Like all of you, I’m sure, I am disappointed by the defeat to Man City. Our record against them in the league is poor, and I was confident going into the game on Wednesday we had what it takes to get something from it. Obviously, we didn’t get anything, but I still feel like we have what it takes.
As I said yesterday, the distance we have travelled since the 5-0 City win in August 2021 is immense. Back then we looked like also-rans. Now, we’re anything but. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have some worries and concerns about losing, of course I do. It doesn’t mean I’m not dealing with some anxiety about our recent form, because it wouldn’t be normal if I wasn’t. It’s just that I can see the progress.
The way we played against City, the bravery we showed to keep playing to our principles, was really pleasing to me. Watching the game I was so impressed, because the easy thing to do – at certain times anyway – would have just been to lump it, get rid it, hoof it. It feels safe to launch the ball up the other end, but if you do that all the time you create a pressure that can be very difficult to deal. There are definitely times, as the manager said, where we need to do simple things better, but I’m not sure that really means we go industrial.
We don’t have a 6’5 physical centre-forward to knock the ball up to, for a start. And let’s make an important distinction here: Erling Haaland is not the Norwegian Tony Cascarino. He’s a unique blend of height, physicality, pace, movement, and unerring finishing ability. He’s not in the City team because of how tall he is, he’s in it because he’s potentially the best centre-forward in the world. They haven’t just gone out and brought in a big lad to give them the option to go route 1, but route 1 is a by-product of having him in the team.
Can you remember the last few years under Arsene Wenger? Can you remember the short but difficult tenure of Unai Emery? I recall that game against Fulham, not long after the Spaniard took over, when we scored a remarkable goal, a move from back to front finished with an Aaron
Ramsdale Ramsey flick, and the fans sang ‘We’ve got our Arsenal back’.
That didn’t last, obviously, but in the morass of iffy signings and formation changes and the relentless of the Wenger in/Wenger out, and ultimately the ill-fitting Unai, and all throughout the maddening inconsistency of our football, Arsenal fans were seeking an identity again. That’s part of what that chant at Craven Cottage was about. We saw beautiful, slick football that clearly resonates with so many as the kind of football we want Arsenal to play. It is, to a very large extent, a by-product of the transformation brought to this club by Wenger. Those years of success with some of the best players we’ve ever seen, playing some of the best football you’ve ever seen. It leaves you craving more.
We lost our way. It happens. Football is cyclical. Yet the desire for renewed success comes hand in hand with the itch of how you make it happen. I’m as frustrated as anyone else about the City game, and the Brentford and Everton results, but I connect with this team in a much deeper way now. I like these players, I like how we play, I like that there is a clear identity to our football, and for me that’s a safety net when you topple off the high-wire that you have to walk throughout a Premier League season.
That doesn’t mean we can’t improve. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for more or to do better. It’s simply that when you’ve been through the doldrums, and you find yourself peering over the horizon towards the promised land, you need to keep going forward. We all knew there would be stumbles and bumps in the road. Well, here we are. We have stumbumpled in the last couple of weeks.
I cannot, or would not, tell anyone else how to feel, but I can tell you I much prefer the pain inflicted on me by a team that is good and potentially excellent than one which is rubbish and going nowhere. The madness of football as we invest so much emotion into a thing over which we have no control is hardly a new observation, but I’d rather be the team that is capable of winning but makes a few mistakes to lose a game 3-1 than the one that is demolished 5-0 because it can’t compete. Which isn’t to make excuses for those errors, but that scoreline slightly flattered City. We have to find a way to improve our record against them, no question, but in terms of performance it is night and day compared to where we were 18 months ago.
I saw an article a few weeks ago talking about the Mikel Arteta revolution at Arsenal. I thought ‘They can’t have been watching’, because it’s not revolution, it’s evolution. It has taken us some time to get here. We’ve been through some shit together. And we still have some way to go. We can all see the squad is better, but it can still be improved. Evolution, by its very nature, is constrained by time.
With all due respect to Eddie Nketiah, who has worked really hard – playing 90 minutes in every single game since the World Cup – the difference between the two centre-forwards on Wednesday night is instructive. They have one of the best in the world, we have a young man who should go on and forge a decent career but is never going to be at that level. That is what we’re competing with, and will have to continue to compete with – potentially on even more fronts as more ownership money sloshes into Premier League clubs.
You can’t compete without a footballing identity. I don’t know how far it can take us, but I know for sure that we’ll end up nowhere without it. I’m not here to rally the troops or anything like that. That’s the manager’s job and the players have to respond.
I just like us. I like this. I like what we’ve done, and I like where we’re going. You can strive for perfection, but be realistic enough to know it’s nigh on impossible. Take your hits. Get up.
Arsecast Extra below if you haven’t had a chance to listen, and we’ll have an Aston Villa preview podcast for you on Patreon later.