Arsenal approach pivotal period in need of improvement

Arsenal approach pivotal period in need of improvement

Afternoon all, and welcome to another pandemic Monday. Hopefully there won’t be too many more. The UK government has today informed the country that things should be, more or less, back to normal by June. Of course, there is a long way to go until then and if there is anything this virus has taught us it is not to underestimate it. But it is encouraging news nonetheless, some light at the end of a tunnel that has been black hole-like in its darkness at times. While many other countries are behind the UK in terms of their vaccination rollout, and will thus likely open up more cautiously, things do seem to be heading in the right direction at last.

The announcement was particularly welcome this morning after another disappointing defeat for Arsenal over the weekend. The fact that we lost to Manchester City – a team that is far better and in far better form than us – is not surprising. The 1-0 scoreline is easy to compartmentalize considering where the two teams are right now, both in the table and in terms of their development. But it was the manner of the defeat that frustrated me.

We conceded a goal in the second minute of the match, Raheem Sterling climbing far too easily to head home unmarked from a few yards out. City then began to dominate possession, as expected, without putting too much pressure on our defense. After 70 minutes, with the scoreline still 1-0, we found ourselves in the perfect position to start taking some more risks. But we didn’t. I’m not sure how much is down to the quality of the opposition, but the players seemed content to see out the match and accept defeat.

How can that happen? We are Arsenal. We are at home. Defeat might have felt inevitable prior to kick-off, and even more so after the first couple of minutes, but anything can happen in football. Regardless of who we are playing, we have to throw the kitchen sink at the opposing goal if we are losing with 20 minutes to go. The players must take responsibility for this insipid performance. Their spirit and desire to win was as tepid as the water that comes out of my pathetic shower. The performance as exciting as an extra-mild chicken korma.

But the manager must also shoulder some responsibility. The players, after all, are a reflection of their coach and his beliefs. If Mikel Arteta was content to swallow a 1-0 loss and move quickly on to “more winnable” games, we have a serious problem. I’m sure that was not the case, but the Spaniard must do more to convince his players that they are good enough to get a result against City. They are better than us, yes, but the best team doesn’t always win in football. It felt like that age-old adage was forgotten yesterday.

What follows for Arsenal is now a pivotal, season-defining period of games. We go into the second leg of the Europa League last-32 tie against Benfica on Thursday with an away goal and a 1-1 draw in our favour. We then visit high-flying Leicester on Sunday, before matches against Burnley (away) and West Ham sandwich a North London derby on March 14th. It is a daunting run of fixtures for a team that has lost three of its last four in the league, and one that could determine the long-term fate of its manager.

There is a very real possibility that we will be out of Europe, out of both domestic cup competitions, and looking at a mid-table finish in the Premier League at best by early April. This return, of course, is simply not good enough and Arteta will be fighting for his job this summer if things don’t improve markedly in the interim.

But despite all the understandable doom and gloom, I remain quite upbeat about the direction in which this team is travelling. For one thing, there have been signs of change since exiting that disastrous run in the build up to Christmas. A slight uptick in results has been generated by a greater improvement in performances. In the defeat to Wolves, for example, we created a hat-load of chances and should have been out of sight by the time we imploded on the stroke of half-time. With Saka on the right and Smith-Rowe down the centre, we look like a coherent attacking force, capable of breaking down a low block for the first time since Arteta took charge.

We have also been unlucky in this period. The Luiz red card and penalty at Wolves were at best harsh and at worst unfair. We should have had at least one penalty against Aston Villa, which could have changed the course of the game. We have lost two of our best players – Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey – to injury. Any team, particularly one that is low on confidence, would struggle to cope with such absences.

I know things aren’t great. I know that this squad should be higher than 10th. I also know that Arteta’s previous links to the club might be clouding my judgement. But I think the manager should be given more time. The inconsistency is frustrating, but the congested fixture list caused by the pandemic is making it hard for any team, with the exception of Manchester City, to produce a consistent run of results. In his first job, Arteta showed tremendous resilience to come out of that December period and put together a string of improved results and performances. That, to me, suggests he has a talent worth developing.

Chopping and changing managers all the time does not work unless you have an infinite well of resources. Arsenal do not. We have put all our eggs in the Arteta basket and must give him until at least the summer to show us what he can produce.

He must, however, fulfill his side of the bargain. Things must improve between now and May, otherwise the board will have no choice but to look elsewhere.

Right, I’ll leave it there for today. Have a good start to the week all.

—How do you think Arsenal will get on over the next few weeks? Let me know in the comments section below!—