You’d Petr Cech Yourself, Before You Wreck Yourself

Should we keep faith with the cup keeper or reinstate the first choice?’ seems to have replaced the cup final song and the cup final suit as the new cup final tradition of choice. For Arsenal and Unai Emery, the conundrum is layered with complexity. Petr Cech playing his final game as a professional against his former club adds thick layers to this already plump onion.

Cech began the season as first choice goalkeeper ahead of summer signing Bernd Leno and, in the pure goalkeeping stakes, produced some of his best Arsenal form. An injury in early autumn opened the door for Leno and the German has never looked back. At first, Leno had an edge over Cech in a footballing sense.

They seemed to be goalkeepers of similar quality, but Leno is a vastly superior footballer. In 2019, it is not enough to catch crosses, parry shots and bark orders. Now a goalkeeper is effectively a deep lying playmaker and Leno is so far ahead of Cech in this respect that it’s almost comical. Cech is a goalkeeper primed in a slightly different era, whose only footballing demand was to kick long to Didier Drogba.

To watch Cech try awkwardly to pick out teammates with his feet is a little like watching Mr. Burns trying to bowl. Leno has a far more positive impact on Arsenal’s style of play- especially given Emery’s preference for playing out from the back. Opposition forwards do not press Arsenal anywhere near as intently when Leno is in goal, because they know he is comfortable with long and short passing.

As the season has progressed, so too has Leno, but not just as a ball player. He has become pretty handy with his hands too. This piece from Adrian Clarke illustrates the impressive statistics behind the German’s maiden season in England. The most resounding data from Adrian’s piece is that Leno faced 45.4 expected goals on target (xGoT), but only conceded 41. Only Fabianski, Alisson and Lloris boast better tallies.

Leno adds value as a goalkeeper and as the genesis of Arsenal’s build-up play. Though a faded force, Cech is still a thoroughly decent glove butler, but the Gunners lose something significant from their build-up with the Czech in goal. Not only does Arsenal’s build-up suffer, but Cech’s profligacy in possession puts his team under pressure.

Cech’s pass completion percentage across all competitions is 57% this season according to whoscored, compared to 69% from Leno. Across 180 minutes against Valencia, only 28% of Cech’s passes and kick outs found an Arsenal player. Chelsea are likely to field a front three of Hazard, Pedro and Willian in Baku, all of whom thrive on swift transitions. Arsenal will be under serious pressure if Cech keeps turning the ball over or pumping it out of play.

All of this, of course, is obvious to even the most casual observer. Leno is currently a better goalie than Cech, ergo he should start the final. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Cech has started all of the Europa League games since being deposed by Leno, a pact between manager and back up ‘keeper that is familiar in the modern game.

We are not privy to the conversations between player and coach, but you have to assume Cech wanted sight of the small print in advance. ‘Does that mean I play in the final, boss?’ is the most glaring T or C in this arrangement. It is tempting to say that the coach should be ruthless and renege on the deal for the good of the team.

However, that is to ignore the long-term consequences of such a call. Cech is retiring, which, admittedly, complicates matters in terms of sentiment. That the game is against Petr’s former employer adds grist to that particular mill. The coach’s decision is unlikely to be informed by sentiment if he does stick with Cech- even if he is one of football’s good guys and doesn’t deserve to have his career end on a sour personal note.

If Emery did make Cech a promise to play in the final and he publicly breaks that promise in front of the group, there is potentially a wider impact. A coach relies on the buy-in of their players and to dismiss the human and the political side of making such a call is to make a rod for your own back. Every decision on an individual has a ripple effect.

When you are managing a large group of humans, you have to consider the impact your decisions has on all of them. That said, Cech’s social media presence took on an air of (understandable) desperation in the midst of the semi-final victory over Valencia. He even gave a seven-minute interview to BT Sport on the pitch at the Mestalla, his brow caked in sweat from his trademark head wear, Cech was already giving Emery a public nudge and wink to start him in Baku. He might as well be leafleting on Emery’s doorstep.

