MATCH DAY BLOG: SHEFFIELD UNITED VS ARSENAL

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Arsenal must beat Sheffield United this evening. No ifs, buts, or maybes.

I don’t care how the performance looks, the only thing that matters is exiting with 3 tasty points.

Liverpool lucked out again after some dreadful officiating at the weekend. Paul Tierney, after getting killed by Klopp in the media, was once again making up for it with game defining nonsense that allowed a 99th minute winner. Tragically, his punishment is to be put in the VAR booth for the Arsenal vs Brentford game. Who is making these decisions? That is a corruption of ethics and sporting integrity there. I hope Arsenal execs are forcefully banging the table on this one.

Back to Arsenal.

Mission 1. Win.

Mission 2. Escape without injuries.

This is a good game to get some action into the legs of Thomas Partey. We’ve not missed him. But his return will be vital to the run-in. He is capable of a 3 month stint. Then he’s out the door. Let’s say goodbye with a bang!

There hasn’t been a lot of movement in the first team – it’s a strong starting 11, it’s all about business.

But the bench is good. If we can score some early goals, then we should bring off the precious precious players and build the fitness of those that need it.

This game is massive, lose, and the title race is going to be very, very tough… we might even get drawn into a street fight for top 4 with Spurs and Villa.

Win, and it’s just another three points in the three-horse race.

Ok, see you in the comments!

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MAGIC NUMBERS

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It is absolutely not game day and that makes me sad but happy at the same time. I like the idea of sitting back to watch City and Liverpool lose. But I do not like the idea of a Monday night game. My weekend will feel empty.

We spoke on the Before the Whistle podcast and the view was that we have to start seeing some points getting dropped by title-race hunters.

I’m just not sure I’m seeing that this weekend.

City vs United has more chance of being a bloodbath for EtH than an upset. United players know there’s massive change coming and the football represents the uncertainty. Slow passing, zero pressing, little accountability, and a series of drab results that has them in nowhere land. Remember when everyone thought he was the next level because he ran around shouting ‘standards’ in every presser? Remember people slandering Arteta because EtH had an identity sorted inside 3 months? I do.

Forest vs Liverpool doesn’t feel like the sort of game that is going to give me any sort of pleasure. Klopp has a depleted starting 11, but I’m not sure Forest has enough killer in them. Though tired legs will start to work in our favor at some point, just not sure that’s today.

Arsenal has Sheffield United on Monday, that game should not be one we lose sleep over. Every newly promoted minnow has the chance to upset a big team, just not sure it’s this Sheff U side. They are a mess, they don’t have many threats, and they’ve been dreadful all season. 13 points, a negative 44 goal difference, it’s pretty bleak.

This game is a good one to give some minutes to folk who will need them for the run-in. Thomas Partey is back in action, Gabriel Jesus should be fit, Fabio Vieira is in the mixer.

Partey really is the unknown here. He’s been training for a while, but he hasn’t featured in a long time. Can he use his experience to get back to good form right away? Or will he need a run of games? If he can hit the ground run, he gives us so much optionality in midfield. Our seasons usually end on him exiting the starting 11, could his return give us a boost when we’re in boost mode already?

My big worry heading into this run-in is that we’re almost too good.

December and early January was not a good reflection of our performances. We were playing well, but getting punished in defence, and flopping in front of goal. I remember reading people talking about us padding xG or lacking quality chances – when the real issue was things sometimes just don’t drop for you in football.

Well, now everything is dropping for us. There’s no metric you can look at and not be THRILLED.

I don’t even understand what this graph means, but apparently, @DataAnalyticEPL is measuring dangerous shots and we don’t concede many of them.

Everywhere you look, there’s a wonderful chart that we’re smashing.

We aren’t getting lucky according to xG, whereas Liverpool clearly has been all season, and people outside me are finally noticing it.

Arsenal are just good. We defend really well, and our whole team is capable of scoring goals. No one beats us for setpieces. No one has a better press. And the squad us largely fit with top players coming back.

If data were reality – we’d be faves for the league. Sadly, it’s not. Liverpool has more big trophy winners than us and City has seen this moved 5 times before.

Where I’m trying to go with this meandering point is when things are too good to be true… something happens, especially when you’re an Arsenal fan. So I’m not getting my hopes up… or am I.

