Monday, 2 January 2017

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

The halfway mark of the season finds Arsenal in third, with 40 points from 19 games. A straight extrapolation would see us finish the season on 80, which would be 1 point short of the number that secured the title for Leicester last year. The ominous form of Chelsea suggests the winning total could be over 90 this time round, with 10 less being perhaps only enough to bag third or fourth place. Broken down into thirds, we managed 25 points over the first 12 games, which was one less than we achieved last season. Our problem wasn't the opening day home defeat to Liverpool, when we at least scored 3 times, so much as the four bore draws, against Leicester, Middlesbrough, Manure and the Spuds, which produced only 2 goals. Over the next 7 games we secured 15 points (two better than last season), a tally undermined by the recent away defeats at Everton and Citeh.

Our defence hasn't been sufficiently parsimonious and we haven't compensated by scoring enough (football really is a simple game). We are third best in both categories: we've conceded 19 versus Chelsea's 13 and the Spuds' 14, and we've scored 41 compared to Liverpool's 46 and Chelsea's 42. That said, our scoring rate has improved, producing 2.2 goals per game versus an average of 1.8 over the last 3 seasons, while we are conceding at the same rate of 1.0. If Wenger has a specific strategy for this season, it looks like scoring more goals, which sounds straightforward but isn't. That we've managed to up the rate without conceding more is no mean achievement, and reflects well on our defence. It's also worth noting the screening contributions of Coquelin and Elneny and the greater willingness of our wide players to track back (Walcott's been praised in a dog-walking-upright sort of way, but I was struck by Perez initiating the move that led to Giroud's goal yesterday, showing this is down to Wenger's coaching not Theo's self-examination).

In a nutshell, we still haven't got the balance right. While many have praised Wenger's deployment of Sanchez as a centre forward, and the greater contribution of goals by other attackers, notably Ozil and Walcott, we remain a team heavily reliant on inspiration and improvisation. As a fan of efficiency, you can understand Wenger's admiration for Conte's work at Chelsea. Goals such as Ozil's away at Ludgorets and Giroud's at home against Crystal Palace will live long in the memory, but we really need more tap-ins (not to mention on-target strikes from the edge of the area), which means finding a way through massed defences. Interestingly, excluding Giroud's half-scorpion, 2 of our last 3 goals were headers, and even Ozil has managed to score with his bonce, suggesting a conscious effort to vary our attacks. Arsenal remain easy on the eye, but they rarely give the impression that they can hold a 1-0 lead while they still struggle to secure the comfort of a second goal early enough in the game to depress the opposition.

As ever, the squad struggles with injuries and the knock-on effects of summer tournaments, but we look to have greater strength in depth now that some of the newer acquisitions have bedded in. Granit Xhaka gets better by the game and can clearly offer an alternative to Cazorla's craft, while Mustafi'a arrival has perhaps allowed Gabriel to find a comfortable level as number three in the centre-back pecking order (I doubt Mertesacker will dislodge him on his return, and may even find himself behind Rob Holding). We look well-stocked at full-back, though it's hard to believe we won't lose a couple during the transfer window, while the mix of Ramsey, Elneny and Coquelin provide plenty of options in midfield to complement Xhaka and Cazorla. In attack, the return of Welbeck will provide a boost by adding both pace and power, while Iwobi looks like he can deputise for Ozil and Lucas Perez can fill a Sanchez-shaped hole if need be, albeit without the same level of creativity.

My prediction for the season is that Chelsea will win the title (I'm going out on a limb here). The change to a 3-man defence after their 3-0 defeat by us has caught the rest of the league off-guard. Though I expect teams to work out how to nullify their threat and score against them (Stoke's brace yesterday being a sign of this), they probably have enough momentum and points, not to mention a lack of midweek distractions, to see them through till May, though I reckon they'll fall a little short of the 90-point mark. Liverpool will probably run out of steam in the final furlong (not for the first time), while Citeh look too inconsistent to put a long-enough winning run together. Tottenham will make all the right noises, particularly if they get a result against Chelsea this week, but I suspect they have already secretly reconciled themselves to targeting fourth. Manure are perhaps flattered by their current position in 6th, but they'll probably up their poor scoring rate (only 1.5 so far) and guarantee another visit to the Europa League.

I reckon Arsenal will finish third, though we could pip Liverpool for second, particularly if we beat them at Anfield in early March. The only problem is that this fixture comes a few days before the return leg against Bayern Munich in the Champions League, which presents the sort of attitude and selection dilemma that Wenger has not always managed well down the years (e.g. various psychologically damaging cup defeats against Manure when ahead in the league). For once, I'm optimistic that the growing squad depth, and the greater cohesion we can expect by the start of the final third of the season, will give him the options necessary to win both games. Of course, that may still see us exit the Champions League if we failed to get a result in Munich in February, but that in turn might be enough to prompt an above-par domestic performance over the season run-in, which could see us finish at around 85 points.

However, I suspect we're too far behind Chelsea now to make up the ground in full. In retrospect, Williams' late winning goal at Goodison Park was probably the pivotal moment of the season for us, not least because such a deflating loss clearly contributed to the poor display against Man City. This was unfortunate for Ozil, who has predictably taken a lot of stick for failing to block Williams, but I suspect there are more Mesut moments of magic to come that might well turn our fortunes upwards. There remains an outside chance that we could snatch the title, though it requires an improbable alignment: that Chelsea lose key games (we go to Stamford Bridge in early February), we push our scoring rate up to 2.5, and our concession rate drops to 0.8 or below. I can see one or even two of those occurring, but not all three. Progress this season will be getting 80 points, and perhaps besting Bayern.


  1. Be honest. Giroud's goal could have gone anywhere. He basically waved his leg at the ball, it wasn't a technique that could be controlled.

    The quality in the Premier League seems to be decreasing season by season. Once Conte got used to his squad it only required a little bit of organisation for Chelsea to make themselves practically unbeatable, without a great squad of players. Klopp has made a real impression on Liverpool, but they and Man City are badly in need of some half-competent defenders. Every season is Groundhog season for Arsenal. Unfortunately, it remains in the balance as to whether I can say the same for Sunderland.

    1. I wouldn't suggest for a moment that Giroud's goal was anything other than fortuitous - a point the man made himself - but it was still a thing of beauty, not least because of the quality of the build up. Had Sanchez's pass been better, it would merely have been a fine goal (or a dreadful miss). That Giroud was able to redeem the flaw was what made it special.

      I agree the general quality of the league is still poor, which is not only why Chelsea's competence is proving effective but why a team as limited as Man Utd is still in with a shout.

      Sunderland's fate probably depends on Defoe staying fit and Mannone producing a few more performances like the one tonight against Liverpool. With games against Hull and Swansea in May, your fate is in your own hands, though I think you'll need to get something against Palace next month, which means hoping the Allardyce magic is slow to take effect.

    2. Yes, given that I reckon Middlesbrough and Leicester are likely to get enough decent results to stay out of the bottom three, Sunderland's fate might depend upon Allardyce for the second year running, ironically.

      One thing to consider is that he joined Sunderland a couple of months earlier in the 2015-16 season, and took that time to reorganise the team and solidify the defence. He hasn't got as much time this year.

  2. Conte's easy success makes you wonder about Mourinho and Hiddink.