All of which suggests to me that maybe the ‘promise’ between Emery and Cech is not signed, sealed and delivered. In fact, Leno began the season as the cup keeper, starting Europa League group games against Vorskla, Qarabag and away at Sporting. Cech’s electioneering implies that either the agreement was not finalised or else he is anxious that Emery might break it.

Earlier this week, another twist in this Shakespearean plot emerged. Cech is to join Chelsea in a Sporting Director role for next season. Arsenal have already reluctantly decided to exclude one of their players based on political grounds. I don’t doubt Cech’s professionalism even 1%, but it still serves Emery another curve-ball he could have done without for this final. (Which is why I strongly suspect Chelsea are the ones that have released the information).

The public knowledge that Cech would be lining up against his past and future employers adds a further layer of complexity. Yet in another sense, it might provide Emery with some clarity and give him the best excuse he needs to put his best feet and hands forward and start Bernd Leno. Emery will be better positioned than we to make this call- he will have an infinitely better grasp of the mood in the camp were he to deny Cech the last hurrah he clearly craves.

The issue might be an easy one for us as fans- we want to see the better goalkeeper start and, though Cech comes across as a nice guy; he certainly feels more like he ‘belongs’ to Chelsea than Arsenal. We don’t quite have the same sentimental ties. For Emery, this is a much more complicated decision than it is for us as Arsenal fans.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review

We have almost reached the end of the season, dear chums. We have our Azerbaijani Adventure to come of course but for now, the Good Ship Arsenal has docked safely back into port. I say safely; I mean of course it just about limped home, crashed into the harbour walls, listing heavily with a hole on the hull, no lifeboats, with a nasty case of Legionnaire’s disease affecting the crew. And worst of all, five captains. Any seafarer will tell you that one captain is plenty.

The strangely boring title race has been won by the Abu Dhabi Asterisks, the dullest football team ever put together. A team of Steve Davises. Eleven Glenn Hoddles. A squad of Paul Scholeses. A gang of Michael Owens. Almost a dozen Gareth Barrys. Managed by a Spanish supercomputer. The Catalan Mekon. Davros in a V-neck. The most interesting thing about ‘Pep’ is the way he leaves a trail of trophies behind him, like a rat leaves faeces. Yes, that’s it. He shits trophies. Well done, ‘Pep’.

All it took was the entire wealth of a country to help you do it. Please have the slowest handclap there has ever been, at one beat per hour, going on for a millennium. A team so absolutely not bending the financial rules that they’re currently being threatened with a ban from Big Cup. They won’t be banned, of course, because they can afford the best lawyers. So there we have it. That is where we are in 2019. The Champions’ Lawyers League.

As for Arsenal, we finished a place better than last season. Or, to put it in starker terms, the table looks like this:

98 Manchester City
97 Liverpool
96
95
94
93
92
91
90
89
88
87
86
85
84
83
82
81
80
79
78
77
76
75
74
73
72 Chelsea
71 Tottenham
70 Arsenal

Manchester United, providing the end of season light entertainment, finished four points behind us.

So to cheer us all up, I am reviewing the chaps by comparing them to kitchen appliances. You shall have to forgive me for using their nicknames.

19. Bernd Leno/ Bernard the Gurnard
A SUPERMOP
Not glamorous, but effective, and had some real moments of usefulness clearing up behind our extravagantly porous backline. We all need an effective mop.

15. Ainsley Maitland-Niles/ Ainsley Maitland-Niles
THE SPATULA YOU BUY WHEN YOU’VE BROKEN YOUR FAVOURITE ONE
It can’t be as good as the one you broke, can it? You loved that spatula. It saw you through hundreds, nay thousands of delicious meals. But it broke. You needed a new one. So you send the cook off to John Lewis and she comes back with a new one. It doesn’t look like the old spatula, but you know what? It spatulates almost as well.

