Finally, we can wave goodbye to the Winter break and welcome regular fixtures back into our life. It’s a great feeling, but for many it’s a reminder that a lot is on the line. Teams toward the bottom will battle it out to avoid relegation, while Liverpool look likely to stroll their way to winning the league leaving Arsenal fans praying Liverpool are unable to match the Invincibles.
However, that’s far from the only hope Arsenal fans have for the remainder of the season. Looking to salvage something from this season will mean avoiding a late Winter, early Spring slide that Arsenal haven’t avoided in recent years. It seems like no matter how the season is going, at some point in the early new year Arsenal go through a slew of matches with minimal points when the season is at a critical point.
Of course, there was last year’s finish that saw them take only six points in April resulting in them giving up their chance at playing in the Champions League, but these slides also happened under Wenger. In the 17/18 season, Arsenal only managed 7 points from January 3rd to March 4th (2W, 1D, 5L) including losses to Bournemouth, Brighton, and Swansea. In the 16/17 season, Arsenal only managed 3 points in February and March and were booted from the Champions League by Bayern Munich. In fairness, it was a relatively small slide, but one that would leave them in 5th place, 1 point behind Liverpool.
As an Arsenal fan this year, it’s hard to imagine Arsenal haven’t already gone through their yearly slide when they only managed 1 win in the 13 matches throughout November and December, but with Europa League knockout matches fast approaching, Arsenal’s future is in their own hands. The Europa League remains Arsenal’s clearest way into the Champions League while a few other options including the FA Cup and Premier League offer tickets back into the Europa League. While the Europa League offers minimal financial support, missing out on European matches next year would make enticing stars to come in the summer a much tougher feat.
With all of that on the line and understood, Arsenal spent their Winter break in Dubai as a team, but what should we fans be looking for coming out of the break to deem their time a success? There are 5 things I have selected to highlight that I think would be realistic goals and expectations from the week.
1. Rested, Refreshed, Reset
Start with a simple one. I know some fans have been asking, “Why do they need a break? They have been poor this year. Worst year in decades. They should be working hard every day!” For me, that’s a little bit of a cynical viewpoint, even if not entirely wrong. I have been trying to remind myself these are humans and, despite what they are paid and what their profession is, they need breaks and time away. They spend a lot of hours training, traveling, watching film, working out and around the facilities – it’s taxing. I mean I know, personally, I’m shite at my job 5 days a week and I still feel taxed and ready for a holiday.
Additionally, some players really need a reset and I hope this break offered them the ability to work with Arteta and get one. The obvious person – Lacazette. Whether he should be in the starting lineup still is a conversation for a different day, but the guy desperately needed this break to reset himself. He’s not alone. Aubameyang had a three-game break, granted it was a suspension, but came back and looked a little off on a frustrating day versus Burnley and a handful of players have been seeing a lot of minutes since Mikel took over and Arsenal played nine matches in a little over a month. If they can come back refreshed and ready to see the year out, it will have been a step in the right direction.
2. Balancing the Attack and Defense
Given the schedule that Mikel and Arsenal have faced since his appointment, they have had limited time to work in training on taking their team tactics to the next level. Upon Arteta’s arrival, it was clear his first job was to fix the most obvious problem – the defense. I think it would be hard for anyone to argue that he hasn’t found some success at that task. Arsenal have conceded only eight goals in nine games, a dramatically better rate than this squad managed under Emery.
To do this though, we have seen it cost the team goals and attacking statistics which needs attention. I have heard more than a few people saying we need “goals”. That this team lacks goals and its true – partially. If all we needed were goals, I have no problem believing that this team could get them. We could isolate Torreira as a lone defensive midfielder with a combination of two attacking midfielders to partner with our front three, throw numbers into the attack, and get goals, but as we have seen, that would likely result in us conceding just as many goals, if not more, with how porous that backline is.
