I’m still trying to figure out in my head why I’m still mad about the Villa game. We’re now two days after the defeat and usually after a blog post mortem and generally trying to fill my life with other stuff, I am able to just put defeats in a metaphorical box, move on, prep for the next game. But I don’t know whether it’s the fact we all have to wait a week longer for our next game away to Leeds on 22nd, or whether it is something else, that is causing this particular defeat to still leave a bad taste in my mouth.
We’ve suffered poor performances under Arteta before. We had the Brighton game at the beginning of Project Restart, for example, but this one on Sunday night felt like the first time where I’ve not been able to find reasoning behind the defeat other than Arteta got it wrong and put faith in players that clearly didn’t deserve it. I think that’s what has really worried me more than anything else. By and large since he took over I’ve always been able to justify the situation we’ve been in; when he took over it was going to be a couple of months for him to start inputting his approach to football with the players he had, then we had COVID-19 which took away some of that time and stretched out the adjustment period, which then brought us in to Project Restart. To me that was always a write off so again, it was about learning about players and working out what our best approaches were with the ones we’ve had. We suffered defeats to the likes of Brighton and Villa, we were poor, but I was able to write off the end of the season in my head. “Next season is where we’ll see the real Arteta’s Arsenal” I kept telling myself.
Then he went on to win the FA Cup with some super performances that gave us silverware within a year of him taking the job and I certainly projected further glory for the team. “If he can do this within this period of time with this group of ‘Uncoachables’, then what could he do with a pre season and a few more of the players he wants?” I thought to myself.
So I projected that he would get nearly everything right, that he was a super talented coach who would lead us to instant success. And any set backs we would see in the season would be explainable. Which is exactly what happened at first. We smashed Fulham and my expectation grew. We then laboured to a 2-1- win against West Ham but it was fine, because they looked good and we ultimately got the points. In the first couple of games there will always be that as teams find their rhythm. We then lost to the Champions 3-1 but we were in that game and besides, this was a team who had spent four or five years growing together, so the gulf in class could be explained. We then beat a ‘tough nut to crack’ at home in Sheffield United, but then whilst we were disappointed to lose to City, the closing of the gap between the two sides felt like we could at least explain away. The table may have then had us in the middle but we’d got the two hardest away games out of our system and if we could beat Leicester then it would feel like we were back on track.
Then the Leicester defeat shook me because it was the first time our attacking and creative play had been so visibly problematic in terms of costing us a game. Up until that point we’d scraped results and I was ok with that. But the Leicester game hit me hard because I think it was the first time I realised what a problem we were having going forward. I started to look more closely at some of the misfiring attacking players and whilst before those games I’d just lamented then a bit, now I was actively looking at their performances to see if there was any kind of demonstrable decline. We went in to the United game and I had my usual bout of extreme pessimism given our history there, but Arteta pulled out another fine tactical display. But despite that, I think I still had scars from the Leicester game because the fact we hadn’t taken chances when they were offered, then had to rely on the penalty to beat a poor United side on the day, did leave a nagging doubt. I listened to a few podcasts and people were praising Lacazette, for example, which I just didn’t see. I didn’t see too much clicking in the final third for any of our players actually. But when you beat United away you need to chill because it is a game of fine margins.
Then we go into the game at home to Villa and I am thinking the confidence of the United game could carry the team through. But I didn’t expect the same team because that team were set up differently and United would play differently to Villa. United would never sit and look to spring lightning counters at home, they’d want more ball and would go hunting for it at home, which played into our hands. But Villa would look to catch us cold and that is exactly what they did. And because of what had come before with some of the players that I think hadn’t played that well of late, my focus on individuals that started was laser-sharp. I honed in on them and as a result their bad performances only looked worse and as a result of it, I had my first real feelings that Arteta got it spectacularly wrong last Sunday night.
And that felt horrible. This was a guy who had done so much right since taking charge and who had – and still has – my backing. But it felt like I’d been served a man-sized portion of reality in Arteta and that didn’t taste good if I’m honest. I had put him up on this pedestal as if he knew all of the answers. The only time he wouldn’t know the answers was if we had an injury crisis, or unfortunate circumstances like sendings off or shoddy VAR decisions. But on Sunday it was the first proper time where he got it all wrong.
And now we’ll see just how good he is, because he needs to learn from what went wrong and find an answer to fix it. I believe he is a quick learner, a very intelligent man and somebody who will look to make changes to a situation that clearly didn’t work. I am still excited by what I think he can achieve at Arsenal but he, like me, has had his first proper fork in the road and we have to all hope he goes the right way in what he does next.
He will make mistakes. He’s only managed something like 40-odd football matches I think, so perhaps this is the ‘rough’ that needs to come with the ‘smooth’, that we all need to accept is going to happen this season. I hope we can have a bit more ‘smooth’ after the international break though.
Catch you all tomorrow.