Saturday, 17 November 2018

So Far So Good

The reports that leading European clubs are considering a breakaway league and that Richard Scudamore is to get a £5 million "farewell bonus" barely constitute news. The G14 group, or whatever they're called these days, has been mulling over the idea of a super league for almost as long as the snouts have been in the Premier League trough. That these stories have competed for airtime with Wayne Rooney's recall to the England team simply tells us that domestic club football is once again suspended for an international break, which means wall-to-wall tedium barely alleviated by the shake-out of the UEFA Nations League group stage. But that at least means it's a good time to review Arsenal's progress over the season to date. We're a third of the way through and it looks like it's shaping up to be a tight race. Manchester City and Liverpool look the most likely to be in at the death, though Chelsea have also been impressive, quickly adapting to Maurizio Sarri's somewhat un-Italian style. The top three are marked by compactness, an aggressive press and fast transitions. Tottenham are a little off the pace and have become increasingly reliant on a defensive style to eke out results. They're beginning to look more Argentinian.

Arsenal sit fifth with 24 points, 8 behind Manchester City at the top but only 3 shy of Tottenham in fourth. With games against sixth placed Bournemouth and Spurs to come next, we are in a healthy position but not one remarkably different to previous seasons, despite the overall positive vibe that Unai Emery has brought to the club. After early defeats to City and Chelsea, we put together a decent winning run. That has sputtered in the league recently with three draws, though the 1-1 against Liverpool at The Emirates Stadium was certainly encouraging. Being held by Crystal Palace through two penalty concessions was less pleasing, while we were lucky to get a point at home to an impressive Wolves team. Overall, most Arsenal fans are happy at what looks like gradual progress, albeit helped along with a few dollops of good fortune. We are nowhere near approaching Emery's finished article, but it is possible now to see the direction of travel. What was most impressive about the game against Liverpool was the positional and tactical intelligence on display. We went toe-to-toe and wouldn't have been flattered if we'd nicked the win.

24 points represents a slight improvement on last season's opening tally of 22 (which was followed by 20 and 21 across the other two thirds) but is two wins short of a title-challenging 30. That the top three are still unbeaten at this stage is good news for Arsenal as they have so far drawn most of their head-to-heads. This has kept them all within striking distance and will likely produce more tight encounters as the season progresses. Though City look the best of the bunch, I doubt they'll get near the 100 points they achieved last season. If 90 points is a more realistic target for the champions, then finishing close to 80 might be enough to get into the top four and Champions League qualification. That's Arsenal's realistic target during the transition between managerial regimes, and it will probably come down to the two matches against Spurs. The positive here is that they are struggling to score enough goals (20 to our 26) but are doing well because of a parsimonious defence (only 10 conceded in 12 games). The clever money will probably go for low scoring draws.

Our problem, as was the case last season, is that we are still conceding too many. 15 to date is decidedly mid-tabelish, though it actually represents a small improvement on last season when we conceded 16 in the first third and 51 in total (i.e. an average of 17 a third). At the other end of the field, 26 goals scored is better than Liverpool's 23 and only marginally worse than Chelsea's 27, though a long way short of City's 36. However, it's a real improvement on the opening phase of last season when we only scored 22. In the middle and final thirds we scored 24 and 28 respectively, the last lot boosted by the injection of Aubameyang's goals after January. While there remain questions about how best to accommodate both him and Lacazette in the same team, it is not unreasonable to hope that we can get over 80 goals by the end of the season for the first time since 2010. If so, our final position will depend on tightening up in defence over the remaining two-thirds, which is a combination of better players and better coordination.

Given the number of injuries we have sustained in that department, being harsh on the defence at this stage is perhaps unfair. Leno has proved more than capable of stepping up as the number 1 goalkeeper in Cech's absence. He has his own strengths and weaknesses - an excellent shot-stopper but not yet commanding on crosses - but his relative comfort with the ball at his feet clearly suits Emery's style and there has been no sign of a lack of confidence among the defenders in front of him, which hasn't always been the case with young Arsenal goalies. Bellerin and Holding are clearly improving under the Spaniard's tutelage and Sokratis has been unspectacularly solid. Mustafi is still prone to a rick, Lichtsteiner is clearly no more than a back-up (and amusingly appears to have inherited the angry-man-shouting-at-clouds role left vacant since Flamini's departure) while Kolasinac has gone backwards, though presumably due to injury rather than coaching. I'm hopeful that the return of Monreal and Koscielny will improve the defence further, though given their ages we probably still need to invest in a couple of younger defenders, possibly as early as January, unless Mavropanos (also currently injured) can progress quickly.

The midfield looks a lot better with the addition of Lucas Torreira who is not just a tenacious tackler with good positional sense but has shown his ability to play attacking balls into the final third of the pitch. Xhaka is still capable of a mistake, but it is noticeable that these are now mostly errors of judgement with the ball (which he sees a lot of) rather than daft tackles, which is surely as much down to Torreira's presence as Xhaka's own continuing development. That said, we are fouling more as a team this season, which I'd attribute to a more aggressive press rather than a conscious desire to play dirty (we've yet to get a red card, which is a positive). Matteo Guendouzi has been callow at times but hugely impressive overall. Ozil has been inconsistent - though the occasional highs justify the occasional lows, for my money - but I suspect this is as much about the whole team settling into Emery's new system as it is a reflection of the German's state of mind following his acrimonious retirement from international football. His wearing of the captain's armband recently suggests some renewed determination on his part.

Aaron Ramsay is clearly going to leave the club, possibly as early as January if a suitor wishes to beat the summer rush for his signature. I think this is a shame at a personal level - he has always been future club captain material - but probably makes sense footballistically, to use a Wengerism for old time's sake. Emery has decided to deploy the Welshman's gung-ho style as a way of changing the shape of the attack in the later stages of games, which suggests the manager isn't convinced Ramsay can prosper as a starter in a midfield based more on positional discipline and accurate, progressive passing. In this environment, Emery is surely right to invest in game time for younger players such as Guendouzi, Alex Iwobi and Emile Smith Rowe. Mkhitaryan has been as inconsistent as Ozil but he does bring intelligence to the pitch and he certainly hasn't done worse than Alexis Sanchez, so I still think we got the better of that particular deal. The problem is that he isn't as reliable a provider as the German and at 29 he isn't going to get any faster and start terrorising opposition full-backs.

Up front Lacazette has continued to impress (he's now had a recall to the French squad), while Aubameyang has continued to knock in the goals. Emery isn't likely to break with the current conventional wisdom on team shape and go with a traditional 4-4-2, so the Gabonese international is likely to have to continue with a wide berth. He has the pace to make that work, though against teams who sit deep it means his ability to turn a defender usually just presents him with another defender, which isn't necessarily the case in the centre where his quick feet and movement can open up a sight of goal. I like the combination of the two but I think Emery needs a batter balance across the forward line, which probably means finding a right-sided attacker faster than Mkhitaryan who can stretch the opposition defence and create more channels for Aubameyang and Lacazette. Danny Welbeck's unfortunate injury makes that more pressing. In conclusion, it's a work in progress and it would be foolish to make predictions for what will remain a transitional season, but I think Arsenal are pretty much where I thought they would be at this stage. As they are more likely to improve than get worse (fingers crossed), a top four finish is within our sights.

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