5. Sokratis/ Soccer Tits
CARVING KNIFE
It’s good at cutting things. Meat, in particular. It needs to be handled correctly as in the wrong hands it can do an awful lot of damage. Feels good in your hand, doesn’t it? You feel… powerful. I wonder what else it can cut? No. NO. I mustn’t. JUST CARVE THE BEEF, MAN. PUT THE KNIFE DOWN NOW.

12. Stephan Lichsteiner/ Stephen Lightstone
SOME OF YOUR DAD’S OLD CAMPING CUTLERY
You have guests. A lot of guests. You don’t have enough cutlery. At the back of the drawer, battered and bent, you find a knife, a fork, a spoon, and a spork. They are pressed into service as a matter of last resort.

6. Laurent Koscielny/ Larry Costerley
YOUR FAVOURITE CORKSCREW
At the end of a long day, you reach for ‘Old Faithful’, a corkscrew that just felt so right that when it snapped last year you sent it off for repair.

31. Sead Kolasinac/ Steven Collingwood
MEAT CLEAVER
You have some joints to prepare. You need a piece of equipment that does one thing very well. You need a meat cleaver. A solid, walloping meat cleaver. It cleaves meat, and that’s it.

20. Shkodran Mustafi/ Seamus Masterson
A GARLIC CRUSHER THAT DOESN’T WORK: R.R.P. £499.99
Honestly it’s a piece of shit. You don’t know why you bought it in the first place. You use a lot of garlic. So it made sense to get a really nice expensive one. Per use, that’s not too bad! It’ll last a lifetime. The reality is it doesn’t actually crush garlic. It hurts your hands to use. It squirts garlic juice up the wall and one of the bits snaps off and hits you in the testicles.

8. Aaron Ramsey/ Abdoulaye Ramsara
FINE PORCELAIN SET
You put it on eBay last week on a whim. Now it’s been sold for £0.01 and the buyer is coming to get it tomorrow. You now have nothing off which to eat and you’ve lost the money you paid for it in the first place.

9. Mesut Ozil/ Melvin Orwell
FINE CRYSTAL WINE GLASS
It’s SO expensive that you daren’t get it out of the locked cupboard. You only use it for drinking your best wines.

22. Denis Suarez/ Dennis Saunders
SLAP CHOP
You were drunk and watching a shopping channel. You bought it on a whim. It is still in the box.

34. Granit Xhaka/ Graham Shackleton
FAITHFUL OLD SOUP SPOON
It gets the soup from one’s bowl to one’s mouth.

9. Alexandre Lacazette/ Alexander Lakeshead
THE BEST KNIFE IN THE DRAWER
To quote the chef Timothy Hayward: “Every day you pick it up and use it to create and transform. Eight inches of lethally sharp, ‘weapons-grade’ metal lying on your kitchen table, possessing the same potential for mayhem as a loaded handgun – and yet it is predominantly used to express your love for your family by making their tea.”

14. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang/ Patrick O’Bannon
THE BEST FORK IN THE DRAWER
There’s no damn fork better than this fork. It is exquisitely designed, it is elegant, it is solid, its tines are exactly the right length and it is in the right place at the right time.

17. Alex Iwobi/ Alex Webbley
THE ONLY BOWL YOU’VE GOT
It’s literally the only way you have of carrying things in the kitchen. You have nothing else capable of moving items of food, prepared or otherwise, from once place to another.

Second Captains

“The first captain in this group is Koscielny. Then I tell the players it is Cech, Ramsey, Özil and Xhaka. In my career I want leaders in the team. The representation for every player and in every time in the season [there is] the capacity to do that. Maybe there will be more leaders in the team to show this captaincy, not just in the captain’s group, but these five players are in this possibility to be the captain.”

So said Unai Emery last summer and it’s not an original observation, at this stage, to say that most of that inner circle of captains aren’t the future leaders of Arsenal. Cech is an excellent rolemodel, but lost his place in the team and is now retiring. Koscielny is very much a leader in the example he sets for his team and his organisation of the back line, but Arsenal surely have to pare his workload down.