Ok, short post today. Get on the On The Whistle podcast and sorry I had to duck early. Work tings. Get it here!


MUDRYK MANIFESTATION

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Wad up my friends.

Was that a cool intro?

Could be the new me.

Arsenal have all sorts of interesting stories swirling around the club at the moment.

MUDRYK is back on the agenda because James from Gunnerblog said he cried when he was told his Arsenal dream was in the gutter.

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REAL HUSBANDS OF ARSENAL

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When I worked in New York, I led the Bravo account. I worked on Real Housewives, Vanderpump Rules, and Below Deck. As a red-blooded man of sport, I went into the job pretending I was taking one for the team.

‘This nonsense isn’t for me’

Then I started watching the shows. The storylines started to pull at me. Before I knew it, I was looking up the net wealth of Dorinda whilst taping up the NBC staffers for the spicy behind-the-scenes gossip.

Bravo knew they had an audience of men like me that would use the guise of their partners to get a fix of absolutely top tier shows.

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ACCEPTING SLOW PLAYER INTEGRATIONS

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Let’s be honest here, that was quite the weekend, right?

Liverpool played Chelsea in a leggy League Cup semi-final that went into extra time. Chelsea were really bad, their monstrously expensive squad couldn’t take down a Liverpool side that were cooked by 60 even when they brought on 3 teenagers.

I’m finding the post-win narrative a little nauseating regarding the age of the squad. The average age of the Liverpool squad was higher than our starting 11 on Saturday. Virgil Van Dijk is the best centre-back in the world, and he was the only player to have the ball in the net all game. Chelsea’s team might be expensive, but it’s also young. But… really, really bad.

This tweet kind of captured it for me.

I had to go into therapy when we missed out on Mudryk. I thought he was incredible. I was told by a scout that one of the German clubs that is known for picking up the best young talent in the world knew about his crazy profile but he was too rich for them. He set the world of scouting on fire. Every club wanted a piece of the action and we were eventually bullied and gazumped by Chelsea for him.

Now look at him. He’s just a speed merchant who wouldn’t look out of place at Brentford. A club that tried for him but said he wasn’t worth more than £25m.

Arsenal moved on Trossard and Jorginho, the rest is history.

That does shift me onto all the signings we’ve made since January 2023. There is this view that players need to come into the club and hit the ground running inside 10 games or their name comes under scrutiny.

That’s not how it works at the highest level in the best teams – unless there’s some absolute freak of a player you’re bringing in – like Haaland or Kylian.

Kai Havertz, David Raya, Jorginho, Trossard, and Kiwior have all taken time to settle in. Mikel Arteta is an extremely demanding manager. His tactical expectations of players are really high, he trains the team at high intensity at outrageous speed, and he pushes players really, really hard. It takes between 6 months and a year for players to understand the system, gain the trust of the manager, and piece it together on the pitch.

Declan Rice feels like an exception because he’s offered so much from day one, but I’m not sure anyone could deny that his game has kicked up a level, particularly in that more advanced left 8 role. Who had him down as a setpiece specialist? Or a player that could be involved in so many goal actions?

Kiwior was almost immediately written off despite everyone know he was purchased a year earlier so we wouldn’t have to get hit with the Lisandro Martinez premium fee if we let him develop for another year. What have you got now? A defender who is locking up fullbacks and contributing with goals in big games. He looks like a very, very good player.

Jorginho was purchased as a plan b so we’d have coverage for Thomas Partey – he did a decent job in season one, but just look at what he’s offering a year in. He leads, mentors, and dictates midfield in the biggest games. MoTM against Liverpool twice IMO, and he dropped another worldie against Bruno yesterday. Does Partey get in ahead of him? Don’t think so.

‘Man can’t run’

‘He’s dusted’

‘Chelsea reject’

Read the comments on this post from the ‘you don’t know ball’ crowd. Now I’m watching Chelsea YouTubers lose their minds because they miss his leadership.

Arsenal are at the very highest levels in world football in 2024. We are a younger version of Manchester City. A club where slow integrations are an accepted part of the club process. Jack Grealish, slow start. Rodri, really slow start. Nathan Ake, slow start as well. City are forcing slow starts on £70m players, what makes you think we’re going to avoid that at the lower end of the market or with young players from clubs like Spezia? You didn’t even know Spezia was a club!

