Sunday, September 24, 2023

Arsenal 0-2 Chelsea: ‘Accepting the reality’ is painful

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Our first home game of the season ended in defeat, 2-0 to Chelsea. It wasn’t much fun at all. I know my job is to put together some coherent thoughts about what happened, but I’m not quite sure how this is going to go this morning. It’s not that I’m conflicted or confused, but there’s a lot going on in my mind.

First, I don’t think losing to this Chelsea team right now is much of a surprise. They are bigger, better, far stronger, and in a much more developed phase than we are. We also had a lot of players missing, which does have an impact. To have any chance of beating Chelsea, we need all our best players available and they weren’t. We were also without new signing Ben White (Covid); the captain was barely back from his own bout with the virus and just made the bench; Odegaard wasn’t available; and I fully accept the circumstances are far from ideal.

I imagine most people would accept the reality of that, and then I also think that accepting the reality of that is somehow part of the problem. The idea that ‘Well, we’re probably going to lose to Chelsea and Man City’ is taken as read illustrates how far we’ve fallen, and yesterday’s game showed just how far we have to go. It also doesn’t go any distance to explain losing to Brentford and again, I accept things were not ideal, but guess what – that’s football. If you need to be in Goldilocks mode, where everything is just right to perform and win games, you’re doing it wrong.

I know we’re rebuilding. I understand that. I can accept that there are going to be some growing pains along the way. I genuinely get it. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that, but at the same time, even with those caveats, you have to see something to hang onto, and bar a couple of individuals who did well yesterday (Sambi and Smith Rowe), I’m not seeing enough from the collective.

I don’t know what kind of football Mikel Arteta wants his team to play. Are we going to control the game and dominate Chelsea right now? No, of course not. But should we be able to glean some insight into how this team is going to improve after last season? I don’t think that’s unrealistic. I didn’t see it.

Small things. We get a throw in, nobody moves, we delay the throw in, Chelsea get organised, we struggle to find a man with the throw. Chelsea get a throw in, they almost always find a man who creates enough space to receive it by … simply moving. Arsenal are too static, too passive, not switched on enough. Not just from throw ins, everywhere. We don’t press, we don’t get close enough to our opponents. We’re easy to play against. Bernd Leno catches a cross, runs forward, looks to get things going quickly, there’s nothing ahead of him to do that, Chelsea get organised, we can’t play it short or long. We boot it, they get the ball back.

I understand how they have more quality players than we do, on the pitch and on their scary looking bench, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of organisation or anything resembling a coherent plan when we do have the ball. Early on it was obvious Reece James had the right hand side to himself. I don’t know whether Kieran Tierney was instructed to tuck in the way he did, or if he was just trying to help out a hapless Pablo Mari, but it was clear him coming inside left James the freedom of their right hand side. What did we do about it? Nothing, not quickly enough anyway.

Arteta can absolutely say his team is missing key players, but he can’t use that as an excuse for not reacting to what was happening in the game. That’s his job, and he didn’t do it well enough yesterday. James provided the assist for the opener, then blasted home a second goal which always felt like it was going to be a killer blow. Maybe we might have nicked one, and I think we should have had a penalty when Saka was obviously fouled, but Chelsea could have had more.

Romelu Lukaku versus Pablo Mari was like a modern version of Drobga v Senderos, but worse. Given his dodgy pre-season, and his poor display against Brentford, it was a bad decision to put him one on one with Lukaku. I think we should have played a back three, as we did at Stamford Bridge last season, and that’s not a Captain Hindsight observation, I said this pre-game too.

Mari was ruined by Lukaku yesterday. When you look at the stats it looks like he had a decent game: 4 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 clearances, 4 blocked shots, but it’s a classic of the ‘stats don’t tell you the full story’ genre. He was slow and weak for the first goal, the kind of defending you get from a journeyman centre-half who should be back-up at best, but which is still indefensible at this level. Rob Holding’s own Senderos/Drogba moment was prevented by a brilliant Leno save. Lukaku is a fantastic player at the absolute peak of his powers right now, but our formation played right into his hands, and he lapped it up.

Lord know what we’re going to do at right back. Like Mari, Cedric is a dud whose presence in the team today just shows how confused this position is. It’s Chambers one week, then the next it’s a bloke who was fourth choice in our final pre-season friendly behind a midfielder (Maitland-Niles) who doesn’t want to play at right back but who has missed a glorious opportunity to make that position his for years because he has everything you need to play in that position. Hector wasn’t available, but it seems his Arsenal race is run. Right back is a serious problem.

In midfield Granit Xhaka was Granit Xhaka, the Granit Xhaka we’ve seen for years who, by the end, was storming around the pitch looking for someone to foul because his frustrations levels were so high. And this is the player we’ve committed a new contract to, for what? I get we need some experienced heads around to help develop these young players, but you can also buy experience and increase the quality.

Alongside him, Sambi was the shining star for me. Energetic, good on the ball, competitive – if a little bewildered at times with the pace of everything. That’s an aspect of the Premier League he’s going to have to come to terms with quickly, but he was definitely something to be encouraged about. I also thought Aubameyang looked sharp when he came on, and considering he’s had just one training session having been bed-ridden by Covid, that could be a good sign too.

Going back to the missing players: Arteta said on Sky afterwards that the team would be ‘completely different’ with them available. I get it, but only a little bit. A fully fit Aubameyang, Thomas Partey, Bukayo Saka (who was not at his sharpest yesterday), Gabriel, and Martin Odegaard does make us stronger. No doubt about it.

But the improvement thing concerns me. Does it simply come from having better players? Is that what we’re banking on, rather than the better players coming in to execute a system and a game-plan that the others can’t? If you have a team playing in a certain way and you then add better players, you can see how that would improve things. If there’s no discernible style, then you’re just looking for individuals to produce moments. I don’t know if I’m explaining this well, I’ll talk it out on the podcast with James later on.

All in all, disheartening. The gulf is massive, I think Chelsea are going to be serious title contenders this season, and we’re a long way off that. Understanding that, and accepting that reality is tough, but I genuinely hate the idea that as Arsenal fans we’re basically resigned to defeat against the best teams because we’re just not good enough. That’s not a nice place to be, but that’s exactly where we are.

Finally, a word for the fans who I thought gave the team their full backing during the game. To be fair to Arteta, I thought he answered a loaded post-game question from Sky about booing very well, but given how little the team gave fans to cheer about in the 90 mins, they were with them throughout. If there were boos at the end, they felt much more about where are as a club right now than a reaction to that performance, and I don’t know how anyone could argue with that sentiment. There’s only one real way for a crowd to show their displeasure, and with Josh Kroenke in the Director’s Box, let’s not get on our fainting couches about it.

Right, that’s it. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra for you later this morning. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast should be out at lunchtime or thereabouts, so until then, take it easy.

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