This year we have seen the backline need more defensive protection than I can remember in recent history. It has caused Arteta to employ tactics involving two deep-lying, defensive midfielders – including Xhaka dropping into the backline at times – and a team remaining very defensively responsible. A solution to our defensive problem, as we have seen, but one that is leaving our attack to funnel down the wings or through Ozil with limited numbers in support. Not to take away from the success that Saka and Martinelli’s newfound partnership has created, but opposition haven’t seemed stretched, often enough, trying to cope with the offensive “routine” Arsenal go through once in possession of the ball.
Although it is unclear how much practice and work the team has been putting in on the field during this break, finding a way to bring balance to their game is the clear next step. When and how do the identify opportunities to get some midfield support into the attack? How to balance that with how protective they are of the backline and adventurous they are in pursuit of goals? An answer they will need to find to move forward.
3. In Game Dynamics
Continuing with the conversation around adding more attacking to their game, I would like to see them show signs of having worked on adding some flexibility and additional attacking options to their game.
Right now, their “routine”, as I called it above, often consists of the Pepe on the right staying wide to the chalk line, while Hector Bellerin tucks in toward the center. Ozil drifts out wide right, inside of Pepe to create an overload option, leaving Lacazette to come a little deeper and occupy that center hole left by Ozil. On the left, Auba tucks in giving room for the left back, currently Saka, to overlap him. This creates five lanes to attack through – Saka, Auba, Laca, Ozil, and Pepe (left to right).
It makes sense. It has a Guardiola-esque feel to it. But Arsenal have struggled to offer variations or adaptations throughout games making it feel easy to defend. Combining with more balance from point number two, it would be great to see them be able to change things up in game. Flip it all and overlap from the right to get Pepe tucked in closer to goal and have Bellerin on the overlap. Could they add more fluidity from the front three allowing Aubameyang to come center, with Laca out wide or more interplay to keep defenses guessing? To count this break as a success, I will want to see an attack that looks more dynamic, fluid, and overall dangerous throughout 90 minutes.
The fourth thing I would like to come from this break is a little tougher to see, possibly tougher to sum up, but something I’ve called “camaraderie”. No one should deny that the project ahead of these players, the club, and Arteta is a long one. Anyone that thinks different is in for a long, miserable trip because I suggest people strap in for the long haul. During the course of this project, and likely in the next year, we are going to see a “changing of the guard” as players make their exits. Ozil, Aubameyang, and Lacazette have question marks around their futures that will need to be addressed, defenders that haven’t panned out for us will make way over time for new options, and young players showing a lot of potential will begin to regularly claim their spots.
With this, Arsenal will need to begin to identify who the “pillars” are within their team. Who they intend to build around for the future. These are likely to be players aged in between the veterans and youngsters. We are talking about Lucas Torreira, Kieran Tierney, Hector Bellerin, Pepe, and possibly someone to come. Knowing this, I would hope these younger players are using their time with veterans and each other to continue to create that team chemistry. Yes, a lot of chemistry is developed on the field playing with each other, but there is an element of chemistry and learning to be a professional that comes off the field. Having a trip with the entire squad and staff like this is a good way to grow together.
5. Confident and Hungry
My final item is how they conduct themselves moving forward. Do they avoid a slide and make the most of this season or do they slip and concede to simply seeing the year out? With a trip like this, everyone together discussing how things move forward, and how they would like the year to finish, Arsenal will want to see players come out of the gates confident and hungry to finish the year with a statement.
Whether it’s fair or not, people will always scrutinize a trip like this and if Arsenal don’t come out showing they are ready to fight until the end of the season, people will question what the value of this trip was. We need to see continued growth, work rate, passion, and sooner rather than later – results.
I can’t tell you how to feel about the end of the season. I’m excited for it, even though I know it is likely to have its frustrating twists and turns and curious to see what comes from these months. I didn’t go into some things here that are fair questions. What will come of Mari and what is the role of Soares? What does the team look like when Tierney is fit in March? Should we be giving more time to Martinelli in place of Lacazette? All of these are things I am looking forward to answering in time. In the meantime, if they can check these five boxes coming out of this break, I believe the results will come.
First checkpoint? I would like to see them get at least a Draw versus Olympiacos away from home, with at least one goal to their name. If they can get that result in their first two games, I will have more faith in them making a run, especially in the Europa League. But first, Newcastle comes to Emirates.