This is why it’s so hard for young players to break into the first team. You have to be more than good. You have to be the very best kid in your age class and everything has to roll for you. Just look at the level of Hale-End kids that’ll likely go in the summer. Eddie, ESR, and Reiss Nelson. Look at the players on loan who probably won’t get a chance. Patino, Sambi, Nuno Tavares and free-scoring Mika Biereth.

These are all good problems to have. It means we’re at a level so high, improving us has to be a combo of elite scouting AND good coaching. But it does mean we have to have patience with the recruitment process. David Raya was never going to click after 5 games, but he certainly did after that Dubai mid-season trip.

We should take a moment to consider how extraordinary the players have been this season. Arsenal SHOULD be struggling. We have a young group of players who have mostly never had to play 3 games a week at the Champions League level. 10 of our 11 players who started against Porto had never been to the knockouts of the CL. A title charge was not expected. This season was supposed to be harder. But Arteta and the players have been outrageously good. If you think this is normal, can I point you in the direction of Newcastle, a team people were all worried about as dark horses at the start of the season, absolutely in the midtable mud because they haven’t been able to handle the rigours of two major competitions this season.

Remember when I wrote that missing out on Champions League to Spurs probably wasn’t a bad thing because we weren’t ready? That’s what I meant. Spurs aren’t in the Champions League because they weren’t ready, and it’s very unlikely Newcastle will make it back in this season.

Arsenal now has 9 days off. I suspect the manager will give the players some time off to get some energy in the legs and free the mind from the stressors of the season. Then he’ll have a chunk of the time on the training ground to pump his players with new ideas for the next run of games that lead to that FC Porto game we simply have to win.

The goal of the club is to have everyone fit by the end of March – which is after the international break. We have City, Luton, and Brighton within the space of a week. That is make or break for the season. We could conceivably have every player ready for then. Thomas Partey will be in the mixer for Sheffield United. I expect we’ll have our fullbacks in contention before the Porto game, and then we’re heading into the international break, where it’s possible the club will throw some practice games for the enigma that is Jurrien Timber.

Imagine that – instead of our squad collapsing in March like it did last time, it could actually be ready for a power run at the league!

Plenty of bad could happen between now and then – but at some point, we’re going to have a bit of luck on the injury front and I’m hoping that’s this season!

Right, get your teeth into the latest Arsenal Opinion Podcast. If you want the On The Whistle from the weekend, that’s staying behind Patreon.

Get the Monday debrief in ur ears. x


ARTETA IS A CRUEL MAN (AND I LOVE IT)

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I cannot overstate how impressive the Arsenal win against Newcastle was. Football seasons are defined by moments – and that moment was the sort that title-winning sides clock up. The context was a terrible loss midweek. How would the boys react? How would their legs feel? How would they cope with a brutal Newcastle side who had a week to plan their strategies? Exiting the home game with anything outside 3 points and the title felt over.

Well, the answer Arteta had was emphatic. There was no loss of energy, no lack of focus, no one behaved like a victim. The boys put on a brutal showing for a very sauced home crowd and it was spectacular.

I can’t remember a more aggressive approach to off-the-ball movement. Newcastle, a team that is good at playing out of the back, were boxed in, bullied, and demoralized from minute one. We didn’t give them time to breath, we squeezed them in every space of the pitch, the boys, in my opinion, were cruel.

The Bruno fan club that has sustained a lot of members in the Arsenal community found themselves asking how Jorginho could be dominating a game like this without any of the physical advantaged the Brazilian has. He was in masterclass mode and it was a thing of beauty.

You felt from minute one there was no other outcome outside a victory. The only question was, when would we break them?

Inside 20 minutes, which is absolutely ideal for breaking a sad deep block plan. How did we score? A beautiful setpiece. Saka swung a ball inside the near post, Gabriel was first to it, Karius saved by the ball ended up getting bundled in by Newcastle’s Botman in the scramble to clear.

