Saturday 11 March 2023

Going for broke with caution

 They were all there on the Sporting pitch on Thursday night, Saliba, Saka, Martinelli, Zinchenko, Xhaka, Partey, with a tough game at an overachieving 7th placed Fulham coming up on Sunday afternoon. 2-2 it ended in Portugal, which suggests the first part of the gamble paid off…

In keeping with modern football, it’s all about gambling, and the different variations of gambling: you can rest the whole team, keeping them fresh for the London derby, but what if the likely midweek defeat re-introduces a losing habit? Please gamble responsibly.

Sam Matterface made an acute point (yes) during the Manchester City FA Cup 4th Round tie on ITV in January, referencing the six changes Mikel Arteta had made for that game and recalling Arsenal’s 4-0 defeat at Manchester United in the 5th Round in 2007-08 when Arsenal were also top of the Prem and juggling three competitions. Arsene Wenger’s heavily diluted team allowed Darren Fletcher to score twice and give the impression that Nani was a future superstar in a lifeless 4-0 defeat to their stand-out title rivals. Although this averted another game in the schedule, it did so at the cost of momentum. What followed was a ruinous run of form where Arsenal failed to win any of the next five league games, beginning with Birmingham City away, where a 2-1 lead was snatched away by a controversial last minute penalty. On a day when top scorer Eduardo had his shin broken after four minutes and wasn't to play again for 15 months, captain William Gallas sat on the St Andrews turf after the final whistle in a sulk, having already lashed out at an advertising hoarding. 

It’s impossible to tell how much of the collapse in form was down to luck or a negative mindset lingering from the Manchester United thrashing; had the penalty not been given to Birmingham City, confidence may have been restored, but then Gael Clichy perhaps could have exercised greater awareness to avoid the collision that led to it.

As it was, home draws with Aston Villa and relegation-bound Middlesbrough, sandwiched between a goalless draw at Wigan where Wenger railed at the state of the pitch, saw United take over at the top. After 2-1 away defeats to Chelsea and United, the title challenge was effectively over. Perhaps most gallingly, Arsenal still finished only four points behind eventual champions, United.

On the Monday before the ill-fated Cup trip to Old Trafford, Arsenal had beaten Blackburn Rovers 2-0 at home, and next day at work a Manchester United fan congratulated me on winning the league. It was only February, but Arsenal were five points clear of United with 12 games to go.

Fast forward 15 years and Arsenal are five points clear at the top of the table with 12 games to go. The same Manchester United fan congratulated me on winning the league some weeks ago. Arsenal don’t have an FA Cup encounter with their closest challengers to worry about, because that has already happened at the Etihad, and despite the again diluted team, it was a good enough one to put up a good fight against Haaland, De Bruyne et al, particularly in the first half, and the narrow 1-0 defeat thanks to City’s only effort on target even hinted that it was Arsenal who could take the psychological advantage.

Yet, that first domestic defeat since November (when Brighton & Hove Albion won in the League Cup) was followed by another at Everton the next Saturday, opponents who hadn't recorded a win in their previous 10 games, albeit buoyed by the new manager factor, in Sean Dyche. Then the following week, at home, Arsenal saw Brentford miss guilt-edged chances before equalising Leandro Trossard’s second half opener in injury time. In terms of the goal itself, Brentford’s fortune was greater than Birmingham City’s in 2007-08, owing to VAR official Lee Mason forgetting to draw the lines that would have flagged up two instances of offside, a farce that led to Howard Webb - himself a glaring error-maker of Emirates past, having somehow not given Liverpool a penalty in the FA Cup 5th Round in 2013-14 when Alex Oxlade Chamberlain had kicked Luis Suarez over in the box - apologising to Arsenal in his role of Referees chief. 

The malaise continued the following Wednesday when City came to the Emirates and won 3-1, and when the following Saturday Arsenal went 1-0 and then 2-1 down at Unai Emery’s Aston Villa, the blow-up that everyone had been waiting for seemed all but certified. But Zinchenko’s equaliser was followed by Arsenal’s turn to benefit from a last-minute strike, engineered by Jorginho and steered expertly in by Emiliano Martinez, who then compounded his afternoon by going up for a last-ditch corner that resulted in Gabriel Martinelli tapping in to an empty net for 4-2.

Arsenal showed in the next game at Leicester that a recovery was in progress with an absurdly comfortable 1-0 win, before Dyche’s Everton were beaten in style 4-0 at home. Three days later, home to Bournemouth would surely be as easy. Going a goal down in the first move of the game didn’t necessarily blunt that point of view, although going a second down after an hour due to poor defending at a corner wasn’t ideal. 33 minutes later though, sub Reiss Nelson hammered in a 97th minute winner, and with City having only drawn at Forest on the same afternoon as Arsenal had won at Villa, the five-point gap was back. 

So, onto the Sporting game as the Europa League returned. Contrary to what I may have said at the start of this, they weren’t all there; Ramsdale didn’t play at all, nor Odegaard, nor Gabriel, and Partey came on in the second half. It’s a delicate balancing act between rotation and morale; physical and mental. 

