The usual five talking points ahead of today’s Premier League game at home to Manchester United.
The match at home to Chelsea provided a clear indication of how far Arsenal, as a football team, have been allowed to fall. Let’s be clear – Unai Emery inherited a mess. It wasn’t him that signed Mustafi, Xhaka, gave Mesut Ozil a bumper three and a half year contract, or failed to sign the players that would prevent opposition goals flooding in. It wasn’t him that created the culture of complacency that was rife at the club. However, what he failed to do was turn it around. It became worse, and the Chelsea match demonstrated that the players are not capable of the controlled high intensity football that is required to challenge for honours. That is a fitness issue for starters, before we even think about mentality, and that is the mess that Mikel Arteta has to work with. Mid-season, it is difficult to improve fitness levels. So no-one is taking anything for granted ahead of today’s game.
In a sense, the type of football Arteta is asking his teams to play is probably not that dissimilar to what Emery was asking. My guess is that it is a little less ponderous, that players are under orders to move the ball upfield at more pace, although we can’t know if Emery actually demanded this of his men and that they simply became cautious. One thing that is certainly the same is the playing out from the back, and when the team was sat deep with exhaustion in the second half against Chelsea, things looked a lot like it was still Unai on the bench. Playing out from the back is fine if 1) there is space to do it, and the high press is not too constrictive or 2) it is done quickly and accurately, before the opposition have time to cover all of their men. At some point in either scenario, runs off the ball have to be made to be in space to receive a pass and give the man on the ball an option. To actually perfect this approach (and God knows, Arsenal have tried for half of last season and most of this so far), they need greater tempo, greater technical quality and greater vision. That reminds me, isn’t the January transfer window open now?
The Granit Thing
Granit Xhaka started against Bournemouth in Arteta’s first match in charge. And in fairness, played generally ok, although he did give the ball away a bit casually in his own half once, which looked a bit familiar. No matter, you thought he’d retain his place for the Chelsea game. Arteta has stated he was taken ill for two days, and could not play. With United coming up only three days after the defeat in that match, if he was genuinely ill, then it would be touch and go whether he would play today, although of course, the illness could be a smokescreen. The player wants to move to Hertha Berlin. Will Arteta stand in his way? The reports state that it is the head coach’s decision. In the unlikely event that Xhaka starts today, it would indicate Arteta wants him to remain. It’s an interesting dilemma because the squad are light in this area, and if a reported loan agreement with an option to buy is what’s on the table, that would not provide funds to purchase a replacement.
Don’t forget Dani Ceballos
The Spaniard is available for selection, and recalling how Xhaka was used in the first half at Bournemouth, could certainly fill the role, and would suit the football Arteta wants his team to play. The advantage of using Ceballos and letting Xhaka go on a loan deal, is that Ceballos is on a loan deal himself. Come the end of the season, three options – 1) agree a deal for Ceballos, using the funds if Hertha do buy Xhaka, 2) get Xhaka back as Ceballos departs or 3) Real Madrid reclaim Ceballos, Hertha buy Xhaka and Arsenal use the Xhaka money to buy someone else. Arteta will want to look at Ceballos sooner or later, and match fitness is what will count against him today, but he might just get selected ahead of Guendouzi.
A defender, my kingdom for a defender
So let’s take a look at Arsenal’s injury list for some New Year cheer, eh? Definitely out – Chambers (knee), Kolasinac (ankle), Sokratis (head injury), Tierney (shoulder). Doubtful – Bellerin (muscle injury), Holding (knee). It sure is slim pickings for the manager today. The two full backs did as well as could be expected on Sunday, and frankly the dearth of options means that it’s difficult to see beyond them starting again today, although Saka could probably use a break. In the centre, pretty much all Arteta can do is replace Mustafi with Mavropanos, to partner David Luiz. Let’s be clear here. There were a few culprits for Chelsea’s winner, but the principal errors were made by Mustafi in not going to Tammy Abraham and fouling him on the halfway line, followed by not getting tight to him when we received the ball in the area to score. Everyone knows Arsenal paid £35 million for a pup in 2016, and here we are three and a half seasons on and he’s still getting in the first team. If you want a symbol of how much the eye has been taken off the ball in recent years, Shkodran is it. If some fool is daft enough to buy him, it will be a happy day. I reckon he’ll start this evening I am afraid.
If Arsenal are to have any hope of taking anything from this game, they need to establish a two goal lead by the hour mark. After that, it’s quite evident that physically they can be picked off. This happened with Liverpool in the early phase of Jurgen Klopp’s transformation of the club, as he asked them to play with greater intensity. Let’s face it, as well as the players taking a different approach to matches, there will need to be a turnaround in personnel. It will take four transfer windows to do get anywhere near a squad that Arteta is happy with, but he has two years on his contract after that. In the meantime, we look for progress. We have seen this so far, but obviously one point from two matches does not look great. But the season’s a write off, aside from the two cups the club are still competing in. And I am certain Arteta will use the FA Cup to assess younger options, which could save him spending so much in the transfer market. I don’t wish to predict an away win tonight, but let’s just say I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if there was one.
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