A Game of 3 Headlines
POSITIVES, NEEDS and HOPES
I love to write these post match thoughts. I find it cathartic. It’s my pub in a largely pub-less country. I’ll tell you what I love the most about the posts. It’s choosing the headlines and then the opening thoughts.
I drove home yesterday after watching the game pondering the headline. For some reason the rest starts flowing after I choose the opening thought. I had 3 headlines that all seemed so relevant with one no more relevant than the others. Here is the first….
Least Mistakes Wins
I’m aware that football has moved in this direction regardless of what happened at Old Trafford. Pressing, nicking the ball, transitions and numeric overloads are king, and I get it. Last nights game however was, especially in the first half, a litany of unforced errors. It reminded me of an end of season relegation deciding match rather than the mid season affair that it was. A game where nervousness is prevalent. It was also a game played with oceans of space available against the least compact team we have played this season.
In the first half our lack of space recognition by Mr Odegaard didn’t help. The out ball wasn’t long to Auba and it’s proving that it should almost never be but we will get onto that later. It was the ‘hole in the massive donut’ football that we played, not recognizing that the donut needed to have jam in the middle and Mr Odegaard needed to be the delicious strawberry filling. HE was the out ball but he was either loafing, tardy or refusing to leave zone 5 in our Juego de Posicion vertical lane where he was hanging out with Martinelli. Under instruction I’m sure, but at the wrong times. Maybe the analogy would be more accurate if it were an Olympic swimming pool with one family of 25 sized pool ring in the middle for Mr Odegaard to occupy. He would’ve had more fun than the family of 25.
As it was both teams bumbled their way through the game capitalizing on each others mistakes and the short story is that they were given more presents than we were. It all started when Ben White ‘Mustafied’ in the first few minutes, sliding unnecessarily as Rashford skipped past him. So unlike him and I think it made others nervous. Football is like that. When you see a ‘solid’ player try an action that is so out of character and fail, it affects your anxiety levels.
Recognize your Enemy
Man Utd weren’t particularly good. In fact they looked more nervous than we did. They have a reason though. They are out of form, destabilized and unbalanced. We are in a good place. Sometimes I feel we play the club rather than the team. The club is arguably the biggest in the world. The current team would likely not make the top 25 clubs in the world. An out of form Utd, no better than us on paper or the field, one goal down should have been ruthlessly finished off after ESR scored. Again, game recognition. You don’t drop off, you push on. You’ve just been given the adrenaline injection and they can’t get the jab. You don’t politely let them take your place in the queue.
It wasn’t simply the backline stepping 10 yards deeper it was the attacking players not recognizing glory. I spotted it many times but the one that stood out was Martinelli one on one with Telles, alone on the wing as if on a date yet he waited like Pepe does for help and the third wheel was Telles’ friend not Martinelli’s. He had the beating of Telles and had proven it. What’s the worst that could happen? Push it past him and see! I’m getting worked up again.
I get the impression that our senior players not leading isn’t just our captain. I get the impression that Partey is an introvert. Almost afraid to rally the troops. A potentially elite player who has played years of elite level football but doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that he has.
Finally, there is a pattern emerging. We go up, we back off, we concede, we wonder why we backed off when we were oozing confidence in our attacking not our defending. I read that Arteta is trying to get them to push on from the sidelines. So, I suppose we surmise that he isn’t asking them to sit back. It is however his job to make it abundantly clear that we don’t. As Tim Stillman rightly pointed out after the game….
“I’ve watched enough of this team under Arteta to recognise a disconnect between what he says and what his team does. His teams routinely stop playing in advantageous positions. I think it’s that simple now.”
Then this thought from @PoznanInMyPants…..
“My pet theory: He says the right thing to them. But he does not say it with enough conviction. Maybe because he himself is not convinced enough. When you say it without conveying 100% commitment, people back slide.
Tim and Paul are on to something, I think.
Can’t get in, because we can’t get out
As with most games of football we fuss and discuss the details yet it often comes down to how effective you were at kicking the ball in the goal. So, you could chuck out all my ranting and say that Ronaldo beat Auba and that is that. Because we love the details we can see that even though finishing is the ultimate truth, there is more to football than the simplicity of my first statement. Ronaldo doesn’t seem to be offering much else other than goals, much like Auba. The difference is that Utd are playing to his strengths or more to the point, he does what he wants. Either way, we have a glaring situation.
Auba is a 50% player.
He offers you threat in pressing, goals and movement off the ball in transition. What he doesn’t offer is movement in the box as he is predictably at the back post, aggression and ability to hold the ball up.
I have always thought that we have never played to his strengths. We will sometimes get a glimpse of his best when in broken play or when we get desperate, we resort to direct and effective counter attacks. Makes me sad thinking and stating this but it’s true. We aren’t one player from glory but the one problem is a common denominator affecting other issues. Our defence doesn’t push up high enough when the ball is cleared because they know that they don’t have time to get up as Auba can’t hold it up, so it’s coming right back in their faces. The midfielders don’t run off him often as they feel fairly sure he won’t win it. Nobody runs off his attempts to win headers as it’s not really worth it. There have been many games this season where we can’t get out. Too many. We could be getting IN so much more, but we can’t get OUT.
- After it went 3-2, did you notice who decided to try to make the difference? It wasn’t a senior player. It was a Brazilian chap who has hardly played. Again, a youngster leading the way. It was also noticeable and encouraging that we made three subs and Martinelli stayed on.
