Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Does disappointment stem from renewed optimism?

Morning all, welcome to a brand new week. I hope wherever you are, you’re all keeping safe and well.

You know what’s good? Looking the fixture list and seeing that the next time we play either Liverpool or Man City isn’t until December. And even then it’s Carabao Cup fixture and, being brutally honest, that is so low down on the list of things to get worried about that it will feel like a free hit as and when the game comes around.

It’s February before we face City again in the Premier League, and it’ll be next April before we next play the Mugsmashers. Whatever it is about the way the fixture lists have come together, Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal have had more than their fair share of fixtures against these two, and to now have got both away games out of the way, so to speak, is probably a good thing. Obviously the results haven’t been good, but it’s a bit like hacking your way through a section of dense forest to find some kind of navigable path in front of you. There are still things to hack away at, like Brendan Rodgers teeth, Jamie Vardy’s witch-like chin, and Gollum Gunnar Solskjaer’s Man Utd, but they look a bit less difficult than what has come before.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to consider the disappointment that accompanied the defeat to Man City on Saturday evening. Was it because we view this City team as more vulnerable, or because we think Arsenal are now more capable? I suspect it’s a little from Column A, a little from Column B – and it’s probably the latter on which we should focus. If we can still acknowledge City are a better side than we are, much more developed under Pep Guardiola and built with far greater resources, should we be encouraged by the regret we felt at coming away with nothing?

As I said yesterday, this was a strange game to get a real handle on, because as well as it being a clash between Man City and Arsenal, it was also one between Guardiola and Arteta. I’m not trying to play into the ‘Master v Apprentice’ cliche, but it was definitely two managers who think about the game in very specific ways, and who know each other inside out. Unquestionably that played a part in how they set up their teams, and I can only think that part of the reason we chose to use Willian in the role we did was because it would have been something Arteta viewed as unexpected, something Guardiola wouldn’t have predicted.

Afterwards, he explained it like this:

“I believed that it was a game for him, the way City play, the way they attract opponents and the spaces that can be used. He was really convinced as well. It was obviously hard to leave two strikers on the bench, but it was a tactical decision.”

I don’t pay much attention to the fact he said he was happy with the performance of Willian, because in public he’s not going to say much else. However, I don’t believe a manager with his eye for detail will look back on that display, and his own decision to play him in that role, and think it worked … because it didn’t. Not even slightly. I can’t say precisely where the balance lies between that explanation and the desire to play something of a tactical wildcard, only Arteta himself will know that, but even when it was obvious it wasn’t working it took too long to change. When he did bring on Lacazette for Willian, it felt almost like for like rather than changing something, and I don’t know if that’s more damning of the player who came off or the one who came on.

Nevertheless, I think we need to view this game in a kind of isolation because of the extra layers that went with it. I think we can all understand how facing a friend, a mentor etc, brings something extra to the table when you do your thinking and preparation. In time, that will be much less of a consideration. Also, we can’t forget that Arteta is still very raw in terms of managerial experience. He has been in this job – his first ever job at this level – for less than a year. In this very short period he has done some things well, he’s provided enough encouragement for us to view defeat at Man City with ruefulness rather than just accepting it as an inevitability and, of course, he has won us a trophy.

There are also things that he hasn’t done as well, and I think it’s worth remembering that he is learning on the job, and will get things wrong. It’s part of management, part of any job, that you learn from your mistakes. If you’ve read Wenger’s book recently, there’s stuff in there about his start as a manager and how, as he looks back with all the years of experience he had, he’d have done things differently. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the successes he had in the job were built on the things he did well and understanding how and why he got things wrong. That’s the same for any manager who builds a long-lasting career in one of the most difficult careers in top level sport.

Which isn’t to compare Arteta to Wenger, it’s just topical because the book is out right now, and the Arsenal connection is obvious. Even at his peak, the former boss made decisions which were open to question, and as we now live in an era when every single thing is analysed to the Nth degree, I think it’s important we stand back a little and remember that the current manager is, like his team, still very much in a developmental phase.

That’s not to make excuses per se, but to understand that progress is not going to be linear. There will be ups and downs, and Saturday’s game was a touch of the latter. What comes next is hugely important though, as games against Leicester and United will be part of what defines our season much more than Liverpool or City. They are top four rivals, and the points we can take off them will be significant. Maybe there’s a need to add a bit of simplicity to our set-up, but we’ll see how that feeds into the team selection on Sunday.

In the meantime, there’s Europa League this week, and a chance for some players who haven’t been featuring regularly to show their stuff. More on that during the week.

Apologies for the late arrival of today’s post – some technical issues that we’re now on top of. The Arsecast Extra will be out before lunchtime.

Take it easy, stay safe.

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