Arteta faces a duel-challenge that Emery, his predecessor, couldn’t manage in his first season succeeding Arsene Wenger in 19-20. Emery didn’t prioritise either route to Champions League qualification, going full throttle both domestically and in Europe. He was brave but without fortune. A fifth placed finish in the league, six points behind Spurs, was followed by Europa League Final defeat to Chelsea, a solid first half giving way to an inability to handle Eden Hazard, who inspired the 4-1 win for the Blues in Baku. Some Arsenal fans dubbed Emery ‘Bruce Rioja’, perhaps unfairly, if hilariously. Rioch’s first season after replacing a hugely successful manager in George Graham also ended in 5th, but conversely was heralded, enabling as it did Arsenal’s entry into the UEFA Cup, the forerunner to the Europa League (look it up if you don’t believe me, kids). Nevertheless, Rioch was sacked in the summer, frustrated with the board’s reluctance to back him in the transfer market,  and going public with it. The board stated, bizarrely, that his lack of European experience was the reason for his subsequent dismissal, an accusation that couldn’t be levelled at Emery, a triple Europa League winner with Sevilla, but for the Spaniard, the defeat to Chelsea was the proverbial writing on the wall. By November of the following season, he was too, sacked. 

The pattern of Emery’s downfall in the top four-Europa assault seems obvious, with a damaging home defeat to Crystal Palace and a draw with Brighton, also at home, both coming on the Sundays after Europa away wins at Napoli in the quarter final second leg and at Valencia in the semi-final second leg. 

Emery, as with Rioch, had issues convincing the board of his transfer targets during a complicated recruitment strategy that first saw elite scout Sven Mislintat heading this area, before Emery appeared to usurp him, leaving the highly regarded former Borussia Dortmund man without a role to play and leaving the club. Emery was believed to have pushed through the ill-fated loan signing of Denis Suares from Barcelona, which may have been on the board’s mind when denying him the prospect of Wilfred Zaha in favour of Pepe. The disastrous £72 million signing doesn’t necessarily mean Zaha would have worked out (would his pressing/defensive application be tolerated under Arteta, or rather would he have been willing to conform?) but it was clear that Emery had lost the board.

As seems often to be the case, one man’s disgruntlement and eventual firing wasn't the cut-and-dried solution to the club’s problems. With Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis leaving almost as soon as Emery arrived (not hanging around to see how his managerial overhaul panned out, in a very Farage type way) , Mislintat’s departure, followed by Emery’s, was also followed by that of Raul Sanllehi, the Director of Football. Sanllehi’s exit was as much as a relief as Emery’s, particularly as it spelt the end of a deeply troubling transfer policy that appeared to be based on notorious agent Kia Joorabchien’s client list of over 30’s footballers. The Edu-Arteta combo, with Arteta becoming club ‘Manager’ rather than ‘Head Coach’ has eradicated this toxic approach. 

Rioch’s problem was clearer cut (much to the relief of writer and reader of this blog.) His very arrival at Highbury was due to George Graham’s sacking for receiving kickbacks/bungs from an agent, a situation that led to the Arsenal board, led by David Dein, taking charge of transfers. Rioch, as with Emery under the initial Mislintat-led policy, would have had a say, but with no power beyond that. The summer signings of Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt would have been met with no objection by the new manager or board, deals that would have likely begun prior to Rioch’s arrival and ultimately secured the UEFA Cup spot with both players scoring in a late 2-1 win over Rioch’s former club Bolton Wanderers on the final day at Highbury. It was just that everyone else Rioch wanted (Ince and Kanchelskis believed to have been two of them) brought out the cliched tradesperson’s wincing noise of concern from the board. 

Wenger’s 07-08 team didn’t quite have it in them to pursue the loftier fronts of Premier League title and Champions League Final aspirations. The outstanding bright spot in the run-in for Wenger’s team was the 2-0 win at AC Milan that brought them a quarter final tie with Liverpool, but bad luck and carelessness cost them again when facing Rafa Benitez’s side. In the 0-0 first leg at home, Alexander Hleb was denied the most obvious penalty never given, while at Anfield, seconds after Emmanuel Adebayor had finished off Theo Walcott’s mesmeric run to make it 2-2 and put Arsenal ahead on away goals, Kolo Toure collided with Ryan Babel to concede a penalty, nothing like as blatant as the one Hleb didn’t get at The Emirates. Steven Gerrard scored the pen, and on the breakaway Babel officially closed Arsenal’s season. Finishing fourth and qualifying for the CL again didn’t count as success then, especially if achieved by Arsenal, in which case there was a weird type of ridicule somehow. 

Next season, perhaps the best thing about being back in the CL will be the extended rest in the schedule, the best possibility of a Tuesday-Sunday rather than the cemented Thursday-Sunday. But for now, its Fulham tomorrow, Sporting on Thursday and Palace on Sunday…

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