Most mornings I get up, make coffee, sit down and start writing. Sometimes during the day I’ll leave a little note in WordPress to remind me of something I thought of. This morning I got up, made coffee, and there’s a line: Time to take stock.
I know generally what I was thinking about, it’s a reaction to the reaction to the defeat against Man City. Even though most people thought we’d lose, the defeat caused the kind of reaction that we haven’t really experienced so far this season. Not even losing to West Ham and Southampton – games I would consider far more important/damaging in the context of our season – affected people in quite as visceral a manner.
Nobody can be surprised there’s a significant gulf in quality between us and the defending champions, a team which has been built over three years by Pep Guardiola with hundreds of millions of pounds of investment. If it was a reminder of how far we are away from them, I understand it to an extent, but it wasn’t a result which trampled all over my expectations. The games against West Ham, Southampton and even Brighton certainly did, so there’s something else going on.
To my mind there are two elements. The first one is timing, this fixture was the first one after the close of the January transfer window during which everyone knew we needed players. We heard the messages about how Raul Sanllehi was generally opposed to buying players in this month, we heard Unai Emery talk about how we could only do loan deals, but in the back of your mind there’s still some hope that we might pull something out of the bag because the need was so obvious.
What we did, in signing Denis Suarez on loan from Barcelona, felt underwhelming to me. We’re suffering from amoebic dysentery and our solution was to bandage our left wrist. I’m sure I don’t need to clarify that I hope he can have a positive impact, but in his introduction against Man City he looked like a rabbit in the headlights, a player who has barely played this season and is being asked to come in and perform in a new team, in a new league, in difficult circumstances. It’s not to judge him completely, of course he needs time, but those first impressions weren’t particularly great and the fact we’re now into February means he’s got to hit the ground running.
The second element is that if you’d asked people where we needed to strengthen, I think the majority would have suggested defenders, rather than adding another tidy, technical midfielder. So, when your defence is a shambles in the very next game it causes frustration to rise, because it feels like we’re not addressing the real issues and that Suarez is a bit of a sticking plaster signing. I don’t need to go into the specifics, you all saw what I saw, and there are players who are in our back four that shouldn’t be, but injuries have robbed us of options, and as there was no sense that the club were serious about bolstering that area of the pitch in January it’s natural that people react when the shortcomings are exposed again.
Defending is our big problem this season. We’ve conceded more goals than any of the other big six, but also more than Wolves, Leicester, West Ham or even Newcastle. It was one of the areas I had hoped that Unai Emery would specifically improve, he hasn’t and I understand some of the reasons why, but all the same it’s a bone of contention when you have such an obvious weakness and nothing is done about it.
My hope is that this January inaction is a precursor to properly addressing it in the summer when hopefully we have targets in mind, and players who are simply better than some of the ones we have at the moment. My head tells me this is the best way to do things for the long-term, but my heart sinks when I see the same old frailties from players who have had more than enough chances at this point. So, I think those things greatly informed the reaction to the City defeat.
Nevertheless, it’s worth considering where we are. Some will say we’re in sixth. Some will say we’re just three points behind the top four. Both of those things are true. I guess it depends on the fullness of your glass as to which is most applicable to you. We were in fourth for a time this week, so it’s an illustration of how quickly things can change.
Our record against the top 6 away from home is bad, but then we only have one more of those games left this season. Sp*rs away – in an as yet undecided location which is a bit of a joke really – is followed by Manchester United at home in what should be pivotal week for our season, but after that the domestic fixture list is relatively kind. As for our top four rivals, United still have to play Liverpool, us, Man City and Chelsea; while Chelsea still have upcoming fixtures against Man City, Sp*rs, Liverpool and United.
We will have to juggle that Premier League run-in with some European action too, but I’ve seen far worse run-ins for us to contend with, and if Emery can manage to find a modicum of defensive stability, then scoring goals hasn’t really been our major problem this season. I know there are issues with creativity and at times I find his team selections overly conservative, but the talent is there. I think he needs to be a bit more pragmatic and find a way to get the best out of the strikers, which might mean only playing one at a time, or re-integrating Mesut Ozil whose quality can oil the attacking engine, but you can see how that’s doable.
If you’d told me at the start of the season we’d be three points off the Champions League places at this stage, I think I’d have taken that. At the start I wasn’t even sure I expected us to genuinely challenge for the top four, but the unbeaten run went some way to changing those expectations and here we are. Is it perfect? Far from it. Are there problems? Of course. Am I confident this Arsenal team can avoid having its weaknesses exposed? Not completely.
However, all things considered, the injuries to key players, the lack of replacements in the transfer window, the competitiveness of the teams around us, I don’t think this is a bad position to be in. We are kind of where I thought we’d be, and now the challenge is to finish the campaign strongly to take the next step to where we want to be. Let’s see what we’re made of.
If you haven’t yet had a chance, the Arsecast Extra is below. Plenty in there to get your teeth into including the City game, Emery, our defending, Mesut Ozil, Denis Suarez and much more. All the links you need to listen/subscribe are there, so have at it.