performance this weekend.
We got a lot of questions for the Arsecast Extra this week about atmosphere in the stadium and they’re sort of impossible to answer because nobody can speak for 60,000 people. Anyone who claims they can know what an entire fanbase is like is talking out of their arse. However, I don’t know if it would be unfair to suggest that there’s something not quite there yet between this team and the manager and the fans.
The football we’ve played this season hasn’t always been easy on the eye, even if we can all understand the reasons behind that. A new manager finding his way in a new country; a squad which needs more work in the transfer market; a lack of backing in the January window; more than a touch of ill-fortune with three devastating long-term injuries – and I do think the inability to maintain any kind of consistency of selection at the back has played into our defensive issues in a big way.
In your mind you can rationalise those things perfectly well, but how you feel is a different matter entirely. Your head tells you one thing, but your heart might not go with it. We cannot reduce football to a binary state. You can produce as many stats as you like about how many points we have this season versus the last one, and you can illustrate how Emery’s record in his first season as a coach in the Premier League stacks up against the other managers, but even with all that information what we see on the pitch influences how we think.
That’s why I felt it was important to not just win against Southampton but also play well. It wasn’t all brilliant, the first half was far better than the second in terms of what we created and how we dominated the game, but there were still things to like about what we did after half-time. Let’s remember, this is a team which hasn’t always been defensively secure this season and, even when losing another defender through injury, didn’t look particularly threatened by the opposition or a player who has scored every time he played against us.
When there were moments of danger, we defended well. Sead Kolasinac putting his substantial body on the line to block a shot, Leno making a good save late on, it felt like there was some extra focus on ensuring we kept a clean sheet. And sure, you can say it was only Southampton (a team which beat us a few weeks ago by the way), and I get that, but look at some of the teams we’ve conceded to this season. You don’t have to be that good to score against Arsenal, so any time we do manage to keep a clean sheet there’s something positive to it.
The first half was very good from an attacking point of view, and the second displayed a measure of in-game control we don’t see often enough, so that’s a little step forward and hopefully one we can build on tomorrow night against Bournemouth. It’ll be trying to replicate some of that in the bigger games that will really go a long way to instilling some genuine belief though. We know our record against the other teams in the ‘big six’ has been iffy some time and these are the games you can use as a real yardstick to figure out where we are in relation to those sides.
There has been good this season, beating Sp*rs and Chelsea at home showed there’s something to this team on its day, and those were real positives. But the 5-1 defeat at Anfield put a real dent in things, and the tacit acceptance that a 3-1 loss to Man City was par for the course is another one of those things that in your head you can come to terms with because of the vast difference between the two ‘projects’ – if you like – but it still doesn’t feel good because it hammers home how far we are away from what we want to be.
The two games against Sp*rs and United are a chance to change the Premier League table, but also the way people feel about what we’re doing and where we are. It might sound a bit existential, you can’t measure it with data or charts, but it doesn’t mean it’s any less important or any less part of the football supporting experience. We talk about confidence and momentum all the time, this is part of it, it feeds into that, and it’s just not just something fans feel but players too. It’s a big 10 days for Unai Emery in that sense, so let’s see where we are after United at home on Sunday week.
Elsewhere, Abou Diaby has announced his retirement from football. It’s very much a case of what might have been with him, and I think the piece I wrote when he left Arsenal in 2015 applies today. It’s obviously been a massive physical and mental struggle for him, so good luck in whatever he does next.
Finally for today, I’ll leave you with the brand new Arsecast Extra chatting about the Southampton game and lots more. Listen/subscribe below. Back tomorrow with a Bournemouth preview and a bit more.