Monday, November 28, 2022

Improvement

So, that’s it for the first ‘half’ of the season, and going into the World Cup break, the league table looks like this:

I would be very surprised, but I don’t think anyone would have predicted those standings before the start of the season. Leaving aside the fact Arsenal are leading the pack, Liverpool have really struggled, and Newcastle are doing a lot better than most would have thought.

There’s a lot of talk about the team that’s top at Christmas time and how often they go on to win the title, but this year it’s a bit skewed because of this break. Last time out, Man City were top at Christmas having taken 44 points from 18 games. Arsenal are top now with 37 from 14. Given our form, it’s not inconceivable that we could better that City total with another four games, but ‘Christmas’ has come early this year and that needs to be taken into account.

Which isn’t to put a downer on anything: we are where we are because we deserve to be. This is a team that has performed to a very high level in most of those 14 games, and even in the ones we didn’t, we had enough about us to take points when in previous campaigns we might have dropped them. When you consider that we’ve done it without our second leading scorer from last season – Emile Smith Rowe – and that our main striker has now gone 11 games without a goal, it augurs well for what’s to come.

Ordinarily, you’d think about a centre-forward that hasn’t scored for that length of time and think there was something badly wrong. And look, on the basis that the main way of judging a striker is by how many he scores, you can acknowledge that based on some of the chances we’ve had and the dominance we’ve demonstrated in some matches, Jesus doesn’t have as many to his name as he ought to.

I’m often cautious about the ‘Look at how much else he brings’ argument when discussing a player’s main job, it can sound like making excuses, but in this case you can’t ignore that. He’s been so pivotal to how we’ve played this season that goals – while definitely not an afterthought – aren’t the be-all and end-all of Gabriel Jesus. I think he’ll find his shooting boots again. He’ll get his name back on scoresheet, and he’ll continue to put in the kind of effort that makes others around him even better.

I think I’m skirting around here is the idea that we have been good, but we can all see that there’s room for improvement. Inevitably, the first thought is January and what we might do when the window opens. We all know where we’re a little bit short in terms of depth, and we know that before the summer window shut Mikel Arteta was publicly seeking ‘more firepower’.

I doubt very much he has changed his mind about that, but the return of Smith Rowe – who hopefully can put those injury worries behind him; and the return of goals for Jesus will add plenty in the second part of the season too. And for me that’s a really exciting aspect of what’s happening at this football club. Yes, we have improved our recruitment, but we have also improved the players we have recruited.

Go through them, and to a man, nearly every single player is better now than when they first arrived. It’s not to suggest they weren’t good players before, but in this team, under this manager/coaching staff, in this set-up, the individual improvement has gone a substantial way to explain the collective one. Not only that, when Mikel Arteta talks about what he wants from players, they are delivering on that.

Martin Odegaard is a great example. In his initial loan spell, and even last season, he got into good positions but didn’t apply the finishing touch as often as he should have. The manager talked about wanting him to provide more of a threat in the box – and now the captain has 6 Premier League goals to his name. He’s our leading scorer so far this season, and you can see how there’s much more conviction and assurance from him in front of goal.

Things like this, for me at least, are as important as the transfer market, especially when you consider the age of some of these players, and how much potential there is to reach new levels. Of course, I’m all for shiny new things. The money we spend will be hugely important, and I hope that Arsenal see the chance that they’ve given themselves this season and act accordingly. However, we shouldn’t overlook what these players have produced thus far because they have worked so hard, and played so well, to create this opportunity in the first place.

Right, let’s leave it there for now. James and I recorded the Arsecast Extra for you last night, so it’s in all the usual podcast places – and below – for you to enjoy. Till tomorrow.

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