“It is the history of the Tottenham”. The immortal words of Giorgio Chiellini forever destined to be memeified and completely taken out of context on Twitter. In shorthand, we often to refer to this as ‘being Spursy’. Ironically for a club that seem to do this just as frequently, and have a much more ‘noticeable’ online fanbase, there isn’t the same expression for the very characteristically Arsenal thing we have seen the Gunners do time and time again. For all the talk, a lot of it correct, about the change in culture at Arsenal, and how Arteta has solidified the defence, there is the inescapable whiff of … Arsenal that this group of players cannot escape.
I bristled against this for quite some time and finally, after watching Arsenal try as hard as they could to get themselves knocked out of the Europa League vs Benfica on Thursday evening, I’ve realised why. We all let our emotions and our biases get the better of us when ‘analysing’ a side, especially outside of a match context (i.e. ‘Are x good?’, rather than ‘Did x play well against y?’).
Arsenal have a statistically good defence; they have the 3rd best goals against per 90 minutes in the Premier League. There has been a perception that Arsenal cross excessively (one I am guilty of espousing), but people don’t say the same about Chelsea, who cross more. We talk about Arteta trying to build from the back, and whilst Arsenal have the lowest amount of ‘aerial balls’ (stop laughing at the back), they have the 5th highest cumulative ball progression (in terms of distance) in the league; this implies a lot of ball progression through dribbling, rather than passing. This is a roundabout way of saying that Arsenal aren’t the team we all think they are, but they are exactly that team when you’d most expect it. This is not due to ‘quality’. It is due to ‘the history of the Arsenal’.
Arsenal are cruising against Leeds, Aubameyang has scored a hattrick for the first time in the Premier League, and any other side would see the 4-0 victory out with ease. Leeds had only mustered a cumulative xG of 0.25 up to the 55th minute. Yet, 2 goals and a very good penalty shout later, Leeds fans will feel like they had a far better chance of winning than they should have. Arsenal are the only team in Premier League history to give up a 4-0 advantage, and there was nothing more prominent in my mind when they reached that margin halfway through the match. This is not just the pessimism of a football fan, this is a reflex, a coping mechanism, born of experience and emotional scars that run so deep I still get flashbacks to Obafemi Martins slotting past Szczesny in the League Cup Final. (Side note – That game might be one of the quintessential ‘Banter Era’ Arsenal results).
This very existential Arsenal-ness has reared it’s head far too frequently over the past few months. For all the improved performances and results since the victory over Chelsea at the tail-end of last year, ‘the whiff’ remains. Games against Villa, Wolves, Benfica (both ties), and even to an extent Manchester City saw a truly Arsenal-level of self-owning, combined with incidents that both feel ‘one off’ and ‘rare’, but very familiar.
There are numerous areas in which Arsenal need to improve on the pitch. They still need another defender to partner Gabriel. Upgrades need to be made to the right back and central midfield, and they could probably do with buying a striker. Arteta has to find a way to rotate his side, and keep the creativity; he needs to make sure Arsenal’s renewed attacking threat is not to burdened on individual sparks, and that it can be translated into a systemic approach learned by others. Something very specific Arteta has to work on as a coach is his substitutions; Arsenal’s scoring record after the 70th minute is woeful. He can do all of this, and I hope in time he will, but must to find a way to tackle ‘the whiff’. It’s a combination of the above (the tactical/player improvements), but he needs to integrate a self-belief, a resilience, and an assuredness in his style and, more importantly, in his message.
Hector Bellerin summarised this after the defeat to Wolves when he said “I always say that teams are not beating us, we are losing against ourselves. It is for us to learn… We just need to forget this step because situations like this are not going to happen very often”.
This is a microcosm of what I’ve tried to explain. These things feel like they should not happen often. Yet they do. And they do, partly because the standard of refereeing in this country is appalling, and partly because of ‘the whiff’. The inescapable feeling that Arsenal will always find a way to mess things up. To snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. This can take the form of missing more chances than a rigged game of Monopoly before conceding a 90th minute goal with the opponents first shot on target. It could be allowing the 5ft 7-inch Raheem Sterling to score from a header inside 2 minutes. Or it could be Dani Ceballos playing the perfect headed through ball to the opposition to give Benfica another away goal, in a tie played at a neutral venue. How he eradicates, or even reduces ‘the whiff’ I don’t know. Thankfully, it isn’t my job to know, and it’s not even my job to write about it. It’s a Stockholm syndrome-esque hobby I’ve developed as an Arsenal fan, and it looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.