Arsenal win another big game: Is it getting better?

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For a long time now we’ve collectively lamented Arsenal’s failure to cope with the big occasion. After the stirring win at Old Trafford, the question begs: are things finally improving?

For me, United is the definitive big game. Perhaps it’s because I grew up amid the red-hot rivalry of the late 90s. United were so dominant in that era, and those clashes were always infused with tension, drama and spite. Even taking in to account neighbours Tottenham and Chelsea, there isn’t a game in the fixture-list that inspires more nerves or animosity. Old habits die hard, and old hatreds endure.

I saw someone compare Monday night’s game to Ali vs. Frazier in 1975: two former greats, evenly matched but now hurting each other all too easily. It’s a nice line, but one that doesn’t reflect the trajectory of the two sides. While United do appear to be a team in decline, there are some signs that Arsenal might be on the way up.

There are indications that Arsene Wenger’s men are beginning to conquer their crippling stage-fright. After all, Monday night’s win comes just a couple of months after another landmark victory at the Etihad.

It’s not been a complete reversal of fortunes. Defeats against Tottenham and Monaco show there is still plenty of room for improvement. However, it’s undoubtedly progress: last season, Arsenal would probably have lost all four of those games.

In the wake of such a significant win, there’s a tendency to assume that our problems are now permanently behind us. “That’s it”, we think. “Now we’ll win every big game and be title contenders once again”.

I’m not sure it’s that simple. We’re turning the corner, but it’ll take more than a single step. It’s generally agreed that our problems are psychological as well as strategic. Improvements in the latter are soothing the former: each big win has tactical and therapeutic benefits. For the first time in a long time, it feels as if we might be learning something.

We’re not yet where we need to be. As the Monaco game showed, Arsenal are far from over the big-game jitters. However, we are certainly making positive progress.

On Danny Welbeck…

From the minute the possibility of Danny Welbeck moving to Arsenal was mooted, I fantasised about his scoring the winner at Old Trafford. He must have done so too, and that probably goes some way to explaining his joyous celebration on Monday night. He certainly had a point to prove to the manager who jettisoned him after a matter of months in Manchester.

As Welbeck’s shot hit the net, Louis Van Gaal’s flat face glowed red with embarrassment, leaving him looking like a cartoon thumb throbbing after being hit with a mallet.

Even if Welbeck never does anything hugely significant in an Arsenal shirt again, he’ll be remembered for this night. This, if you like, was his ‘Arshavin moment’.

However, I’m hopeful that there’s a lot more to come from the Englishman. That goal effectively closed one chapter in his career, but should mark the true beginning of a bright new one.

ps. If you haven’t yet, do check out the Arsecast Extra for more luxurious basking.

Arsenal 1-2 Man United: Why the players have to take blame too

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It’s never just one thing.

The culture of football analysis is such that, at full-time in any given game, there is an immediate and intense desire to attribute the result to one particular factor. Journalists hunt for a line with all the fervour of coke-addled addicts, and fans fight to make their post-game punditry concise enough to squeeze in to a 140 character tweet. A game’s hero and villain are invariably declared within minutes of the full-time whistle. Consensus is quick and often condemnatory.

The truth is that a result is rarely determined by one singular thing. It’s almost never entirely due to the brilliance of one player, or indeed the error of another. Football is a game composed of thousands of interconnected moments. The margins are so fine that such acute analysis is impossible.

Louis van Gaal summed up the precarious nature of the game quite well in his post-match press conference. Reflecting on his side’s victory, he remarked that had Arsenal won the match, he would have been interrogated on his decision to play with three central defenders. As it happened, they scored the first goal and went on to win comfortably. As Van Gaal put it, “I can laugh now”.

No-one’s laughing at Arsenal, as the multiplicity of our problems becomes ever clearer. Up until now, the prevailing narrative has been one of Arsenal’s poor defending. However, after failing to capitalise on such dominance over Manchester United, scrutiny is now focusing on our misfiring attack. We’re almost in to December, yet we’re still not establishing reliable patterns of play. There’s a lot of running, but no structural rigour. We can’t pretend that the back four is our only problem – the entire team lacks balance.

The coaching will be questioned again. I understand that entirely. Arsene Wenger’s stock has rarely, if ever, been lower. However, it’s once again important to consider the complexity of apportioning blame. After all, Arsene Wenger didn’t miss that first-half sitter — Jack Wilshere did.

A manager’s limitations do not entirely absolve his players of responsibility. The boss’ proclivity towards attacking football has been balanced out in the past. When you have players who assume leadership, it’s not such a problem — see the Invincibles. A team’s fortunes are not solely down to the manager. Let’s not forget, a Chelsea side overcame the significant handicap of being coached by Avram Grant to reach a Champions League Final.

We all know that Arsene Wenger isn’t going anywhere until 2017. With that in mind, we have no choice but to demand more from the players. They can’t hide behind his diminishing reputation. They might not like it, but this is their mess too.  It’s never just one thing, and Wenger’s tactical naivety does not fully excuse theirs.

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Video: On the Whistle Reaction