Aaron Ramsey proved to be a technical leader of the team but he is moving to Juventus. Ramsey produced his best form at the business end of the season- unlike some of his teammates (more on that anon), before his hamstring inevitably gave way. Mesut Özil wore the armband but isn’t really a leader (which is not a criticism, most people aren’t leaders).

Being an introvert doesn’t make Özil unsuited to leadership per se, but he operates on the fringes of a game at the best of times. Besides which, he and the head coach have clashed oftentimes this season and he doesn’t exactly feel like the future of Arsenal Football Club any longer. I don’t think this is entirely his fault, I think, in truth, Özil and Emery just aren’t a good cocktail.

Like many modern managers, Emery has never really operated with a mercurial playmaker, ghosting around the perimeters of the game. He prizes hard running and uses the half spaces to create, either via the full-backs or the inside forwards. Özil’s game is built on finding space, which often means getting away from the action.

There is little point rehashing old ground with regards his contract, which moors the club’s spending power. If a cold war broke out between player and coach over the winter, a kind of ‘hot peace’ has prevailed in the spring, but it looks fragile. With only two assists this season, Arsenal will be keen to try to offload Özil’s salary. Though according Mesut’s agent, the player is not for turning.

When the season arrived at squeaky bum junction, Özil and the second highest earner in the squad, Mkhitaryan, hid in the bogs and waited for the inspector to pass. The team has moved away from them and exiting their wages will be high on the club’s lengthy to do list for the summer. Granit Xhaka was another player named as one of Emery’s trusted lieutenants last summer.

Only Mustafi, Leno and Aubameyang started more Premier League games than Xhaka this season. I admit I have been a fan of Xhaka’s qualities, while conceding that his habitual lapses are incredibly frustrating. At this point, I think I have given up on the idea that an improved tactical setup would see a smarter, less error prone player emerge. This season he has been well protected by Unai Emery’s system, but the brain-dead errors persist. It is surely just an indelible part of his make-up at this point.

His brand of self-destruction would have more of a home in a troubled 1970s rock band. I also wonder if modern football is moving beyond the concept of the deep lying playmaker, the sun around whom all of his colleagues orbit. Immobility is becoming more of a handicap in a league drunk on the lure of the gegenpress.

Spurs have managed Eric Dier out of the team in favour of Moussa Sissoko. Jordan Henderson found minutes easier to come by at Anfield when he convinced Jurgen Klopp he could be a shuffling number 8. Emre Can left Merseyside last summer, to be replaced by the more energetic Fabinho and Naby Keita.

And here is the rub; I think Torreira and Gunedouzi look better when Xhaka isn’t playing. Neither player operates with fixity; both look more at home in a more mobile, fluid structure. Xhaka’s presence is beginning to look a little like a forcefield. James and Andrew have observed many times in the Arsecast Extra this season that Arsenal are dependent on him but perhaps they shouldn’t be.

I think Arsenal’s midfield should evolve more to a modern, fluid 3 man structure that slots into a 433. I also think Maitland-Niles and Iwobi might be interesting options in one of the slightly wider roles within that structure. There was little comfort to take from Manchester City’s cool dissection of Arsenal at the Etihad in February, but I think I saw the future of the Arsenal midfield that day in Guendouzi and Torreira.

I’ve had the impression for a while that Xhaka is a ‘Lilly pad’ player in this project. He does not represent the most urgent boil that needs lancing from this squad, but I have long felt Arsenal would get to him eventually. All of this is to say that Xhaka is not a future leader of this team, which is a shame because on a good day, he really does look like one. If Özil and Mkhitaryan hid in the bogs when the journey got bumpy, Xhaka set himself on fire and tossed himself out of the window.

But… new leaders are emerging in this team in my opinion. Hopefully a better culture can be cultivated around them. Lacazette and Aubameyang have been the team’s shepherds from an attacking perspective. They have produced throughout the season. I think Guendouzi and Torreira don’t have that exalted status yet, but there is the potential at least for them to form the scuttling partnership the midfield needs.

