Wednesday, 2 January 2013

No Big Deal

We're just over halfway through the football season, so now is a good time to review Arsenal's progress. Yesterday's draw away at Southampton has swung the emotional pendulum back, from the joy of beating the Mags 7-3, to despondency, though in the cold light of day we are in 5th spot with a game in hand on the Spuds (5 points ahead and likely to be our chief rivals for that coveted 4th spot trophy). Given that we tend to do better in the second half of the season, while they tend to do worse, this is a reasonable position and certainly not the disaster that many are claiming. Both fans and media have an obvious fondness for hyperbole, but the latter's abhorrence of a vacuum has led many of the former to misread "average" for "unacceptable". The half-term report should read: promising, but let down by inconsistency and wayward finishing.

A look at the table shows that that we have played 9 games at home and 11 away - the cancelled Boxing Day fixture against West Ham would have made the former 10. In contrast, Spurs have played 11 at home and 10 away. We have a superior goal difference and have lost only 4 games to their 6. The fundamental difference between the two teams, apart from their extra game played and the slight bias in terms of home advantage, is that they have avoided draws on their travels, 6 wins and 4 defeats yielding 18 points from 10. In contrast, we've won 4, drawn 5 and lost only 2, yielding 17 points from 11 games. If 3 of those games (say Villa, Everton and Southampton) had been won, we'd be a point ahead with a game in hand. If we'd also beaten Fulham at home and drawn with Swansea (both of which we could have done), we'd be hovering over Man City's shoulder. My point is not that we're hard done by, but that small margins on the field can have a dramatic impact on the table. Over a season, such fluctuations even out, which is why I remain confident we'll finish in 4th, with a chance of 3rd if Chelsea relapse.

Predictably, the January transfer window is being talked up as the solution to our "problems". While I think the squad needs strengthening, what I mainly think we need is playing time for the first 11 to become a well-oiled machine. It's easy to forget how many players are new to each other, though Jack Wilshere made precisely this point on his return from long-term injury. A group of talented players can produce great performances off the cuff, but they can also stutter and stumble. A pass goes astray because the intended recipient didn't make the expected run, while another run creates a dangerous gap because the player in possession didn't spot the runner and then gave the ball away. If you've watched Arsenal this season, that will sound very familiar. When managers bang on about the need for consistency, they're talking about a quality that can neither be bought nor coached, which is why they sound so frustrated. It can only be acquired through habit and a settled team. Wenger's decision to marginalise players like Arshavin and Chamakh is presumably recognition that they aren't going to be part of the core squad, so giving them playing time would just distract the others.

Will we buy? The official squad limit is 25, of whom 8 must be home-grown (with the club for 36 months before the age of 21), plus an unlimited number of under-21 players. Arsenal have a squad of 23 (16+7), with four U21 players in realistic contention for league games (Jenkinson, Coquelin, Frimpong and Oxlade-Chamberlain). This means we could only buy a single over-21 player, unless surplus squad members like Arshavin, Squillaci or Chamakh can be moved on. It's more likely they'd move over the summer, so I suspect our January dealings will be restricted to one incomer at most. The calls for 3 or 4 new players are just unrealistic. While Arsene is not averse to buying in the winter sales, Arshavin being a case in point, I don't see any obvious opportunities, i.e. available players who would augment the squad, beyond (maybe) David Villa on loan. If I had to put my money on it, I'd bet on nothing happening very noisily for the next four weeks.

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