Arsenal’s future

Of course, since I am no longer an Arsenal supporter, I look upon the sufferings of the club and its supporters with what Samuel Johnson called “frigid tranquility” — really, I do, I am totally tranquil and frigid when I contemplate the Gunners’ performances — like, there’s no way I would’ve leaped up out of my seat and punched the air when Wilshere made that pass to Alexis — but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have thoughts about the club.

Everyone knows that the second half of Wenger’s career has been far less successful than the first, though there is some disagreement about why that is. And he has become relatively less successful still at the very point when many observers think the club should be climbing back to the top of the mountain. About that, here’s my take, which combines a few points that are common knowledge:

  1. When the club bosses decided to abandon Highbury in favor of a new stadium, that ushered in a lengthy period during which Wenger simply did not have the resources to sign the players he most wanted or to keep his best players (Fabregas, RVP, etc.).
  2. For a few years, his players were good enough, and Wenger coached them well enough, to keep Arsenal in the Champions League.
  3. Another factor contributing to Arsenal’s (comparative) success was the failure of other big clubs to maintain consistent excellence in the first half of the 2010s. Somebody was always slipping enough for the Gunners to claim that last or next-to-last Champions League place.
  4. But changes were in the offing, and they were pioneered by Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. The Russian plutocrat proved that it was possible to buy big success in the PL and in the process to generate a massive return on investment. This brought more foreign investment into the league, especially at Manchester City, and into other European leagues (see: PSG).
  5. Further changes were happening in other venues: an increasing awareness in many clubs of the value of analytics, structural changes that separated the role of the manager from that of the “director of football” or “technical director.”

So by the time that the plan of the Arsenal bosses was complete — the stadium paid for, funds for players liberated — the environment had changed in ways those bosses hadn’t anticipated. Wenger was still determined to run the club as an old-fashioned “gaffer” and in that capacity to spend what he thought of as generous sums of cash — but other clubs were willing to pay more. And, to make things worse, in those several years of finishing third and fourth, Arsenal had come to be seen by players and their agents as a second-tier club. So even when Wenger is willing to pay as much as another big club, that other club is typically perceived as bigger and therefore the kind of place a truly ambitious player would want to go. (That’s how the whole Mbappe saga played out.) Arsenal has become a destination for those who are willing not to win the Premier League or the Champions League.

I’m not a WENGER OUT guy, but I have to admit that none of this is going to change until Wenger has retired. And I can imagine no circumstances in which he would voluntarily leave before the end of his contract, and very few circumstances in which the bosses would force him out. Also, it would be very surprising if a new manager could put a strong mark on the club immediately.

So I think those of you who are Arsenal supporters have to anticipate a few more years, at best, of hovering in that Europa League range: finishing each year somewhere between fourth (if everything goes as well as possible) and seventh. And after that? — even the Pacey Winger cannot guess.

the inevitable

I speak here not as an Arsenal supporter, mind you, but simply as an interested observer of the Premier League. Here are the facts:

  • Several of Arsenal’s chief rivals dropped points yesterday;
  • Arsenal have an excellent chance to make up ground, since they are playing an inferior club;
  • But Arsenal never make up points when they have a chance to;
  • And Burnley is a very tough opponent to break down, especially at Turf Moor.

Therefore a draw is inevitable. The question is, what kind of draw?

The dreary 0-0?

A piece of clownshoes defending by Arsenal leading to an early Burnley goal, followed by 80 minutes of the Gunners pounding on the goal’s door, which finally yields a Giroud header in the 89th minute?

A brilliant early goal for the visitors, total dominance throughout the match leading to no further goals, and a late equalizer by Burnley on a poorly-defended set piece?

I’m gonna go with number 2.

One down, so, so many to go

“Well, that escalated quickly,” said Barney Ronay Indeed it did. As a devoted Fulham supporter, I attempted to look upon Arsenal v. Leicester with frigid tranquility, but come on, who could watch that match with anything approaching tranquility? What an electric encounter.

Post-match commentary has focused on the Gunners’ shocking defensive shortcomings, but, while I have long been sick and tired of the club’s tendency to make excuses for itself, I do have to agree that Wenger was in a tough place with his first three center backs unavailable — and then, when he took Holding off, he finished with two left backs (Kolasinac and Monreal) at center back, a right back (Bellerin) at left back, and an attacking midfielder (Ox) at right back. Under those circumstances, that the team shipped only three goals seems little less than a miracle — especially since in the first half Cech was mentally scrambled.

