Sides in disarray have always carried the pandemic mantra of squeezing joy and meaning from whatever fruit there may be on the wastelands we know reside. For Arsenal, the juice that has nourished them as they wander their own arid plans has come in cup competitions.
The Europa League has been a source of goals (20) and six wins this season, more than the 12 and four respectively across 14 Premier League matches. At the start of August, an FA Cup win was vaunted as a springboard to better days. “I was brought here to bring the club back to where it belongs, which is winning trophies,” said Mikel Arteta pitchside at Wembley having just picked up his first trophy as a manager. Here was the beginning of a new dawn at the Emirates, of styles, philosophies and other such buzzwords that give hope to the modern football fan.
But after a 4-1 hammering in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday, against a Manchester City side they beat in the FA Cup semi-final last term with perhaps their most complete performance in years, any semblance of ethos was dead in the water. The midweek comfort break of off-Broadway silverware has only brought more misery. Arteta was particularly chastened.
“We have to turn it around, there’s no question about that,” he said after defeat to his former employers. “We are in big trouble.” Out with the nebulous concepts; in with the cold hard truths.
The narrative around Arteta has come 180. He was lauded as a breath of fresh air, in part because of the manner of his early success since coming in at Arsenal last December. In less than 12 months a progressive appointment has shifted to a real sense that the club and its supporters have been catfished.
Because progressive coaches don’t misuse a match’s expected goals – the sum of a measure of the quality of chances, independent of one another – to derive the probability of winning that match, as he did at the start of the week. Nor would they refer to basketball as a sport where, unlike football, the team who shoots the most wins when their side is 15th for shots taken this season. A rank mirrored by their league position.
Mix into that a dressing room of high maintenance, low output players on substantial wages, as younger talent bottle-necks behind them, and it’s hard not to conclude the manager and club are coming apart at the seams. It is quite the contrast to Arsenal’s Boxing Day opponents.
Chelsea’s start to the season has been far from note-perfect. Two defeats saw them go from two points off the top to six, though Liverpool’s surge has increased the gap between everyone else, not just them. The Blues’ 3-1 win over West Ham on Monday was the first time they have beaten top-half opposition this season.
But solace comes from the same aspects that Arsenal are lacking. An exciting group of players, with depth across the pitch but especially in attacking areas. A young core of Reece James, Kurt Zouma, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham have retained possession of the opportunities afforded to them last season to become key first-teamers. Even the higher profile players who have had restricted playing time this season – Kepa, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic, for example – seem happy to swallow their disgruntlement for the greater good. Midweek European distractions have been successful, and in superior Champions League competition that seems years off for the Gunners.
More interesting than the circumstances Arteta and Lampard find themselves in are how they addressed on-field issues when they started out. Arteta inherited the more disorganised of the two squads, though Lampard’s brief at the start of 2018/19 carried a more significant pressure given Chelsea were defending champions the season before.
Arteta focused on being more sound at the back, while Lampard encouraged expressive attacking play. The former is trickier to execute, and Arsenal’s defensive improvement was a plus point for their man, just as Chelsea’s 54 conceded in 2019/20 – the worst of the top 10 – looked an insurmountable problem for theirs.
But Lampard has found solutions, in Thiago Silva, new keeper Benjamin Mendy and Ngolo Kante’s reprising his role as the defensive screener. Only 14 have been conceded so far, the joint-third best in the division, with six clean sheets are already in the bag after 14 games having kept nine across 38 last season. Arteta, meanwhile, has struggled to make an impact up top, with Arsenal’s 46 shots on target – the fifth least – producing the third-lowest output of 12 goals. And in looking to get that plate spinning, the other has crashed to the floor.
Even at this early stage, the table and those accompanying numbers do not lie. Nor does the differing harmonies of both sets of fans. We know who of the two novice coaches is doing the better job, even legislating for the better personnel Lampard can call upon and the systemic issues Arteta continues to negotiate. And thus it seems, barring a Christmas miracle, the one who needs it more this weekend is the least likely to get it.
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