by Tim Charlesworth
So phase 1 of the season is over, and the reviled interlull is upon us. The first four premiership games are played and the transfer window is closed.
This was perhaps the least important ‘phase 1’ for years. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, we had no major squad gaps to fill (I appreciate that not everyone agrees on this point). Secondly, the PL results are not that important at this stage of the season. Thirdly, and most importantly, we didn’t have to play the dreaded CL qualifier, a terrible tie, with very little to gain, and an awful lot to lose.
Overall, the start is mildly disappointing. We have scored 7 points from 4 relatively benign games. This is not good enough to win the Premiership (1.75 points per game – Chelsea won with 2.26 pts/game last season and we scored 1.97 in 14/15). We are level with most possible competitors, significantly behind City and slightly ahead of Chelsea (way ahead of the tiny tots if you are interested in such things). This is OK, but we have a tough run of away fixtures coming up, so don’t be too perturbed if we slip back a little.
I think a few things have combined to make the start seem a bit worse than it really is:
- Losing at home on the opening day against a minor team is always going to be a horrible shock which is difficult to recover from psychologically (for the fans particularly)
- There was a lot of talk about how important it was to make a good start, after failing to recover from a bad start last year in the PL.
- Our poor start last season was repeatedly blamed on the 2014 World Cup – I think we all hoped to start better in the absence of a World Cup
- Both indicators of ‘form’ – the finish to last season and the pre-season games suggested that Arsenal would start well. The team failed to live up to these form guides.
It is tempting to say that: – if only Ramsay’s goal against Liverpool had stood we would have 9 points at 2.25 per game and all would be well. I don’t really like this analysis and I think the 7 points is generally reflective of how the games have gone.
In fact there were a few turning points. Some went our way – Palace hitting the post, Liverpool failing to convert their chances, whilst some went against us – Ramsay’s offside goal, missing chances against Liverpool and West Ham, and most of all, the terrible defensive positioning mix up that led to WHU’s first goal.
So to the transfer window. The standard of journalism surrounding ‘transfer rumours’ is increasingly ludicrous. Untold has covered this subject extensively, so I won’t elaborate here.
The rise of the blogs and the importance of ‘click-baiting’ seem to mean that even in mainstream newspapers, all sense of integrity has died. Everyone makes stuff up, and its just a game. This year’s prime silliness was the (never ending) stories that Benzema/Madrid had agreed to various things. Clearly no such agreement had happened, yet it was widely reported.
One consequence of all this silliness is that its very difficult to ascertain what really happened. This is particularly difficult for us Gooners, because Wenger repeatedly makes statements that are simultaneously meaningless and true. His basic line was that: ‘We will sign someone, if a quality player becomes available at a sensible price’ (I will overlook the fact that he said something similar just before the Kallstrom signing). This is a bit like saying ‘if a beautiful girl wants to have sex with me I will do it’ (in my bachelor days obviously)
This statement actually imparts no new information, and I think that’s quite deliberate. Unusually, our club likes to conduct its transfer business in private. So what really happened?
My guess (and its only a guess) is that very little happened. It looks as if we may have made a genuine enquiry about Benzema and possibly some others, but were easily put off by lack of availability or high prices. From this, I conclude that Wenger is largely happy with his squad, but thinks there is a small amount of room for improvement with an ‘exceptional player’.
Wenger’s opinion is important here. He sees a lot more of the players than we do (particularly in training), and is in a much better position to judge form, fitness, skill, development etc than we are. This is especially true of those players not regularly playing 90 mins. We hardly see these players at all and have no idea how they are progressing. If Wenger is largely happy with the squad, this is a good sign that it is strong (although his record in not unimpeachable on this point)
I have read/heard some pretty daft analysis of our transfer window (only team in Europe not to buy an outfield player etc). There is a kind of conspiracy of AAA and excitable journalists/ex-pros who argue roughly along the following lines:
- Chelsea beat Arsenal by 12 points last season
- Arsenal have only signed Cech
- Do they really think that this one signing is enough to close a gap of 12 points.
In fact Arsenal’s team has changed out of all recognition from the one that started last season. I struggle to recall a period when the team has changed so much. So let’s compare the current team to the one that started the 14/15 season:
- Gabriel is an excellent player, who hardly played at all last season and was signed in January
- Petr Cech appears to be an improvement at Goalkeeper
- Francis Coqulin is a gem. Possibly the most important player to emerge since Fabregas, he only played half of last season
- Theo Walcott will be an important player and hardly played at all last season
- Internationally retired Per Mertesacker is fresh (he looked exhausted last season)
- A number of players look to have improved since last season, most notably the Ox, who may well have a great season.