On the other side, the Gunners demonstrated enough individual and collective skill than four was a low result — quite a low result. They easily could have put up six or seven. When you consider that Lacazette had never before played a serious match with the club, and nevertheless managed a goal and a key pass and a general aura of threat; and that Welbeck was involved in several key combinations and scored a goal; and that Xhaka, despite some distressingly sloppy passing, ended up with two assists; and that Özil had a day of inaccurate passes and poor touches the likes of which I have rarely seen from him; … well, I think you can see why Ronay commented that “up front the combined craft of Lacazette, Olivier Giroud, Özil, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott kept on suggesting … a team half-glimpsed, flickering just behind the fuzziness of late-Wenger Arsenal.” It may not happen; it probably won’t happen; but hope is flirting with me, and I find myself susceptible to her flirting. That minx.

So: in the last eight matches that mattered, Arsenal have six Premier League wins, an FA Cup, and a Community Shield win. Even if you think that only seven of those matter, it’s a pretty good run.

Fulham Football Club

My goal for the English soccer season: to leave behind the manifold miseries of supporting Arsenal and become a Fulham supporter. Yes, I know, there are plenty of miseries involved with supporting Fulham — fandom always brings suffering. But I’m ready for some different miseries, some other forms of suffering.

Why Fulham? I’ve always liked them, in part because of their history of American players: Bocanegra, McBride, Dempsey, and several others. They’re a London side — I am spiritually a Londoner — but not one with a huge international profile; they have the most adorable ground in all of English football, probably. (One that I might even be able to afford to visit one day.)

And right now they’re not in direct competition with Arsenal, which might make the transition easier.

I like the idea of supporting a team with more modest expectations. Cutting myself free from Arsenal’s constant almosts — for a while it was almost a title, now it’s almost the Champions League — might help me avoid inhabiting T. S. Eliot’s image of old age as “the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly, and the laceration / Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.”

It is possible that I am taking this too seriously.

In any case, as I’ve written before, it’s hard simply to choose in these matters. I did not decide to be an Arsenal supporter — I’m not even sure why I’m an Arsenal supporter — I am not happy to be associated with some Arsenal supporters, who shall remain nameless, though others are pretty darn cool. When I first seriously started following English football I decided I would support Aston Villa, because I too am from a city called Birmingham, and while I still keep track of Villa and wish them well, no strong attachment ever formed. I somehow drifted Highburywards.

But now I hope to change that. Arsenal begin the Premier League season this afternoon against Leicester. I shall look upon this event (certain to produce a loss, Arsenal always lose their first match of the season, what the hell is Wenger doing) with what Dr. Johnson called “frigid tranquility.” Frigid tranquility — that’s it. That’s what I’m after.

forecasts, fears, hopes

Here’s a good tactical preview of the forthcoming Arsenal season. I am made a bit nervous about this passage:

Outside of the top contributors there are myriad other uncertain situations spread throughout the squad. Petr Čech is 35, with his closest possible successor Wojciech Szczęsny having just been sold to Juventus after spending two seasons out of sight and out of mind on loan at Roma. Per Mertesacker is retiring at the end of the season and his best partner Laurent Koscielny is 31. Jack Wilshere is clearly not long for this club. Calum Chambers, despite being only 22, doesn’t seem to be in Wenger’s plans in any serious way.

These examples could go on but you get the point: there’s a lot of deferred outcomes and holes that will soon need filling in the current squad. Özil and Sánchez could both very well leave at the end of the season, meaning the club would somehow need to recruit two elite players out of nowhere if they desire to retain their current level. Convincing them to stay, if that’s even a possibility, also seems pretty unappetising. Do you really want to be giving pricey long-term contracts to two 29-year-olds? Especially considering Sánchez has played international football every summer dating back to 2014 and is notable for the fact that he is always running? These problems would be lessened if there were comparable talents waiting in the wings to inherit the responsibilities but there just aren’t many. Finding such talents is obviously difficult yet Arsenal have avoided making preparations for too long and will likely suffer for it.

