Third in the Premier League. All but qualified for the knockout phase of the Europa League without a goal conceded. Into the fourth round of the League Cup. Par for the course or punching above our weight?
If you’d offered this before the start of the season, we would have taken it. So, why the rumblings of discontent?
Progress has, there’s no doubt, been painful. Indeed, the bare statistics are undermined by the tale of how we got to where we are.
Compared to last season’s corresponding fixtures – ignoring the Villa game – we’ve scored seven fewer goals whilst conceding three fewer. That’s a worrying trend, particularly when two of those three came in the Liverpool fixtures. We’re also not benefitting as much from a tighter defence as we might expect.
The three games where we conceded fewer goals failed to yield an increased points take. We won four points from those three matches – Newcastle, Liverpool and United – last season and took four this time around.
Watford are the only team to net more against us this season and it cost us. Not just in points – although that is the only objective measure, everything else is subjective – but in confidence as well.
However, not scoring as many goals isn’t proving as problematic it seems. Only the Tottenham game, comparatively speaking, cost us points; two fewer goals scored meant we drew this season as opposed to last season’s win.
The end result is that we are four points worse off than last season’s corresponding fixtures with a worse goal difference by four goals. That reinforces the notion that we’re not improving year-on-year.
Of course, nothing is so simplistic. There are many factors at play in each season, including the state of the opposition as well as ourselves.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
Underlying this, of course, is fear. Not scary movie fear but nervousness that we’re not in control of our destiny. With a relatively kind eight games at the start of the season, we’re a net four points and four goals worse off.
And we’re not playing well. Not playing well and getting results is winning ugly. Third place and winning ugly, taking advantage of others lapses, is good.
There’s a ‘BUT’ and a big one at that. What happens if they recover their form? Tottenham are unlikely to continue playing like they pour a vat full of Stella over their cornflakes every day. And top it off with a couple of pints of Special Brew just for good measure.
The biggest danger United pose is sacking Solskjaer, which everyone expects them to do. A new boss who motivates players and understands tactics can make them a top-six team.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are playing without pressure. Lampard isn’t going anywhere, despite a relatively poor start.
Every one of the traditional top four rivals has problems but so do we. If you extrapolate our form over a season, we end up around eight points worse off. Can we expect others to accommodate our foibles?
Fundamentally, we lack any discernible footballing style. We don’t play with the joie de vivre we expect from players this talented. Don’t go thinking I long for Arsene; our problems started with the final couple of seasons of the Frenchman’s reign, including poor transfer business.
But into his second season, it’s right to question why Unai Emery hasn’t found the answers. I hope he does; he wins, Arsenal wins, we win. I don’t have any issues with Emery as a person but I am far from convinced he is going to be Arsenal boss next season.
Football, once the game of the masses, priced itself into the expensive end of the entertainment market. Television rules the roost now, dictating the fixture list. It’s not inconceivable that we’ll end up with a franchise-driven Premier League ruled by men in suits who make decisions about who plays where and when players retire.
For the moment, however, I’ll stop watching Rollerball and get back to the story.
There’s a balance between winning and being entertained. No-one ever shrugged their shoulders in defeat, consoling themselves with “Oh well, at least we played good football”.
But nobody is happy for long with winning ugly, especially if it is achieved with skittish performances. Results matter but performances provide the long-term view. Playing well but underachieving offers hope for the future; achieving while playing poorly leaves a sense of overachievement, a feeling we are punching above our weight.
Some will argue this isn’t as bad as the Graham-era. There was nothing wrong with the first six years of the Graham era and when we first started playing dull football in ’92-93, he delivered two cups and then European success. People are willing to forgive with success.
When you don’t even hit the basics, then there are problems. Even when you achieve only the basics, murmurings begin.
Can Emery turn it around? Can he remove the doubts which besiege his Arsenal?
I’m not convinced. Even finishing third or fourth will only get him into the third year of his contract. It seems harsh when we tied his hands behind his back this summer. Maybe it is only fair to give him year three anyway; but who said anything about football being fair?