The signs are good that Bernd Leno is emerging as a trustworthy performer in the Arsenal goal. When the bullets start flying, Arsenal have too many players that either duck under a table or swallow a cyanide pill. Leno has not (yet!) shown this level of fragility, he seems like a sturdy enough character who has comfortably taken on the mantle from Petr Cech. Whatever you think of Cech’s Arsenal career, if you’re a goalkeeper ten years his junior, taking over from Cech must be intimidating for a goalie given his standing in the game.

Earlier in the season I wrote that Arsenal fans had entered a kind of existential torpor, because many long serving players had departed and new ones had arrived. As a fanbase we lacked cult heroes. There will be more turnover yet and some of it will be painful as Arsenal move beyond their five anointed captains. In time, a new culture will take hold, with fresh reference points and different leaders.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto – Or like my page on Facebook.

Protagonists?

There is a universally accepted truism that, for the last two seasons, Arsenal have been very strong at home, but about as robust as wet cardboard away from home. Reputation counts for a lot in top level football and the Gunners’ contrasting form at the Emirates and away from N5 have both created their own economies of scale type effects.

Arsenal’s issues on the road are compounded by an air of vulnerability- the longer the fallow form endures, the more opponents are encouraged by that perception of weakness. A lot of the team’s issues are based around tempo and an inability to respond to a high-octane approach from opponents. They simply cannot impose their game on the bright eyed and bushy tailed.

So, to embrace that most charming of football phrases, the opposition ‘has a go’ and therein lies the key to beating this Arsenal team. Turn the temperature up and watch them toss themselves into the furnace. At home however, there is an equal and opposite phenomenon at play. Arsenal have forged a fearsome reputation at Emirates Stadium.

This often results in opponents backing off into tightly coiled banks of four. They allow the Gunners to have the ball and, with it, control of the thermostat. At the bookends of the season, lots of teams play with greater freedom. In the late summer and early autumn, the table has yet to take shape in the Premier League’s flabby midriff. Points are not yet considered at a premium.

Often, as the evenings grow lighter, objectives have been achieved and that freedom returns for all but the relegation threatened. In this particular season, two relegation places were decided in March, with the final one a drawn-out inevitability. There is a greater sense of liberation in this Premier League season than most others. In the harsh winter months, a greater volume of teams have played survival football.

In the late summer and early autumn, Arsenal were outshot in consecutive home games against Watford, Everton, Wolves and Liverpool (more understandable). In the preceding game of that run, Emery’s side had allowed West Ham 13 sights of their goal. The team came through that period without defeat thanks to varying slices of serendipity.

After that came the piece du resistance of Arsenal’s season, a 4-2 victory over Spurs in which the home side took double the amount of shots of their beleaguered visitors, a day on which Emery’s tactical tinkering worked to a tee and the sun truly shone. These are the games very suited to the coach’s style.

He might forever regret using the word ‘protagonists’ in his opening salvo as Arsenal boss, because his coaching style could not be further removed from the term. What he is is very reactive. He is good at setting up a team to shut down other team’s strengths, especially in home matches. Controlled victories against Spurs, Manchester United and Chelsea elevated this team from 6th placed also rans to (reluctant and unsuitable) participants in the world’s shittest bun fight for 4th.

But Arsenal made hard work of the likes of Burnley, Huddersfield and Cardiff in home matches- the latter, fighting tooth and nail for survival, took more shots than Arsenal at Emirates Stadium. With Ramsey and Özil in a kind of 352 formation, Emery seemed to finally discover a workable formula a couple of months ago and Bournemouth, Southampton and Newcastle were swept aside with considerable ease.

Rennes and BATE were very accommodating visitors in the Europa League, trying as they were to protect first leg leads earned thanks to Arsenal’s shambolic away form. Rennes in particular tossed Arsenal the keys to the match and allowed them to dictate and the Gunners’ collection of sunshine players made hay.

