The first day. It’s supposed to one where the butterflies in your stomach are second only to the adrenaline-fuelled excitement coursing through your veins. But this isn’t a first day like that. No, this is a first day like a toddler slamming themselves down on a concrete floor, only to find that their parents have not put on a fresh nappy. The reality hits them cold, hard and squarely on the Arsenal. This is the first day of the international break and it’s going to be a long one.
Sunday’s result doesn’t help matters, it means a fortnight of looking at the table and seeing the top disappearing over the horizon. The first weekend in October and the gap is one short of double figures. If the FA Cup was a supposed to be stepping stone to success, we’ve lost our footing and been left sprawled face down in the riverbed.
Of course the gap to the top will close as the vagaries of the season unwind. Chelsea will drop points as Arsenal pick the up and vice versa. At some point it might not even be Chelsea on the highest perch, who knows. In any case, first isn’t something to be worried about at this stage of the season; we found that out last time around.
The top four is but two points away. A misery of mediocrity sits between us and the best trophy in football. We will kid ourselves that Arsenal’s fixture list has been tougher than the likes of West Ham, United and Tottenham. It’s all relative of course; Fat Sam would probably argue that playing United and Liverpool, Tottenham and Southampton for them is as difficult as ours. You could argue that all you want.
The truth is Arsenal’s form is all that matters. Two wins, four draws and a defeat is inconsistent and if those around and ahead of us are dismissed as mediocrity, how do you describe Arsenal’s early season form. By now, any genuine progression should have shown itself. Perhaps the overall competitiveness was an indication of that although the concern is that no shots on target were mustered.
“I don’t understand why anyone is worried about that statistic” was a mantra in common use as the match was cleaved apart. I do. With a defence that is always likely to concede, you need to score to take points. I genuinely don’t understand the mentality that says it was a good game, we didn’t score but that’s not a worry. With his new-fangled video tools and analysts, you can bet Arsenal are picking up on that statistic and wondering how it arose, looking for solutions. If not, they bloody well ought to be.
It is, Jack Wilshere noted that “[Arsenal] played well, but at this level, against the top three in this league, when you are on top you need to make the opportunities count and if you don’t, then you are going to get punished.”
Not quite as meaningless a statistic as is being claimed.
Facing massed ranks of defences, well-drilled and sure of their purpose is nothing new in any fixture. Against weaker teams, Arsenal score more often than not. Better teams? You have to take your chances when they come. It changes the course of the game, a goal on Sunday before an hour had passed would have forced Chelsea to be more open rather than sitting back waiting for the opportunity to score a second. A point would have been a good result; losing by two goals instead of six is not nor is it the basis for some vindication of the squad.
The previous week, six shots out of twenty-two were on target. Better but still massively profligate. Not every shot is going to be accurate but somewhere closer to half has to be the target; at the moment, we’re missing that as well. Encouragingly, more shots seem to be coming in from midfielders or the wider attackers. Accuracy is the issue but they have to shoot in the first place.
Whilst the reaction is very much based on events at Stamford Bridge, it has its roots in the season thus far. Assuming the Community Shield is deemed competitive – and most clubs list it as an honour so it is. Mind you, some clubs list the Norwich Hospital Cup as an honour so that’s hardly a sound basis for an argument. Anyway, on that basis, Arsenal have played thirteen, won six, drawn four, lost three; consistently inconsistent. Last year, it was won eleven with a draw and defeat apiece. Different year, different squad, different fixtures; that’s meaningless at this point. Come the end of the season, look back to measure progress, regression or most likely stagnation; it’s hard to see any movement from fourth best in the country at any point in the future.
It becomes a matter of footballing philosophies when you talk of such matters. There’s no point in arguing that Arsenal are anything but fourth best in the playground. We aren’t and you can argue we might have done better or worse with a different manager or Arsène taking a more radical approach to the transfer market. The latter is fascinating because it always ends with something along the lines of “we can’t compete with the oil money“. As if we were anyway. The names of Hazard and Mata flow off the tongue, Cahill too. The latter pair fall when you remember Arsenal were in pole position and took their off the ball / tried to get the defender of the very cheap from Bolton. At the end of the day, if you can’t fight the big clubs financially, you move to a different market and Arsenal have done that before, they will do it in the future.
The nail was hit squarely on the head yesterday with the observation that this level, Arsenal exists to win trophies. It’s a professional sport and the club occupies the loftiest heights. Expectations of silverware, more accurately challenging for silverware, come with that territory. The game has changed since football in the last century. Broadcast and media coverage have, at this level, made it all about winning. Further down, Premier League survival rules the roost and so on. Expectations change and if Arsenal fall by the wayside now or when Arsène leaves, reclaiming a place in the top four will be the aim. Winning is everything whichever way you look at it.
You will lose games along the way but treating defeat as a victory is taking Rudyard Kipling a step too far. Enjoy every victory but never be afraid to confront the lessons of not doing so. When you see them learned, you get the sense of progress being made.