Muddling through as seasonal schizophrenia returns.
It’s been an odd time to be an Arsenal fan. An unusually optimistic first three months (bar the opening week) has been cruelly undercut by a Champions League group winners anti-reward, and surviving November largely intact didn’t protect the team from December disappointment.
Since our nadir in the north-west, the pattern of performance has flipped. Having started both the defeats against Everton and Manchester City in reasonably fine fettle and with threatening tempo, only to fade badly, the team’s subsequent approach has been the polar opposite.
Games against West Brom, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Preston have all been defined by sluggish starts, and only Giroud’s extraordinary intervention against the Eagles prevented it being four games in a row where a positive outcome was entirely dependent on a late surge.
Worryingly, the festive fatigue seems to have only increased this element game by game.
The first hour against Bournemouth was both shambolic and horribly one-paced, with Bellerin and the returning Mustafi looking unfit and uncertain, and Monreal still trying to ascertain where last year’s form went. In the end Sanchez, Lucas and in particular Giroud (despite criticism of his celebratory indulgence) dragged the team to a draw.
A significant element of concern, other than certain players clearly being mentally and physically fatigued, is that with Elneny in Africa, Cazorla still no nearer a return, and Jack on loan, Coquelin has been added to our increasingly specific injury list. Thus, having started the season with the deepest collection of quality central midfielders in the division, we now have the most limited selection options in terms of numbers.
A number of us had been pining to see the Xhaka/Ramsey partnership since the the Swiss signed, but with the Welshman still returning to match fitness and demonstrating the positional uncertainty of one who has been passed from pillar to post on the pitch, we aren’t seeing the best of it as yet. This isn’t helped by Xhaka still occasionally struggling to adapt to the pace of the league and the suspicion that as a pair their complementary potential is capped by a mutual lack of foot-speed.
That said, given that all other options (bar u21 Swiss-Army-Knife Ainsley Maitland-Niles) are unavailable, we are going to have to hope that they develop an excellent understanding sharpish, and they will have ample opportunity to do so.
As such, Ramsey’s excellent edge of the box strike and subsequent improved performance against Preston could be significant. ‘The Welsh Jesus’ has either been hamstrung or a picture of discombobulated frustration since his impressive European Championships, and his reaction to scoring suggested the pressure valve had been released.
It is noteworthy that since his (wrongly) chalked off goal against Liverpool on the opening day, he’s come awfully close to scoring on a number of occasions. With the same shooting boots as 2013/14, he could easily have notched six or seven goals already despite having missed more games than he has been available for.
One suspects he will remain a player that frustrates and divides opinion, but even with his weakness, a fit Ramsey in form offers qualities lacking elsewhere in our squad, particularly in games where we are controlling the play.
Without wishing to diminish the capacity of the teams concerned, Arsenal’s remaining fixtures in January should all be winnable despite the extension of our annual injury epidemic.
The aforementioned disappearance of midfield depth has been offset in part by the returns of Lucas and the much missed Welbeck, which leaves is suddenly in rude health in the forward positions even with the short term absence of the Lazarus-like Theo Walcott. Certainly the energy, directness and goal threat of both is a timely boost to a team whose leaden legged-ness has been leaning heavily on Alexis and more recently, Giroud.
Quite what this will do for our wavering midfield balance remains to be seen, but more smart, determined and willing runners can only help to reduce the pressure on those closer to their own goal.
Thankfully, this remainder of the month sees the team revert to one fixture a week, which can only aid the health of the squad, and hopefully allow for some work on the training ground to re-focus standards that slipped during December’s month long fixture pile-up.
The team sure as hell needs it.