The last two home matches have shown a regression to the mean for typical home performances against the league’s lesser lights. It’s difficult to remember too many genuinely memorable displays against teams from 7th downwards at the Emirates, save for a brief period in February and March when Ramsey was helping Emery to answer a season long conundrum between protecting a ramshackle defence and buttressing an under-supported attack.

Indeed, Arsenal have been fortunate to have two elite strikers capable of playing in a multitude of positions at once. Aubameyang is effectively asked to be a wide forward and centre forward simultaneously, while Alex Lacazette drops into midfield because the supply line behind him is insufficient. Without this pair of strikers, Arsenal would be in even more trouble.

They have scored 42 goals in total at the Emirates in the Premier League this season and Aubameyang (13) and Lacazette (9) are responsible for more than half of them. This in a season where the team’s elite chance creator, Mesut Özil, has 2 assists, 1 for Aubameyang at home to Leicester and 1 for Mkhitaryan at home to Bournemouth. Auba and Laca have been the judge, jury and executioner of Arsenal’s attack, left to forage for their own chances and they’ve both done it very well.

Emery might be thankful that Arsenal’s season has come to a conclusion at the Emirates, because the cloak of N5 invincibility is beginning to slip. Valencia dominated the Gunners for the opening 15 minutes of the Europa League semi-final and really ought to have led by more than one goal. Until Lacazette and Aubameyang eked out a goal for themselves in a move that has come to define the lack of support they both endure from their colleagues.

Lacazette dropped into midfield to play a delicious pass into the channel for Aubameyang, who strode towards goal and found that his friend and strike partner had made the gallop forward to stroke the ball into the net. They are largely left to hunt their own game. Thankfully, this goal seemed to scare Valencia into ceasing the high-press attacking approach they hitherto adopted and they retreated into defensive subservience. This again allowed Arsenal’s collection of control freaks to dictate the temperature of the game.

Either side of this match, Crystal Palace and Brighton illustrated how Arsenal respond to their opponents upping the stakes. Shkodran Mustafi against Palace and Granit Xhaka against Brighton happily threw themselves and their teams off the cliff edge at the sight of the tiniest slither of cloud in the sky. Any opposition scout worth their salt knows that challenging Arsenal to a duel is a far more worthy tactic than retreating into the trenches.

Hopefully, the regression to the mean at home to the Eagles and the Seagulls has come late enough in the season for opponents to have forgotten about it come August. Even more optimistically, Arsenal might even seek to rectify their complete inability to handle pressure and their creative deficit in that time. Because if their reputation at the Emirates starts to fade, they might find a few more teams willing and able to be have a go heroes.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

Arsenal Gentleman’s Weekly Review (of Months)

Having become somewhat frustrated with Arsenal Football Club of late, and being unable to do anything but howl to the moon once a week on this esteemed organ, and with nobody singly at fault for our late season disintegration, I have resolved to write letters of complaint. Not to a person, or the club itself, but as you will see, to the months of the year.

Arsenal, this is what you have driven me to.

Dear March,

I am writing to express my gratitude to you for being such a wonderful month in the world of Arsenal. Ah, March. March my love. March my sweet one, my love. What wonderful bounties you brought us, March.

You began by offering us an away draw at Spurs. Not a terrible result, and if our hapless Number 20 had not allowed himself to be in a position where Mr. Harry Kane could ‘win’ a penalty then we’d be in a better position now, but all things considered, a not disagreeable result.

We went to Rennes, where admittedly we lost, but we scored a precious away goal courtesy of Mr. Webbley; indeed, ‘twas our quickest goal in European football since Luke Ponsonby scored agin Galatasaray in December 2014. And we witnessed one of the signs of order in the universe, a sending off of number 5, Soccer Tits, an event which turned his face from man-who-has–just-seen-you-trying-to-chat-up-his-wife to man-who-has–just-seen-you-trying- to-chat-up-his-wife-and-now-has-another-red-card.

