A guest post from Tim @foreverheady
A few random thoughts about where we are: mainly talking to myself, but thought I would share them.
We are out of form because our collective timing is out of key: miss-hit passes that fail to find their mark have been replaced with passes which though accurate are delivered slowly because each player is too anxious to get it right. The handbrake is on because all drivers are too careful, and when passes do arrive the opportunities have gone. Repeat ad nauseam until all the opposition is behind the ball, and there is literally nowhere to go. Add to this mix anxious players not wanting to excite the opprobrium of crowd, pundits, team mates or manager and you have no one willing to make themselves available to break the deadlock until they are absolutely certain that the goal is open – by which time it isn’t any more.
Ramsey and Ozil have yet to fully recover from the hamstring injuries they suffered last year and their play this season (and during the World Cup) has been typical. It is a major explosive muscle and perhaps more than anything affects a player’s confidence to run at full pace: psychologically you hold something back. As a result, both players who often float effortlessly past players have not been doing so: killer pace is gone and with it the space they normally make for themselves. As arguably the two key players in last season’s run of form that saw Arsenal top of the league for an extended period, it is no wonder that the whole side has suffered. It is not coincidental that both players have succumbed to further injury this season in their attempt to force themselves back to their best.
Which brings us on to the whole injury and unavailability issue. If I were to pick my best 16 players from the current squad I would choose: Szczesny, Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Arteta, Gibbs, Ramsey, Wilshere, Ozil, Walcott, Sanchez, Cazorla, Welbeck, Giroud, Chambers, Gnabry. Of that 16, eleven have been unavailable for at least three matches since the start of the season, many for considerably more. It is a massive testimony to the strength of the squad, the resilience of the players and the ingenuity and tactical acumen of the manager to have reached this stage of the season in such reasonable shape: 5th place in the table but poised to mount a proper challenge, qualification to the final 16 of the Champions League all but assured. The reasons for such a potentially crippling series of unfortunate injuries is unclear: the pitch, lack of rotation, training methods and the strength of our players have all been under scrutiny, as have the unwanted attentions of opposition players, seemingly given carte blanche, as opposed to carte jaune or rouge, by the referees to do as they please. Whether it is some or all of these things together remains open to debate, but the fact remains that any appraisal of Arsenal’s current form or lack of it that seeks to underplay the effect of injury is probably not worth considering.
If opposition players seem legitimised to dish out rough treatment to The Arsenal, then it is worth thinking about the role of the men in black. Long story short rotational fouling seems to go unpunished, career threatening tackles waived away as just part of the English game, yellow cards dished out easily to The Arsenal, cardless tickings-off the norm for the rest. Penalties for? Not often, but in fairness not often against either. There are better bloggers than me with statistics to hand to prove or disprove institutional bias against The Arsenal, but already there have been too many game-changing decisions that have gone against us for it not to be discounted in any discussion about the side’s current position. Just for once I would like to see some of our more vocal critics acknowledge that refereeing does play a significant part in a side’s form – and it would, of course, do wonders for the integrity of the game as a whole if there were to be a proper and transparent investigation into the performance of the referees over the season as a whole.
The manager of course must come under some scrutiny when assessing a side’s form, and it would be strange not to wonder whether the team selection is always correct, whether substitutions are used to the best effect, whether game preparation is as scientific and assiduous as it might be, whether some times our tactics are too offensively minded. But it is also worth remembering that getting your tactics right often means second guessing your opponent, of successfully predicting an outcome to a future event – and then using your available resources to the best effect. Passing the ball sideways and maintaining possession goallessly for 70 minutes, but in the process tiring out the opposition before exploiting gaps and scoring two in the last 20 is just as much a legitimate tactic as conceding possession, parking the bus and then hoping to score on the counter. To my untrained eye we have tried both those tactics in our two Champions League away games this season: one worked, one didn’t – but in both cases the margins between success and failure were slim. I think it is reasonable to say that managers will also have runs of form, times when every decision seems to bear fruit, others where however carefully thought out the plan the cards just don’t fall right. With so many players unavailable due to injury many of the manager’s options have been denied, and the lack of tactical reinforcements coming off the bench has cost us more than many appreciate. I happen to think that our manager gets it right far more often than most – but that strangely when he does it is seen as nothing to do with him.
Do we always buy the right players, and does the manager have his finger on the market’s pulse these days? Not every purchase is a success, but I like to think that in recent years we have been more hit than miss, especially now as there is a little more money available to spend: quite a lot more, in fact, but still not as much as the three UK clubs we hope to compete with. The cry goes out that we are too full of small skilful players, but perhaps the truth is that these days big skilful players are out of most clubs’ price range – and that a decision was made a few years ago that small and skilful will still beat big and unskilled more often than not. It is also hard to have top, top quality players content to act as understudies for any length of time, which perhaps explains why our current shortage in defence was always intended to be covered by younger players like Chambers, Bellerin and Hayden: there are only so many injuries that can be planned and paid for, after all. Do we need more players in January then? Probably, given the way things have turned out. I like to think that we were chasing a specific target all summer who would have given us a bit more physical and skilful presence, but for reasons I do not know he was not available, and there wasn’t time or inclination to go with a plan B at the last minute. I think that plan B will have been identified now and that we also might need another defender too, given the injuries to both first-choice full backs and to a central defender too. Will the signings happen? Only if the right players are available at a price we want to afford and whose wages will sit comfortably with our current structure. As ever, we will probably be the last to know who we are going for, although the papers already tell me that signings are as good as done. I shan’t hold my breath, mainly because I feel certain that should key players return to fitness we will find that the squad is a lot, lot better than it is currently given credit for.
Are most fans happy with the way things are going? Not if you read Twitter or listen to the louder pundits, but empty vessels often make the most noise and The Emirates still seems fuller than most grounds every week. I think most are unwavering in their support, but inevitably have their views coloured by results and pundits. Weekends like this last one do help of course: suddenly a pedestrian away win against Sunderland doesn’t seem too bad in the light of other results, especially as it has seen a movement up the table. Tottenham slipped badly, as did City. Liverpool continued to misfire and Chelsea suddenly looked all too vincible when key men were unavailable and cards were correctly given. Perhaps it is dawning on a few that the season is anything but a forlorn hope for The Arsenal after all, and that is certainly how it looks to me. There are important matches coming up, but at last the players and management have a week to rest and prepare properly, with no distractions from International breaks, European travel or essentially meaningless cups. I hope they use it wisely and if they are half the players I think they are I am sure they will.