- What is a coach’s dream? If a coach had the genie lamp I’d say that ‘consistency’ would be one of his first thoughts. Players that you know will give you 7/10 weekly, at the least. When a coach picks a team he wants to feel like he can trust each player for 7/10 and hopes for 8 and 9. Few players attain this as it’s hard and takes much mental focus. Tomiyasu seems to be one of the few. In his first season in a country vastly different from his homeland, he has produced 7/10 every game at the least. Multiple 8’s and 9’s too. You might remember that Utd nearly got a 4th in the last few minutes. Tomi ran 90 yards at full pelt to slide and deny Fernandes. This embodies his 90 minute focus and desire.
- Is this a positive? I got the impression that Laca and Eddie came on to show the owners that we need a new striker in January, not wait until the summer. If I’m right and if Arteta’s negative/positive tactic works then it will likely change our season as surely we can’t go an entire season without a way to get out. I do find it odd/interesting how Eddie keeps rejecting contracts yet he is routinely on the bench ahead of an in form Balogun who wants to stay.
- I am enjoying the feeling that we could score from set plays. I spent at least the last 10 years going to the loo when we got a corner. As Gordon Strachan once told a news reporter, ” I wish the ref would’ve booked Claus Lundekvarm (his CB). He keeps going up for corners and he never wins the ball. The ref should book him for time wasting.” Our delivery is top level now and we had 2 cleared off the line. The downside is that if your team is most threatening at set plays then you will never be a top team.
- What a confusing team Arsenal are. Last season we weren’t very good and yet we had a good record against the better teams. This season we have a significantly better team yet we keep letting in bucketloads and losing to the top teams.
- Alongside our bizarre habit of scoring and then acting like an overly shy group of deer, we have struggled all season to sell out to being in possession. I say that but the Newcastle game showed us large glimpses of total commitment to attack. Such fearlessness to commit to aggressive off the ball movement. It was as if Arteta had spent too much time talking about Utd to the players and so they lacked belief to commit. I’ve experienced this before. Rabbiting on about Johnny Fantastic and Jimmy McBrilliant and giving my players an unwarranted sense that they are about to play Unbeatable F.C. What is so weird is that we looked so fluid going forward against Newcastle and we decided to play submissively for large parts of the Utd game. We shot our rhythm in the foot.
- I believe in Smith Rowe. I struggle to believe in Smith Rowe when he is in a physical situation. He is routinely losing the ball when he has a defender behind him. He stands too vertical. Needs to bend his knees as he is getting it nicked.
- The mystery of mysteries is what is up with Thomas Partey. It’s not obvious because historically he hasn’t been inconsistent. My 10 cents is that he struggles being the senior player in midfield. He played many years with players like Koke, Niguez and Gabi. Players that were his equal or senior to him. His best games have been alongside Xhaka who is an alpha male. It will become increasingly important that the coaching staff figures out what we need to do to get the best out of an expensive and potentially elite central midfielder.
- This brings me to the issue of pyschological training. I have no real idea of how effective Arsenal’s training is in this area but there is a clear issue with dealing with pressure. I could be over thinking this as we are the youngest team in the league but conversely the issue is more with the experienced players than the inexperienced players. My personal experience is that the vast majority of mistakes/problems in elite sport are mental breakdowns yet most time is spent on the tactical side and then technical. Physical is next and mental is a distant last. I’m not sure that this should be the case, especially at Arsenal where it’s most clearly a big issue.
- VAR has improved this season. Not enough though. I was sitting next to the wife of a fellow Gooner watching the game. She wasn’t particularly interested in the game or the sport as a whole. She knew enough to know what a penalty is given for and she remarked after Maguire pulled Tomi’s arm that the decision was ‘easy.’ The majority of penalty decisions are not easy. You need replay. You more often need multiple replays. Half the time you need replays from different angles to be sure. This situation needed none of that. It was one of the easiest VAR calls I’ve seen this season. Yet another massive Maguire blunder. Either the ref told the VAR that he saw it and he needed no help. If that’s the case, the ref needs SpecSavers, a new career or the VAR booth folks need to go work in a different kind of booth. Perhaps one that sells train tickets or looks at security footage. As I said earlier, often games are over discussed and I am guilty. Often games swing on these levels of ineptitude after a week of trying to prepare to win or avoid losing based on football moments. Do we hope that it was ineptitude rather than a conscious decision to not favour Arsenal as the first goal was seen as controversial by the home fans. Neither is good.
- Nobody is talking about the greatest likelihood for a January transfer being a back up goalie. Leno will be pushing to move and he was noticeably absent from the bench yesterday. I’m looking closely at Sam Johnstone.
We were on a roll. Thrashed by Liverpool. On another smaller roll. Beaten unnecessarily by Utd. This could be our season. I suppose as long as the rest of the Top 4 challengers keep endlessly drawing games we will likely end up 25 points behind third but quite possibly very close to fourth. I think I’d sign up for that as back in July, fourth seemed closer to the horizon than a destination I could touch.
In my ‘PNH Expanded’ 15 minutes below I discuss the final third but largely focus on January incomings. Take a listen and thanks for reading!
Former Highbury regular. Moved to TN, USA in ’99. Married with 3 kids. Coached in UK and US for 27 years.
Mike McDonald Soccer Academy in Morristown TN, Olympic Development coach, Regional Premier League Champion.