Saturday, 4 November 2017

We've Been Here Before

We're a quarter of the way into the Premier League season and Arsenal find themselves in 5th, the position where they ended last season - their lowest finish since 1996 and the brief tenure of Bruce Rioch. This might appear rather ho-hum, but the club's oscillations have been anything other than predictable, which at least offers a sliver of hope ahead of our trip to the Etihad Stadium to challenge the runaway league leaders, Manchester City, whom we trail by 9 points. The pre-match focus is inevitably on the two sides attacking tridents - Sanchez, Lacazette and Ozil versus Sterling, Sané and Aguero (or possibly Jesus or Silva) - so I'm going to predict a 1-0 Arsenal win through an 89th minute Koscielny header. Recent matches between the two sides have tended to be close. The last six league games have seen three draws, two Arsenal wins and just the one City victory. When you add the FA Cup semi-final last season to the mix, there is no reason to dread the trip, but common sense (and that 9-point gap) suggests that City are a markedly stronger outift today than they have been for a while.

A poignant part of this weekend's build-up was the coincidental news that Santi Cazorla's long-term injury was a lot more serious than realised, and may yet prove to be career-ending. Having been the man-of-the-match as a deep-lying playmaker when we last won at the Etihad, in January 2015, Cazorla has taken on an almost mythical status among Arsenal fans as the missing piece of the midfield jigsaw. His absence certainly hasn't helped the development of his erstwhile sidekick Francis Coquelin, who produced a notably poor performance as the B team qualified for the knockout stage of the Europa League with an uninspired draw against Red Star Belgrade on Thursday. While the novelty of that competition has quickly worn off, there's realistic hope that we might progress further in the knockout rounds than we've managed in the Champions League of late. We're nothing if not an accomplished cup side now and the likelihood that we won't meet either Bayern Munich or Barcelona must be a plus. It would certainly be funny if we won the competition with a cavalier rush after the attritional approach that Mourinho's Manure adopted last year.

There are many similarities between City and Arsenal, from the employment of a more mobile three-pronged attack to the use of wing-backs (I suspect our acquisition of Kolasinac will prove more astute than City's purchase of Walker), though this may simply result in them cancelling out each other on Sunday. The game may well turn on defensive errors, which both teams are capable of, or an individual moment of skill. Both will want a quick goal so the early stages could be frenetic. Beyond the confines of the match, I suspect that the more Pep Guardiola encourages City to play fast and open, the more cautious and closed the other Manchester team will become. This is less because Jose Mourinho is negative, though he is, than because of his egotistical need to be different. At Real Madrid he was able to exploit the talents of a number of individuals at their peak to achieve this end, creating a team that bested Barcelona without looking remotely like the blaugrana (much as Simeone achieved with Atletico), but at United he is faced with a squad that has few good players at the optimum stage in their careers, namely in the 25-28 range, other than De Gea. They're on their way to a very good squad, but they need a couple of years and some better defenders.

Spurs remain every journalist's favourite team, as they have been since the 1960s. Not only do they have the greatest striker in the world (TM), but apparently drafting Harry Winks into the England squad will guarantee World Cup glory. My personal suspicion is that last season is as good as it is going to get for them. While Pochettino deserves the plaudits for his transformation of a mid-table team into title challengers, it's worth bearing in mind that his teams can only play in one way, which means they have a limited shelf-life at the top end of the table where reinvention is constant. Once the opposition are more familiar with Spurs' system and personnel, they will become easier to nullify. Manure's recent victory was notable less for Mourinho parking the bus or the absence of Harry Kane than for the predictability of the play. Beating an ageing Real Madrid doesn't suggest that they're about to discover a plan B, though it might suggest that Dele Alli is consciously auditioning for a move. The first North London derby, in a fortnight's time, is unlikely to be conclusive at this early stage of the season, but it may well say as much about Tottenham's limitations as Arsenal's stability (if Kolasinac thumps the winner, he will have achieved legend status in record time).

Chelsea and Liverpool continue to be entertaining in their different ways, and while I find it hard to believe that either will mount a serious title challenge, a late rush for the line isn't beyond the bounds of the possible. Antonio Conte might narrow his eyes, go hardcore disciplinarian and get some consistency back, or he might just give up and start planning a return to his family in Italy. Jurgen Klopp's hope of steadying the ship at Anfield appears as forlorn as ever, though this doesn't appear to bother the fans or the club hierarchy that much, both of whom seem to have given the manager a free pass because of his rueful grins (this won't last forever). If I had my way, I'd get the two clubs to organise an exchange. The touchline histrionics wouldn't be that different, but I suspect the Liverpool squad would appreciate a focus on defence while Chelski's players might respond more positively to "heavy metal football". Viewed in historical terms, this would actually be a reversion to both clubs traditions from the 60s and 70s, which would certainly be popular in the stands.

With 19 points from 10 league games, we're on course for our usual total somewhere in the 70s. We've had the habitual balls-up (Liverpool away) and the failures to turn up (Stoke and Watford away), while our home form has been immaculate. There's no way of telling how this is going to pan out, but somewhere between 3rd and 6th looks like the realistic target range, though it would only take a good winning run including victories over a couple of other top sides to put us on the brink of something better. I'm quietly optimistic because I don't think we've seen the best of this team yet, and while departures are likely at the end of the season if not before, that very fact (along with the predictability of next season under Wenger) might ease some of the anxiety that has affected the squad at times. Lacazette looks like a player who will get better, while an injury-free Ramsey looks like he might be on an upswing in his form. The defence may (fingers crossed) settle down and stop shipping goals so freely, while the freedom afforded Bellerin and Kolasinac is starting to pay dividends. If we can coax swansongs out of Sanchez and Ozil, we might still have a chance of further silverware. And if all else fails, we can always bring on Eddie Nketiah.


  1. You elitist. The real question in football is: Will Sunderland ever get a manager that will keep the fans at the ground for 90 minutes?

    1. What's Kevin Keegan doing these days?

    2. Don't joke! The rate we're going Di Canio will be back on the shortlist.