Then, sweet, dear March, you brought us Newton Heath. Roasted. On a platter. With an apple in their mouth and a bag of herbs up their hoop. Apparently Ole was at the wheel. Drunk, apparently, and in need of a refreshing night in the cells. Or perhaps Ole is a gunnar after all? The victory came courtesy of a baffler from Shackleton and a penalty from O’Bannon, which considering his miss against Middlesex had our collective sphincters twitching like a million rabbit’s noses. The loss was so devastating for United that their season seems to have dropped like Ryan Giggs’s sister-in-law’s undercrackers, losing to Wolves twice, Barcelona, Everton and City.

You returned Rennes to us, wonderful March, and we duly sent them back to Brittany thanks to an O’Bannon brace and a Maitland-Niles noggin-bobbler. We dared to dream, O March! How our spirits soared!

Yours, The Gent.

Dear April,

It pains me to say this, dear April, but after a pleasant start, you have really stuck your head down the khazi and flushed. You have Invited Captain Bovril for a sleepover*. You have unicycled into a funeral**. You have Arjen Robbened*** it all up.

There was Everton away, with our two shots on target. You teased us with the wins over Napoli, O April, but those results merely highlighted our utter ineptitude on the home front. April, you are like a conversation in which you are told that you have a very serious illness but at least you don’t have a cold.

You sent us Crystal Palace, April, and this was then we knew that you were bringing down the cosmic ire of the universe onto us. We then went to Wolverhampton, and we knew what was coming.

April, it pains me to say this, but you are the new November. Can you image the Arsenal of years gone by fearing visits to Leicester Fosse, Brighton and Burnley, for heaven’s sake? That is the legacy with which you have left us, you whoreson cullionly barber-monger. May you be banished for eleven months.

Yours angrily, The Gent.

Dear May,

I have to say that the early signs are promising.

Yes, there were signs of Aprillity in the way we conceded to Mouctar Diakhaby’s early goal against Valencia, but then, what’s this? We came from behind? To score three times? Who are these cads? We could have had seven! In a semi-final! Against Valencia Club de Fútbol who are riding high in La Liga. Leicester and Wolves away and Crystal Palace at home? Far more problematic than a European elite side who have thrice beaten us as recently as 1980 (the painful European Cup Winners’ Cup final), then 2000/01, and 2003.

The job is not done, May, and we have the expected demoralising home defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion to contend with in the meantime, and then the 4-0 away loss to Burnley on the 12th, but we shall see.

My question, dear May, is it a trick? Are you being coached by April behind the scenes? Are we to crape into the Champions’ League via the tradesman’s entrance in order to be further humiliated next season? It wouldn’t surprise me. April is an untrustworthy slattern.

We hope that you behave yourself.

Sincerely, The Gent.

*Defecated in one’s bed
** Annoyed people in the most vulgar way
*** Made yourself the worst possible personage in the world

Runners and Riders

After a week in which Arsenal have conceded nine goals in three league games, I bet what you really want to read is an article about how shit Arsenal are at attacking. Wait, where are you going? Come back! What’s the matter? Too zeitgeisty for ya? Fine, go enjoy another lukewarm ‘Shkodran Mustafi is shit’ hit piece, see if I care.

That Arsenal’s defence is ‘flammable’ is well documented. Their best defenders are either the wrong side of 30 or else injured. The squad is top heavy in terms of talent and numbers, but the attack remains very imbalanced in terms of the type of player Arsenal have. Very few of their existing options mesh in any serious way.

Beyond Aubameyang and Lacazette there aren’t many players you would seriously back to break double figures for a season in terms of goal scoring. In February, I wrote about how few shots Arsenal take and this wasn’t really a call to arms for players to shoot from ridiculous angles, but more of an observation that they don’t have enough players that trouble the penalty area.

Aaron Ramsey has been such a big miss in recent weeks because he is one of the few players that abandons his post, so to speak. His tendency to make forward runs frustrated some Arsenal fans, but we can see now why that movement is so important. There are plenty of players that move the ball well enough, but too few that move themselves.