Some thoughts:

  • Here at the end of the preseason I’m feeling better about central defense. I think Koscielny has a few more good years, and I see both Mustafi and Holding as solid, possibly better than solid, defenders. Also, Kolasinac looks like he can play on the left side of a back three as well as at wingback.
  • I’m now inclined to believe that Xhaka will be better this year, and continue to be impressed by Elneny’s intelligence and workrate; I’m also not ruling out improvement by Coquelin. So I’m less worried about defensive midfield also.
  • After several months of breaking into a cold sweat every time I thought about the possibility to Alexis leaving, I am now, half the time anyway, wishing for him to be sold right now. I fear that he’s the sort of player who could suffer a dramatic drop-off in performance if injuries and fatigue catch up with him (Özil, by contrast, has the kind of game that could flourish into his mid-thirties.) I am also concerned that his evident disgruntlement will affect morale. If you can squeeze a healthy fee out of a big club for Alexis, even if that big club is a rival like Man City, I say: go for it.
  • But keep Ox and play him every game you can. Kolasinac steaming up the left side and Ox flying up the right can terrify defenses.
  • And give some of the kids a chance. For heaven’s sake. Let’s see what Nelson and Maitland-Niles can do. I think they can do a lot.

predicting Arsenal’s season

The Guardian football writers have Arsenal coming in sixth this year. I would love to disagree but am not sure that I can. When you consider that Arsenal have

  • good but not great goalkeeping;
  • uncertainty along the back line (at least after Koscielny, whom I expect to be excellent again);
  • uncertainty about whether Xhaka in defensive midfield will improve on his horrific first season, and whether Coquelin will return to the form he showed season before last;
  • uncertainty in central and attacking midfield;
  • profound uncertainty in attack given Alexis’s manifest unhappiness, despite the welcome addition of Lacazette;

— then it’s hard, for me anyway, to get too excited. Especially since both Manchester clubs should be significantly better, as should the Liverpool clubs: I very well might put a fiver or so on Liverpool winning the league this year, despite their defensive eccentricities, and Everton with their recent signings now look to be a stronger side overall than the Gunners. I expect Spurs to come back to the pack a bit this year, but they were considerably better than Arsenal last year and I don’t expect that gap to close significantly this year. So, yeah: sixth seems likely. Maybe fifth.

What would it take for Arsenal to get a place in the Champions League?

  • A significantly improved defense, probably through a full season of playing a back three (with Rob Holding emerging as a consistent defensive force) with a stable defensive midfield (probably featuring Xhaka and Ramsey);
  • some unexpected creativity in midfield, maybe from one or two of the heralded youngsters;
  • keeping Alexis and Ox, and keeping them happy;
  • Alexis and Lacazette finding that they can work together in a front-line partnership;
  • avoinding the emotional drama that afflicted the side so much of last season;
  • no major injuries.

Plus at least two of the following:

  • Pep’s purism overcoming his pragmatism, and his side finding themselves unable to play just exactly as he wants them to play;
  • Mourinho finding a way to thwart and frustrate the creativity of his bounty of dynamic attacking players;
  • Liverpool continuing to be unable to defend, especially from set pieces;
  • Everton not succeeding in replacing Lukaku’s scoring;
  • Spurs coming way back to the pack, most likely through injury (they’re not the deepest squad among the top six).

So: it could happen. Arsenal could get back to the CL. But I’m probably not going to bet on it.

A worried sort of post about Arsenal’s midfield

It wasn’t that long ago that Arsenal had an embarrassment of riches in central midfield, with Cesc Fabregas as the heartbeat of the team, scoring frequent goals to complement his many, many assists, a superb (when healthy) second creator in Tomáš Rosický, and exciting young world-beaters-to-be in Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey.

Fast-forward a few years and Fabregas and Rosický are long gone; Wilshere has been unable to stay healthy and in any case seems to have plateaued or even declined in both technique and imagination; Ramsey has never been trusted by Wenger to direct the team; and the closest thing to a Fabregas replacement the club has had, Santi Cazorla, has been injured for a long time and, a few months from his 33rd birthday, may be effectively finished. (I hate to say that; Santi is one of my favorite players ever, and I devoutly hope Arsenal can get another year or two from him.)

