Thursday, June 20, 2024

Teardrop Explodes

When Arsenal lose, they tend to lose in a certain way. Now, there is no good way to lose a game and when you do, there will always be some rhyme or reason behind it. Arsenal have lost 12 games in the league this season, five of those have been away defeats that have seen Arsenal concede three times or more.

That excludes confounding away defeats at Brentford and Everton which both had a sense of calamity baked into them. Home defeats to Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool are not entirely unexpected but the former also had a strong whiff of fragility about it. It was seen as a heroic defeat due to the performance, which is fair enough.

However, Arsenal also imploded somewhat at home to City, earning a cheap red card at a vulnerable moment of the game. The April defeats to Brighton and Southampton were, to my mind, ‘regulation’ defeats. I don’t think there was any great drama in either, Arsenal did not play especially well but both games could have gone either way and happened to go against us.

There have been plenty of victories this season for which the same could be said, that the margins favoured Arsenal. I think this is one of the key reasons that the team has a tendency to implode, nearly every single game is played on a knife edge. Due to a lack of viable goal scorers, games are almost always nervy affairs.

Arsenal have only won three Premier League games by three goals or more this season, away at Leeds (4-1) and Norwich (5-0) and at home to Southampton (3-0). All of those happened in December. Within this framework, it is perhaps not surprising that the team’s nerves fray a little on occasion and we saw this on Thursday evening.

I think referee Paul Tierney was pretty generous to Spurs but I also think Arsenal were generous to Spurs. We know that Son Heung-min has Premier League referees in his pocket, we know that he is an agitator and Cedric Soares and Rob Holding helped him along willingly. He schooled them in the dark arts.

Most red cards are a symptom of some kind of head loss but they happen to Arsenal more than most. Only Everton can match the Gunners’ tally of four in the league this season and Everton have been walking the tightrope of relegation. Granit Xhaka’s red card at Manchester City was a quitter’s tackle that left his already beleaguered team high and dry as they succumbed to a 5-0 shoeing.

Gabriel’s red card against Manchester City and Rob Holding’s against Spurs occurred within minutes of conceding a goal. Both players guilty of a similar offence, of rushing away from their post to engage the forward in some rough and tumble when a cooler head was required. Both red cards contributed to the loss of key points.

Gabriel Martinelli’s red card at Wolves was incredibly harshly dealt with but also entirely unnecessary, a moment of petulance at a delicate point of the game. Thankfully, that one did not cost Arsenal. One might expect an inexperienced team to fall foul of such moments but, with the exception of Martinelli, there aren’t many young players within those incidents.

Arsenal’s capitulation at Anfield did not contain a red card but maybe Mikel Arteta’s contra-temps with Jurgen Klopp on the sideline contributed to an atmosphere where the team lost control of the game and conceded either side of half-time before Nuno Tavares dropped a big clanger close to his own goal for Liverpool’s third.

In isolation, these things happen over a season but they happen a little too often to Arsenal. They lost control of a helter skelter game at Old Trafford in December and another at Goodison a few days later. They were beaten out of sight by Crystal Palace in a 20-minute first half blitz. When it falls apart, it tends to go up in flames.

I don’t think this is really a question of experience but maybe one of quality. Cedric Soares is nearly 31 years old but he rivals his compatriot Nuno Tavares for flakiness. Rob Holding is 26 but was played like a greenhorn by Son Heung-min. Whichever European competition Arsenal are in next season, there needs to be honesty about the medium-term future of many of the back-up players and whether they can hoist Arsenal up to another plateau.

The team are fighting tooth and nail for 4th place which is far beyond what our expectations might have been in August but we also have to remember that August wasn’t just foisted on Arsenal by some external agent. It was a SIW (self-inflicted wound). Being competitive in a race with one leg is an achievement but less so when you blew your own leg off with the starting gun.

You will also notice that a lot of Arsenal’s defeats have come in bunches. There have been two ‘bunches’ of three defeats already this season and if that pattern holds over the next nine days the Gunners will finish 5th. The away defeats at Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton were only broken up by a home win over Newcastle in that cluster.

In short, Arsenal need to learn to respond to adversity better. I don’t think it’s a question of the youth of the side at all. I don’t see Saka and Smith Rowe routinely losing their minds. It doesn’t tend to happen to the better players in the team with the odd exception. Of course, the stress of the situation, of chasing 4th place after a couple of seasons in eighth will have something to do with it.

A few seasons ago I spoke to Leah Williamson about a very similar season that Arsenal Women had. They endured a terrible start to the 2017-18 season, sacking their manager Pedro Losa in November only to then embark on a long unbeaten run that took them within range of the final Champions League qualifying place.

In April, suffered two unexpected results away from home in games for which they were big favourites and missed out on Champions League qualification by a point. Leah told me that the stress of every single game being a must-win occasion from November onwards just got to them, that the players were mentally tired by the realisation that they had no breathing room due to their poor start.

Experience ought to blow away some of these cobwebs next season. The old adage that good judgement comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgement probably applies here. Having more goal scoring capacity in the team should help to make a few more games a little more comfortable.

As supporters, it feels as though we have been put through the wringer this season so I can imagine the players might be feeling the effects of that too. I do think Arsenal are refereed harshly and have been unfortunate with certain flashpoints but I think that emanates from a perception of fragility.

Most of all though, this is a question of quality and, particularly in recent weeks, Arsenal have been forced to play without their two first choice full-backs, their best central midfield player, with a relatively rookie centre-forward and now without one of their key centre-halves.

Arteta has been forced into a series of uncomfortable decisions and it is difficult to get all of those right. They are just trying to get over the line with a stretched squad and the frissons in that fabric come apart a little too often.

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