So, darling, how was it for you?
2019-20 is four games old and we have seven points. Comparatively, we’re two down from the same games last season.
It isn’t a bad start but it might have been better. Should have been better, I think.
Expecting anything from the trip to Anfield proved as naïve as demanding three points from Unai Emery’s first game in charge against Manchester City. Realistically, we were only taking a point from Klopp’s team if Pepe and Aubameyang both took all their chances when the scores were level.
Even at 3 – 0 ahead, I fear we would contrive to lose that one 4 – 3.
The only genuine disappointment came with Sunday’s draw against Tottenham. They came into the game having drawn with Manchester City and having lost at home to Newcastle. Quite simply, they were there for the taking.
That is borne out by their capitulation in the second half. As well as we played then, there’s no doubt their timidity helped us. Sitting back and inviting us to attack allowed us to build up a head of steam; there were no counter-attacks to puncture our impetus.
That we took a point resulted from a compounding series of errors. Emery got the team selection and tactics wrong. We were too narrow in midfield with Granit Xhaka ill-suited to the role of central defensive midfield barrier.
I’m not going to pick him apart today. A word of advice though; deflecting attention from your own deficiencies by blaming others is a sign of weakness. It won’t win you friends in the stands or the dressing room, Granit. Think on, my friend; think on.
It’s the back four which is the first to fall under the microscope, and Bernd Leno gets drawn into this as well.
Defender, You’re A Womble
One aspect of the new season which has pleasantly surprised me is the comfort with which we’ve adapted to the new rules. Playing out from inside the penalty area hasn’t induced the same nervous panic taking short goal-kicks did last season.
At the same time, the players are more confident, I’m more blasé about it; a winning combination for me, if ever there was one.
We’ve conceded two fewer goals this season than last. It’s easy to put that down to Liverpool easing off but let’s give the players some credit; brickbats are surely following.
Keeping a clean sheet at St James’ Park is a key marker. Last season, it took the whole season to record a defensive blank. The millstone is lifted from around our necks; it won’t be a running sore.
However, was it more down to Newcastle’s neutered attack as much as our hard work? The only reason it rears in my mind is the number of individual errors is increasing.
I am struggling to recall a goal we conceded this season which hasn’t been as a direct result of an error. OK, so all goals – even the greatest come from a mistake somewhere along the line – but you get my drift.
The lapses in concentration, judgement and just plain stupidity are proving costly.
All are tough to legislate for. The coach doesn’t know when they are going to happen or who is going to make them. But they all point to vulnerability to the counter-attack. Even Kane’s penalty on Sunday stemmed from a break.
We aren’t defending well enough as a team and that puts pressure on the defence. Emery fielded his narrow midfield in the derby to help solve that issue; it didn’t work, he got the personnel wrong.
Leno’s mistake on Sunday set the tone but it was a relatively rare one in that it cost us. It compounded Sokratis’ error in the first place. Two wrongs didn’t make it right; it meant conceding a goal.
The German isn’t a dominant goalkeeper; he doesn’t take complete charge of a situation. I’m not sure that is something he can ‘learn’; it doesn’t seem a natural part of his character. And with the experience in front of him, maybe he feels it isn’t his place.
Trouble is, the penalty area is his habitat. It is his domain; he is the big cat who should stalk every millimetre of it or at the very least know where the prey is.
That is the difference between the very good club player and the world-class international. It feels Leno is just that bit shy. Better than Lloris but not as close to Alisson or Ederson as we maybe want.
Perhaps his awareness that there was a mistake ahead of him at some given point in the game is a hinderance? Maybe he has reached his plateau and like John Lukic, he will prove to be a good goalkeeper for the Arsenal?
What is most disappointing this season is the errors coming from experienced players. The ones we rely on to steady the ship are the ones making the cock-ups. I tried to think of a Dennis Norden quip there but I used up that stream long ago.
It’s no good people pointing to the full-backs as an area of weakness when Sokratis and Sideshow Bob are making more costly mistakes. The players need to take a long hard look at themselves, individually and collectively.
I do think Tierney and Bellerin will make a difference but is it enough to make the difference we need? Certainly, Rob Holding’s form before injury struck bodes well for the future. He’s got to hit the ground running although not literally; that’s how he suffered knee-knack in the first place.
But who do you partner him with in the centre? Sideshow Bob, given time on the ball, is great at distributing passes all over the pitch. Holding can learn a lot from that.
The same applies to Sokratis and his uncompromising defensive philosophy. His dark arts are something Holding needs to embrace, albeit with a touch more subtlety.
As a back three? That brings uncomfortable questions about the midfield and attacking roles. Ones I don’t think Unai wants to answer.
I can’t see us using a three, to be honest, on a regular basis. Our squad isn’t built for that system; the signings focus more on variants of 4-4-2 or 4-3-3.
We are improving in a few areas, year-on-year. The back line holds its shape better than before; not hard when one of the centre-backs isn’t playing twenty yards deeper than anyone else.
But there is room for a lot of improvement. Maybe the younger heads who are set to return to the first team or make their bow are the answer.
We have a good defence screaming to break free from whatever shackles it is bound by. The question is whether Unai can find that combination and offer it the protection it needs to thrive.