It’s oh-so-quiet in Arsenal right now. Well, not the whole of the land, because of course the Arsenal Women played last night and sadly got a little beat up by Barcelona Women 4-1 on their home turf. Bit of a shame but I guess there are five more Champions League Group games to go and so Arsenal have plenty of opportunities to pick up points and qualify for the next round. Barcelona won it last season I believe and so it’s one of the best teams in the female game and so the fact that the Arsenal Women are there competing for it is good on them.
Can’t say the same about the men, can we? I can’t even remember the last time I lamented getting one of Barca or Bayern Munich to beat us up in the knockout stages. Feels like an age ago.
It was certainly another team ago and when you look at how different we are now compared to the last time we played in those competitions, the difference is quite marked.
I actually think we look better now than some of those teams.
Some of the teams around the time of Chamakh et al really did look kind of ponderous when you think about it. Time can be a harsh mistress and so perhaps my mind is clouded, but I’m pretty sure we went in to some games in the Champions League Group stages with players like Chamakh, Djourou, Arshavin and Gibbs all starting. The likes of Almunia in goal, etc. We regularly played with sides and players that I didn’t think cut the mustard and yet we still managed to get fourth, get to those lucrative knockout phases, then at least qualify out in to the next round.
I guess the reason I’m bringing up this history is that when I look at the technical quality of the first XI that we have now, it feels better than that of the late 00s or early 2010s. It feels to me like we have players capable of delivering more and to a higher level than back then, and yet we’re looking at the league this season and wondering how on earth we can accumulate enough points to get anywhere near the top four.
The quality of this division right now is crazy. And it’s been that way for a while. Back in the day it was us and United, then Chelski won the football lottery and made it a top three, but now we’re talking about a ‘Big Six. That’s sides that all have finances, players and quality to be competing at the top and whilst those teams towards the lower end of that ‘Big Six’ can’t get near the financially doped or super elite sides like Liverpool, it does make you look at the league and realise just how difficult the margin for error is for Arteta and his team.
This isn’t like Wenger’s ‘Project Youth’ that, if gambled, could create a good team but at worst case it means a seat at the top table (Champions League). Teams don’t get beat up down the divisions because they have managers who want a partisan crowd and cold weather to put off the ‘fancy Dan’ teams with technical superiority. The playing field has been levelled and so for us Arsenal fans we’re not even looking at getting a few quality players back in to the team to knock us back in to the Champions League, we now need a visionary tactical approach to beat the teams that we used to just show up in. Arsene Wenger achieved great things and will forever be remembered by me as a man who brought me so much joy, but his philosophy of letting players express themselves and not being too bothered about the opponents would absolutely tank in this league.
Everyone has data and analytics. Everyone has players who are at their physical peak. Everyone can spend a buck and unearth a gem from abroad. The game at the weekend showed that again to me. I said before the game that every time I’ve watched Brighton play, they haven’t impressed me and up until that point at the weekend, I stand by that. Every defeat or draw felt more like Arsenal stupidity rather than Brighton being able to tactically approach a game and nullify us. But at the weekend they showed that. It doesn’t matter what the style is, teams are no longer just there to play sides like Arsenal and hope that the cold weather and roar of the home crowd somehow impacts the players. It just doesn’t happen.
So for Arsenal to ‘get it right’ and get back in to the top four again, it feels like so many planets need to align.
- The players we’ve bought have to be a significant upgrade on what we already have.
- The manager has to be significantly better tactically than every other manager he comes up against.
- The team needs to avoid injury in key positions for players.
- The other big sides need to suffer injuries and also eventually come to the end of their periods of dominance through the natural ageing of players.
It’s like all of the stars need to align for us to have the top-top level success we crave.
That last point also intrigues me, because we’re seeing Liverpool operate at their zenith, but how long will that go on for, and can they renew? That’s the problem we had with the Invincibles. Arsene wanted to cut the strings for the ageing players and he did it too early. The result was leaning in to Project Youth too early and we dropped a level very quickly. Liverpool have that challenge coming up because surely they aren’t going to just cut the chord for the likes of Salah, Firmino and Mane, all of whom are in their late 20s. But if they leave it too long they’ll have older players who are in decline, on big wages, that they can’t shift.
It’s really difficult and I am intrigued to see how that pans out, but the problem that we have is that timing needs to be absolutely spot in in terms of us making our ascendency. Our young players need to ‘click’ at the right moment; maybe in two years, maybe in three. Teams like Liverpool need to hit the decline at that exact moment. Then we need to not have injury crises like it feels like we’ve had every year for the last ten years. Oh, and Arteta also has to make sure he isn’t out-witted tactically by lower league sides like Brighton (I know they are above us but the season will even itself out I believe).
We are in a very finely balanced state here and that’s why it feels like every game is an (excuse the reference) ‘all or nothing’ game. I am praying that we can hit all of those fine margins. It will be beautiful if we can. But I won’t lie to you and say I’m not nervous.
Catch you all tomorrow.