The opening 20 minutes against Wolves provided a case in point. Torreira, Xhaka, Ozil, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan moved the ball around pinball style. All are good technicians to varying degrees, but Wolves, frankly, just sat in a deckchair and watched the ball move to the edge of the area unconcerned. There was no Arsenal player incurring into their territory off the ball. At times, Arsenal’s build-up play took on the appearance of a fußball game.

This is what a team looks like when the formation graphic remains untroubled, this is what happens when everybody stays in their position. The striker(s) become(s) isolated when the midfielders and wide forwards are solely comprised of ‘final third entry’ players. In essence, Arsenal’s attack lacks unpredictability, movement and a touch of jeopardy. Where there is no chaos, there can be no fortune.

Losing the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott (or at least, the former versions of those players) has robbed Arsenal of some devil in their attack. Lacazette likes to move back towards the midfield to link play, which essentially turns the penalty area into an exclusion zone as nobody breaks in behind him in the absence of Ramsey.

Even when partnered, Lacazette and Aubameyang often look isolated because every striker needs someone behind them willing to run into the area and occupy defenders. Arsenal don’t get that from Ozil, Iwobi or Mkhitaryan. They wouldn’t have got it from Denis Suarez either had he been entrusted with more than the odd cameo. Suarez is the kind of player Unai Emery already has plenty of in his attack.

Aubameyang is an almost entirely off the ball player, he doesn’t want to involve himself in the build-up, which is fine for Emery’s side because they have plenty of players that can take care of that for him. Yet a striker’s movement can only achieve so much in isolation. A late run into the area creates that little frisson of panic that causes the moment’s hesitation a player like Auba can thrive on.

In short, the strikers are left to fend for themselves in the final third, save for the galloping intervention of the full-backs. And it’s not just off the ball running that Arsenal lack, there is a general lack of runners and riders with the ball. The skillsets of Cazorla, Wilshere, Rosicky and Oxlade Chamberlain’s have not really been replaced.

Only Iwobi looks to commit defenders via the noble art of dribbling. In modern football, dribbling is one of the most valuable attributes an attack can have. I would argue in these days of high pressing and painstakingly choreographed teams, an unstructured, chaotic act like dribbling has never been more important.

This is especially noticeable in away matches, where opponents tend to favour a more high-octane approach. Arsenal struggle to parse any sort of wrinkle in the pattern of the game, largely because they have so few players that thrive in the chaos of a motivated home team playing to a partisan crowd.

Earlier in the season, the likes of West Ham, Watford, Everton and even Cardiff outshot Arsenal at home and the Gunners enjoyed a degree of serendipity in winning each of those matches. Their home record has cowed opponents into their shell and for most of the season; they have subserviently sat deep and waited for Arsenal’s collection of ball shufflers to pick them off.

Eventually, opposing managers are going to realise that treating the Emirates like their home stadium and trying to disrupt Arsenal is a far more viable tactic. Taking Arsenal on in a knife fight is not the suicidal leap of faith it once was. As a point of urgency, Emery needs to acquire a wide forward and probably a midfield player that can break lines with off the ball movement and with the ball at their feet.

Arsenal’s strikers are of such a quality that this issue has been concealed well enough this season. Lacazette and Aubameyang are not an especially symbiotic pairing and they are not well supported in the penalty area. But both have been good enough to eke out their own opportunities and Aubameyang’s ability to find space in the penalty area is akin to a super power.

Ramsey’s recent goal against Napoli is a neat illustration of what Arsenal have missed in his absence. Whisper it quietly, but Alexis Sanchez’s brand of bombastic trial and error attacking in the final third has been missed away from home. I was never convinced that his individuality was holding back the collective because I didn’t ever think there was a cohesive orchestra waiting to break out of his shadow.

Emery’s maiden season has been a year-long battle with balance. Tactically, Arsenal are a duvet that is a little too short and Emery has battled between hiding his second rate defence and properly supporting his overworked strikers. Ramsey, or a player like him, in midfield gives the team a little more coverage. At the moment, Arsenal’s strikers look cold and alone.

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