The second goal was pure Arsenal. Jorginho floated a ball into the diagonal run of Martinelli, he brought the ball down at speed, hit the byline, and cut back for Kai Havertz to sweep home. Majestical. What I love so much about that goal is thinking back to all the criticism his signing came with – now he’s absolutely key to everything we do and no one can deny his impact. He’s a very well-liked player at Arsenal, he works incredibly hard, and he’s still a baby at 24 years old. That said, talk of him becoming our new #9 seems premature – we can’t get addicted to non-prolific #9s. Arsenal needs someone clinical in that role and I don’t think that’ll ever be Kai based on his last few years trying to do the exact same thing for Chelsea.

The only fault of the first half was the lack of a third goal. When you have Tierney refereeing, 2-0 is not a safe lead, because he’s always looking to impose himself on games, especially those that Arsenal have a stake in. We’re also prone to doing dumb things, which is quite a mad thing to suggest, given that we have the best defence in the league, but of our 23 goals, 5 have come from individual errors. No one in the top 6 has more individual errors that lead to goals… including United.

Newcastle did come out aggressively in the second half. They started to find Isak and Antony Gordon. There was one run by Isak, he beat what felt like our entire team, but then blazed over with a horrible shot that seemed to bobble before the strike.

We should really have taken the lead when Martinelli squeezed Kai Havertz through on goal, the German dragging his shot every so slightly wide of the post. Kai made up for it with an assist for Saka. Though it would be unfair to put too much credit on the pass. Our third was all Bukayo. He pushed into the area, checked his run, and unleashed a ball past Karius. It was brutal and yet another sign that he’s pushing into 5th gear at the right time.

Our final goal of the game came from… another set piece. Kiwior connected with a Declan Rice special at the near post and it bundled into the net.

We still managed to keep our 2 shots on target and 1 goal momentum going when Joe Willock scored a top corner header, but it didn’t take anything away from an incredible performance.

We now have the best goal difference in the league by virtue of having the best defence. We’re one goal behind Liverpool in the scoring rankings, which is incredible when you consider all the glancing eyes that were directed towards Klopp’s side earlier in the season. We have had 18 different scorers this season, the most by a distance. Everyone is stepping up at the right time, and it’s hard to avoid a compelling truth… by every metric, we should be favourites for the league, but we’re not in the court of public opinion; we’re 3rd place underdogs. That’s despite Jesus returning to the bench, Partey coming back for Sheffield United, and the very real chance of having a totally fit squad to choose from by the end of March.

We have managed through a laundry list of injuries and we have survived. There’s still the harsh reality that if we lose Declan Rice, Odegaard, Saka or William Saliba, we won’t be the same team. But listen, that’s the same for Liverpool if they lose VVD or Salah and it’ll be the same for City if they lose Rodri or Haaland. No team on the planet can handle not having their best players for long stretches.

Just look at what we’re doing on the pitch right now. Odegaard has kicked things up to World Class mode. Declan Rice gets better and more imposing in every game. Kai Havertz looks like value for money. Jorginho is looking like more than a decent plan B, delivering another MOTM performance. David Raya is showing everyone what he’s made of and it’s more valuable to the team than what we had before. There are 12 games to go, we are point off the top of the table, we have the youngest squad in the elite part of the league, and everything is clicking.

Then there’s the Arteta factor. He said after the game no one should feel sorry for themselves after what happened in midweek. It’s easy to say that, hard to inspire young players to believe it. Arteta is proving he has a name that can be talked about amongst the best. The team he has created is absolutely top tier, the system is the star, and we are going to taste the very biggest trophies over the next 5 years… but the thing we’re all wondering is if he can deliver early?

I don’t want to get too excited. Manchester City are still the benchmark, but over the long term, we are in an absolutely delicious position.

We have a 9 day break now. I’ve just watched Liverpool lose Gravenberch to an injury in a leggy Wembley performance from Klopps boys. They will fade, I promise you, there’s no way you can sustain this many games without a slip, even if you are on the Klopp-leaving-is-motivational train of thought.

City is the team to keep your eye on… they are in monster mode, they are who we have to keep up with.

Ok, see you in the comments. x


MATCH DAY BLOG – SQUAD BOOST AHEAD OF GAME?

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Well, here we are, a Saturday night game under the lights against Newcastle United.

Arsenal going all in on the atmosphere. Arteta is calling for noise in his presser, the club dropped a very nice video hyping the fans and the ‘wall of noise’, and I believe the club is running some sort of beer offer this evening. It’s a good combo of instructions… and if all else fails, get everyone wasted so they get a little bit rowdy.

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