This is not to say that Arsenal has no creativity in midfield, at least in advanced midfield: Mesut Özil is one of the most creative players in the world. And Özil is a far more active player than Arsenal supporters and detractors give him credit for: for instance, in a given match he’s likely to run a good bit more than Alexis does. But he doesn’t do a lot of that running with the ball at his feet. The Özil style is to find an open space on the pitch, receive the ball — sometimes in remarkable ways — and then make something happen. He will do this several times of game, and thus is one of the best chance-creators in the Premier League, and far more important to Arsenal’s attack than most people realize.

But though he wears the no. 10 shirt, he’s anything but a metronome, and in Santi’s absence Arsenal is desperately short of people who can secure the ball in the middle of the pitch and get it to attackers in good positions to threaten defenders. Too much of Arsenal’s attack comes from the wings, and while it’s good to stretch defenses horizontally — something many sides, even good sides, don’t consistently manage — there are distinct advantages that arise when you can begin attacks from a central location, chief among them the possibility of passing left, right, or straight ahead (and to do so on the ground or in the air).

Obviously Lacazette, as a striker, won’t help with this, and neither will the strongly-rumored target Thomas Lemar (a pacey winger indeed). So who could fulfill this role for the Gunners — assuming that the squad remains more-or-less as it is now? (Which of course may not happen.)

Aaron Ramsey. Wenger’s preference is clearly to play Ramsey either as a holding midfielder, partnered with Xhaka or Coquelin, or as a right-side attacker. But Ramsey clearly wants to play in the middle as a more-or-less classic no. 10, which is what he does for Wales (and very well too). In part because Arsenal has other players who can flourish on the right side of midfield, I am inclined to think that Wenger should give Ramsey a good chance at the job. But I don’t think he will.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. I don’t think Ox has the close control needed to play this role — he’s better as a winger or quasi-winger with freedom to cut inside. His strength and pace make him a dangerous player, but I can’t imagine Wenger turning over the keys to him.

Jack Wilshere. Is it possible that Jack-the-Lad could return to prominence for the Gunners? It’s possible, I guess … barely. If he could recover the buccaneering spirit that once made him such a threat to defenses — five years ago there were few PL players who could run right at a defense the way that Wilshere could — I’d like to give him another chance. But of course it’s far more likely that he will be sold, or even loaned out again.

The kids. Chris Willock could perhaps have grown into such a role, but he’s off to Benfica. Jeff Reine-Adélaïde may well become a terrific player, but probably in a Pogbaesque way: an attacking midfielder, to be sure, but not a calm, assured, presence at the heart of the pitch — rather, something more like a berserker. Ainsley Maitland-Niles perfers to play central midfield and has done so, but is probably destined to be a fullback or wingback. Which leaves Alex Iwobi, whom Wenger says is a central midfielder rather than a winger — but keeps playing him as a winger. Will this be the year that he gets a chance to run the team? I doubt it. But it would be interesting to see what he could do.

Nobody. This is, I think, the most likely option: no one at all between the holding midfielders and the attackers, which will require the holding midfielders to advance the ball fairly often, and attackers to drop deep from time to time to receive the ball and then move it forward themselves. This outcome is especially likely if Arsenal habitually set up in a 3-4-3, since two of the 4 will be wingbacks, and the other two are likely to be given holding roles. And if Arsenal play a diamond in midfield, with Xhaka or Coquelin in front of the centerbacks, then we’re back to the whole question of this post: who plays at the front of that diamond? It’s a real puzzle.

Though the 3-4-3 really helped Arsenal stabilize and consolidate its defense near the end of last season, I don’t think it’s ideal as an attacking formation in the absence of a diamond-shaped midfield with a genuine no. 10. I fear the formation will mean a great many long balls, either from deep midfield or from the wing, and not many of the intricate passing combinations that Arsenal used to be known for. (And a lot of hope placed in those several moments per match of genius from Özil.) I also expect that smart defenses will put a lot of pressure on Xhaka and Coquelin, who have shown themselves susceptible to making very bad decisions when hurried (though when he has time on the ball Xhaka can be one of the best long passers around). But this is what happens when your manager only trusts versatile players on the wings, and doesn’t trust the true central midfielders at all.

In my judgment, the lack of creativity in midfield has been the chief reason why Arsenal have scored fewer goals since Fabregas left the team than one might reasonably expect. And I think that shortcoming will be a big impediment to the team’s success in the coming season, unless someone steps up (is allowed by the gaffer to step up) in a way I don’t currently expect.