Those that have played some level of amateur or Sunday league football will be familiar with the shout “nothing silly in the first 15, lads”.
Like a lot of well-worn football phrases, this one falls apart on close inspection. Why nothing silly in the first 15? Why not try a whole game with nothing silly?
I’d like to think someone with as much footballing experience as Mikel Arteta has a clearer way of communicating the above message.
I’d also like to think, after the perceived injustices at Molineux, he’d have had his team fired up and ready to right some wrongs on Saturday.
An essential tool in a manager’s armoury is creating an ‘us against them’ attitude.
Anyone who has watched the 1990/91 club video ‘Champions’ would have seen the way in which George Graham gets under the skin of the squad and creates that mentality.
Fergie was a master of it. Even someone as seemingly rationale as Arsene Wenger managed it, but in a more subtle way.
Of course you can’t overuse this tactic as it will suddenly create a squad of excuses and paranoia, but used sparingly it’s an important weapon.
I don’t know how much Arteta spoke to his players about the Wolves game in the pre-match teamtalk at Villa Park, but we found out how motivated the squad were within seconds.
Villa managed to ensure that Mat Ryan’s first touch as an Arsenal keeper was to pick the ball out of his net, after a comedy of ‘after you sir’ errors in our defence.
Nobody taking charge, nobody imposing themselves. Gifting one of the weakest goals we have conceded in many years.
If the teamtalk hadn’t fired us up then surely that early defensive mistake and going 1-0 down would, right? Wrong!
A completely lacklustre first half ensued where we saw plenty of the ball, but very little dynamism in creating good chances.
Leeds, Southampton, Brighton and West Ham have all managed to find the net twice or more in their games in Birmingham already in this campaign. Somehow we couldn’t manage it once, with arguably a better (and certainly more expensive) forward line than those clubs.
The inconsistency of our players is a huge issue going back for the best part of a decade. I do have a degree of sympathy with Arteta in the choices he had before this game in that respect.
Nicolas Pepe had one of his best games in an Arsenal shirt at Wolves, yet those clamouring for him to keep his place in the starting line-up made it difficult for Arteta to do anything other than that.
Our record signing is predictably unpredictable and a quick study of his record since joining us shows he hasn’t ever played two good games back to back. He was poor on Saturday.
Cedric was due a bad game in defence since coming in and impressing in recent matches while covering for Tierney. Rob Holding and Gabriel weren’t quite on each other’s wavelength.
Then we come to Hector Bellerin, I’m almost loathe to criticise him too strongly because of some idiots in the fanbase that made it personal, but there are some completely reasonable, respectable and fair-minded Gooners that agree he is a questionable asset.
Pepe’s performance wasn’t helped by Bellerin’s insistence on making the wrong run whenever he tried to link up, often occupying the space Pepe wanted to run into with the ball inside towards goal.
Even those with the most basic football brains will know that it’s best to overlap on the outside in the majority of cases.
Talk of big money moves to clubs on the continent seemed far-fetched even when he was at his peak, turning in 7 and 8 out of ten performances.
We should be biting the hands off of any club that offer silly money in the summer as surely there are better right backs out there?
Our midfield have been easy to scout and stifle since everyone has raved about Emile Smith Rowe being our saviour in the ‘number 10’ role.
Villa just made him travel towards our own goal and placed a player up his backside, much in the same way that Manchester United and Crystal Palace did when keeping clean-sheets against us.
Arteta has to see this early from the sidelines and come up with something different, but once again his in-game management was questionable.
The sub of Willian late on was rightly challenged by some Gooners on Twitter, but we had plenty of time before that to change something up and offer our opponents a different challenge, and we failed.
As well as the inconsistency of our players, Arteta does have an excuse in the performance of the officials.
Hot on the heels of the poor decisions at Wolves it certainly looked as though we were hard done by once again.
Very good managers will find a way of those things not having as big a say as they have for us recently.
Arteta isn’t in the ‘very good’ category yet. Progress in matches from Boxing Day onwards set him on a trajectory of ‘good’ with hopefully more to come.
So how does he cope with these setbacks?
Unai Emery had a far better record at this point of his Arsenal career but was judged as an outsider.
While Arteta doesn’t have club legend status he has a much more palatable appearance and demeanour for those sections of the fanbase that are easily pleased.
We shouldn’t forget his incredible FA Cup success, although the sacrifice of this season’s challenge slightly diminishes that.
Where do we go from here? It’s evident that both Emery and Arteta were left huge messes in terms of wages, contracts, player behaviour and some legacy issues that we might not ever get the truth on.
Either way they’re paid good money to resolve those and come out of them. Arteta has certainly been allowed to do more on that front. He deserves this full season to show where he can take the squad that he reshaped.
We aren’t getting relegated. We need to give the Europa League a good go, for an outside chance at Champions League qualification and we still need to hang on to the hope that all the bad luck and silly mistakes will be ironed out in time for next season.
This is a freebie for Arteta to clear more issues and make it worse before it gets better, because after that he won’t have many more things to fall back on.