- Ozil should be available for the majority of the season after only half a season last time out. He is Arsenal’s most creative player. His return to the side coincided with the second half of last season.
- Bellerin is doing very well. He only played half of last season (again, like Ozil, it was the successful half)
- Carzorla only played in central midfield for half a season (he was pretty peripheral in the first half of last season). Like Bellerin and Ozil, the half a season he played, was the one in which Arsenal scored more premiership points than any other team.
- Monreal seemed to get a new lease of life, and is a ‘new player’ compared to the one we had at the start of last season. Gibbs was first choice left back at the start of 14/15. I think Monreal has improved, rather than Gibbs losing form (note his England selection this week).
Overall, you might observe that comparing this team to the one that started last season, there are in fact eight high quality new players (brackets show what they were doing in the first half of last season):
- Cech (a Chelsea player)
- Coquelin (on loan)
- Ozil (injured)
- Monreal (second choice, not the same player)
- Cazorla (poor form, appeared to be ageing)
- Gabriel (playing for Villareal)
- Walcott (injured)
- Giroud (broken leg)
Now, I know that not all these players are likely to play simultaneously. However most of these are starters, not squad players. The only real exceptions to this are that Walcott and Giroud tend not to start together and Gabriel is still in the process of establishing himself as a starter (again, note the international selection this week). We should not be misled by the fact that most of these players have come via internal routes, rather than big signings. Eight players is a substantial portion of an eleven man football team. It seems to me, that more than half the team is different to the one that started last season. The idea that Arsenal has only improved in one position is absurd!
On the downside, there are probably other players who will not do as well as last season:
- There will probably be at least one player who will miss half a season with injury. Last season, Walcott, Ozil, Debuchy and Giroud fell into this category. I suspect, based on recent experience, that 2 (+/-2) first team players will fall into this category this season.
- There is a risk that Sanchez will suffer ‘second season syndrome’ and will not be as good as last year.
- Some of our players are older but actually it is quite a young squad. Ageing seems to mostly apply to Mertesacker (nearly 31), who looks fresher than last season. Cech is also ageing (33 not that old for a keeper), but can hardly be compared to the younger Cech of last season. Bosscielny is pushing 30, but seems to be in as good a form as ever. Cazorla (30) seems to be maturing rather than ageing. Rosicky is ageing, but a fringe player.
I think that any comparison of the two lists above (the ten improvements against the three ‘downsides’ will conclude that we are considerably stronger than in the first half of last season, and remember that in the second half, we scored more points than anyone else.
Finally, I feel obliged to comment on the Welbeck hysteria.
It is true that the no 9/striker position looks like a possible weakness. I am also genuinely sorry for Welbeck, who seems a nice lad. But, the truth is that he is our third choice behind Giroud and Walcott (possibly fourth choice behind Sanchez), and an auxiliary reserve winger/wide midfielder. He is not a great loss. The loss will look worse if Walcott or Giroud pick up a serious injury, but actually, even at Arsenal, most players go through the season without a major injury, so we would be a bit unlucky if this happened.
He will also be back and fresh in the new year. It would have been a gross waste of money if Wenger had bought someone to replace him, when Joel Campbell (not a bad player actually) was available for free.
Overall, I am mildly disappointed with the results, mildly disappointed with form, but happy with the transfer window outcome.
We are much stronger than at this point last year. Some of our improvements are still to prove themselves (Coquelin for a whole season, Walcott as a striker, Gabriel, the Ox).
I don’t guarantee that we will win the league, but I think we have a good team with strength in depth (see http://untold-arsenal.com/archives/44047).
Accidents (like Monaco and West Ham) will still happen, but hopefully are becoming less frequent, and stability should further that reduction – there were a lot of accidents in 13/14, but less in 14/15. Most bookies have us as second favourites for the PL at around 5-1. Bookies tend to overvalue transfer window success at this time in the season, and I think they are overestimating how good the ageing Man City are.
Last season was quite unusual, in the respect that the team who had the best transfer window, won the league. Their new players (mostly Courtois, Fabregas and Costa) did well, but most big signings take a while to bed in. To be fair, I think that the team that negotiated a deal to sell David Luiz for £40m deserved to win the league. I think 5-1 is good value for Arsenal and I have invested appropriately. Chins up fellow Gooners, quiet confidence is the order of the day.
The Untold Books
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football – Arsenal’s early years
- Making the Arsenal – how the modern Arsenal was born in 1910
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal