Swansea 3 (Sinclair pen 16, Dyer 57, Graham 70) Arsenal 2 (Van Persie 5, Walcott 69)
Two weeks ago, the Arsenal fanbase was pretty content. A win over QPR had lifted us back amongst the top four at the turn of the year, a remarkable turnaround given the position we were in after seven games. At the time, the mental strength was being praised (by all and sundry, not just Wenger), and our chances of retaining a Champions League spot, the primary target after that nightmare August, seemed promising.
Just two games later, the vitriol is back. In the topsy turvy world of football support, particularly on the internet, a team has to be brilliant or terrible, a player either a world beater (or one in the making) or worthy of a public flogging. The manager is either a genius or ripe for the axe. There is no grey, no middle ground, nothing other than the dramatic. Because, after all, the dramatic sells newspapers, gets hits, and provides a satisfying point to a rant in the moments after a disappointing result.
So before getting to the rational, allow me to indulge in the black and white. We were pretty crap today, more so in the second half than the first. In the opening forty-five, I thought us adequate but unspectacular, with Swansea’s excellence being the reason for our difficulties, rather than any lack of application or quality of our own. At half time, I hoped our opponents would fail to maintain their terrific play, but they continued for the full ninety, while our level dropped. The more we pushed forward, the better they defended, and the more they opened us up at the back. Swansea fully deserved their three points today, and it was refreshing to see an opponent approach the game in a free flowing way – no cards were shown throughout, although you could argue that losing that sort of game is a bad sign for us.
Since the full time whistle, the analysis has been strong and vicious. Particular players have had their every trait dissected and criticised, leading to the inevitable conclusion of ‘crap, lazy, overpaid, sell him‘, usually interspersed with at least three words we should always reserve for the opposition. And the end result is always the same – we need to buy X, Y and Z, we need to strengthen in this position, that position. And for me, that is overly simplistic.
We have been educated, largely by the paid press, that transfers are the silver bullet to all problems. Don’t like a player? Sign a replacement. Got a gap in a position? Don’t even think about promoting from within, or altering your formation, buy buy buy. That the media have promoted this is hardly surprising – ‘Arsenal seek to sign £20m replacement for misfiring Arshavin‘ sells far more copies than any attempts to better accommodate players, tactical changes to enhance their effectiveness, or even the player themselves simply improving. And so it is transfers we always read about, from the fanciful to the daft, and the myth that the chequebook is always the way to go is perpetuated.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need to buy. Our transfer activity on the final day of August showed that – we obtained the big centre back we needed, to give experience to the back four and keep Squillaci one further step away from appearing, and Arteta’s influence in central midfield cannot be overstated. As for Andre Santos, we’ve missed him greatly despite his short time at the club. Signings can be a great fillip. But they are not the only way.
Take a look at our squad, and count the players that fall into the following criteria : Talented, underachieving. My bet is you’ve named at least three, perhaps more. Given that we have that talent at our disposal, it is not more prudent to focus on getting full value from them, above and beyond bringing in new blood? To all those who keep saying we need to spend thirty, forty, fifty million, I’d counter that if we already have superb players at our club who aren’t performing, is it not a possibility that our problems run a little deeper, and simply adding more of those players may not help?
To give some examples, I’ll pick some names out, starting with the obvious – Andrei Arshavin. He was sixth in the World Player of the Year awards the year before we signed him, and he is often credited with getting us into fourth that season. He has given us unforgettable memories and is clearly a sparkling jewel of a talent. I would go as far as to say that buying a player with a greater level of raw talent would be exceptionally difficult, so if there were any way of getting him back to his best, I’d certainly favour that over buying another. For the record, I think he will leave in the summer, and unlike many, I will be sorry to see him go.
Then there is Chamakh. I recently watched a few of his games from early last season, and was staggered by the contrast with his more recent performances. He was bustling around, powering past defenders and making intelligent runs, and looked a completely different player. Again, this is not a ‘crap’ player as many opine – go watch those games if you want the empirical evidence. But the Chamakh we see now is a shadow of that. If we could get him back to his best, we would again have a player on our hands.
I could go on – we’ve seen Djourou, Diaby and many others show their talent, and at their best they are a force to be reckoned with. But for one reason or another (injury, form, confidence) they are not regular top level contributors. Perhaps they never will be, but before pressing for replacements I would want to know that those potential quality signings would not fall into the same category. We all saw Chamakh for Bordeaux and in his first few months for us – surely the last thing we need is to sign another player of high quality who drops his level enormously a few months later?
Consistency is the key, and consistency is not purely down to the sheer quality of an individual. It is a mental attribute, cultivated over a career. Some players have a headstart on others, so on one hand you could say transfers can help (compare Szczesny to Fabianski for an obvious comparison of mental fortitude), but I have to admit a concern that this Arsenal squad consumes players who previously showed a strong mentality, and weakens them. It is, perhaps, our biggest problem, and one I think needs addressing more urgently than any other.
Put it this way – if we jettison players ruthlessly, replacing them at the drop of a hat, then we are doomed to fail, frankly. Aside from the fact that transfers are expensive – with the agents involved I’d compare it to moving house regularly, where all your money is lost in taxes and fees – we would be competing with clubs far richer than us, on their terms. Chopping and changing is what Chelsea have done since Abramovich arrived – remember Tiago, Crespo, Veron, Shevchenko, Duff, Robben, Del Horno? Lots of quality, all ludicrously expensive, but for one reason or another their Chelsea careers stalled and they were moved on. Chelsea could afford that approach, and the resultant losses, we cannot.
So we cultivate, and that means showing more faith in players than many would. Sometimes, as with Alex Song, it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t (hello, Aliadiere). But as fans, it means we have a responsibility to show patience too. Take Theo Walcott – a 22 year old still learning his game. Yes, he is fairly experienced now, but he is still 22 years old. How many players of that age have scored 35 goals for their club without playing up front? Or even gained as many assists?
Theo is the classic example of a player built up too soon, raising expectations to a level he could not possibly reach. And then, when he inevitably fails to hit those dizzy heights, he is vilified, destroyed by the press and by fans, and written off. I’ll tell you what I see – an immensely talented young footballer who has improved each year (his stats back this up) and has the mentality to perform on the big occasion. He scored his first goal for Arsenal against Chelsea, in a cup final. He scored again in a win against them last season, and again in the 5-3 triumph at Stamford Bridge. He thrives in the Champions League, inspiring our comeback against Barcelona two years ago – in fact, in the build up to last year’s tie, he was the talk of the Catalan press, not Cesc. It was Theo that was worrying them. And a hattrick for England in Croatia wasn’t half bad either.
Just to be clear – this is a player that a lot of fans want replaced and/or shipped out. Yes, he has facets of his game to improve, and at his age he should. But he seems down to earth, his game is improving, and he is already way beyond most at his age. Why on earth do people want him gone?
I can see the beginnings of the same pattern with Oxlade-Chamberlain. He should be nothing more than a peripheral player for the next two or three years – anything more and he is doing exceptionally well. But I am willing to bet that he will be criticised before the end of this season for a lack of end product, despite his tender age. And we are the ones creating these ridiculous expectations by building a player up to mythical proportions, and calling on his inclusion into the first team far too soon. Can you see where this is going?
So how does this all relate to today’s game? It means we need to lay off Walcott, Ramsey, Miquel and others – players who are young, working hard and showing immense promise. Enough vilification, enough vitriol, enough hate. It helps no-one. There are areas of the squad we need to improve, positions we do need reinforcements, but we have to set more realistic expectations of the ones we have, and stop destroying them when they fail to meet them. As long as they put everything into it, I will have no complaints, and nor should you.
Save your anger for the lazy ones.
Today was a bad day. We were poor, and Swansea fully exploited that with a superb performance. But much as we weren’t going to win the league two weeks ago, we don’t need a complete overhaul now.
Find the unspectacular middle ground. It is where the truth lies.