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Liverpool (a), Newcastle (h), Man u (a), Everton (a), Southampton (h), West Ham (h), Leeds (a), Norwich (a), Is this really back in our sights? 8 matches to halfway and 24 points to be won so we are halfway to paradise and 44 points. Regular readers will remember that I did a very early Where can we finish? After 3 games, all of which we lost. I was feeling bleak, and pointed out that Arteta has only one currency to trade in – wins. He needed a huge turnaround, but not just in results, in how we played. The defence, and particularly Leno, White and Holding were badly bullied by Brentford. We were outplayed by Chelsea and totally and utterly outplayed by Man City. On the back of that abject City display, I predicted that Arteta will face his marching cards from Kroenke sooner rather than later. The chinks of light were that our next matches were winnable and if we then beat the Spuds, Arteta would have breathing space. Although we haven’t won all our matches since then, we haven’t been beaten, Arteta has answered his critics for now, and, as fans, we can dream again. Even of Champions league. From bottom of the table, that is a good height. We brought in Mourinho’s bus The biggest change has been in the defence. Tomisayu, Gabriel and especially Ramsdale are not there to be bullied and all 3 have been outstanding. Tavares has come in for Tierney and done a great job. If you remember previous blogs I said without Tierney, who gets injured, we probably lose. That is no longer true and while I rate Tierney higher than Tavares, particularly for attacking, there seems little between them. Well done to Edu and Arteta there. A big part of our new defensive bus I still hold to my assertion, though. Those 3 losses will be a sword hanging over Arteta’s head till the end of the season. He has to continue winning and notching up points or we could tumble again. Fans are very fickle, the Kroenke’s are not liked, not seen as part of us, and they have been a bigger target than Arteta, who is seen as one of us, and a good person with a lot of knowledge who has promoted our young players. So they will get the blast from the fans first and another bad run may see the end of Arteta. A banana skin on an ice slide And this run we have now till Christmas is exactly the type of run that could go very badly. But in some ways we are potentially facing teams at their worst time, so it could be good for us. Don't look at him, boys The first one up is the hardest - Liverpool away. Klopp’s demons give every team nightmares. But a draw against Brighton and a loss to West Ham, shows their vulnerabilities. I say we have a chance if our defence plays at their best, our midfield holds their own, as we will get chances that we will have to take. It is hard to see beyond a draw, though. I will go for 1-1 and a tight game but still with chances for both sides. I would love to see better than that but Klopp will be anxious to correct his slide. Newcastle at home is a must win. Eddie Howe won’t have a transfer window to help him. They could be a different proposition in the second half of the season. So we must beat them now. Our players are better than them and we are at home. The new manager bounce might help them but I am going for 2-0 with the second goal coming late in a nervy match. Give us another fine mess, Olly Scratching your head won't help, Olly Ah Solskjaer, let’s hope you are still there and Utd are still a shambles. This one we can win as long as we win the midfield. And we should. They don’t look like a coherent team and if we play to our best, outrun them and out tackle them, we will win. A rare win at Old Trafford. This is a match I was scheduled to go to but smashing my ankle a while ago made it difficult to commit so I forewent my ticket. I would have loved to be there especially if we win. I am going to say 2-1 for us but a bit easier than that scoreline looks. Everton away. I like Everton as I have friends I grew up with in Ireland who are big fans. But I hope Benitez is still there and he hasn’t quite managed to correct their slide. It is a game we can win and we have a good record there. Another 2-1 but a more nervous one than against Man Utd. Southampton at home. There is no question about it, these are the games we have to win. Yes, they are on an uptick but they are still Southampton. A clean sheet and a 2-0 which we get in the first half. We allow them to come back at us in the second but we hang on. This could be our hardest The next match I feel we have to hope for a West Ham slide by then as I feel they are set up to give us a hard time. Their defence and midfield give nothing away and they attack with speed. They don’t have a weakness although we have a better goalkeeper. We might need to be lucky. Honestly I would take a draw here particularly if they are still playing well. The last time I was at this match a couple of years ago at the Olympic stadium it was 0-0 and a terrible match. And may be again. Leeds away? Bielsa’s team are always a difficult proposition. However they rarely play well for 90 minutes. We must capitalise on those times we are in the ascendancy and we have been a bit lucky against them in recent years as they have outplayed us for long periods but we managed to get results. This time I am going to say 1-1 but with our defence playing well. 2 draws in a row means we have to win our last match for halfway. 'Arry is the relegation specialist - hire him, Norwich Norwich away? Surely there is no banana skin here? I don’t know who they will have appointed but surely not someone top drawer? Sam Allardyce maybe? Why does Harry Redknapp not make a comeback? I am going to say 5-0 with Norwich eating too many of Delia Smith’s pies over Christmas. The only true easy win of this period. Surely we can see the top even if we can’t get there? And where does that leave us? On 38 points and if we can repeat that we have 76 which is probably enough for second place and definitely Champions League. However it is an optimistic scenario with 5 wins and 3 draws and no defeats. Possibly too optimistic. But I hope I have shown you a fairly realistic portrait of the task ahead of us. If we win all we have 44 points and double that to get 88 will probably win us the league. But nobody believes that. If we manage to do as well as I have shown here we have a good chance for Champions league. Be under no illusions, top 4 is going to be a big challenge, we need to win or draw matches we don’t deserve to, and win the ones we do. I feel that the 3 losses, the young team, the African championship, and good runs in the League Cup and FA Cup will consign us to fighting for a Europa League place but that, I think, we will achieve, on a much better points total than last year. Fighting for this one is realistic
Can we wait? Whether you are a supporter of Mikel Arteta or not, you are unhappy with the performances of our team in the league. If we were doing ok in the standings, say like on 24 points and 6th like Southampton, but had the same great run in the Europa league, the pressure wouldn’t be so great on Arteta. But it is what it is. We are struggling to win in the league and the reasons are obvious. We don’t put enough pressure on teams in the box because we are too slow to break forward. We play with fear. In the Europa league, by contrast, we chase down everything, the young players move the ball faster forward and there seems to be no fear. It is asking an awful lot at the moment. So, let’s break down the strategy as I see it. He persists with a measured build up all the time and doesn’t want to change that. The logic being that if we keep the ball, the opponent cannot score. Trying to get the ball forward quickly risks losing the ball, our runners being forward, and the opponents finding space. Under Arteta, we don’t go forward without cover, for example, if Tierney bombs forward, Xhaka covers for him. Punting the ball forward, hoping that our players can win a first or second ball, the famous long ball, is not part of the strategy. Those with long memories will remember Palace, with twin strikers Mark Bright and our own Ian Wright, playing with 2 banks of four at the back, relying on the speed and tenacity of those two to get goals, being a great exponent of this style. A perfect system He believes in this process, believes he has good players and I believe that part, by the way. Our players are good, mostly. He believes that once we get confidence, hold the ball, frustrate and tire your opponents, find a way to score, and continue to hold the ball and frustrate your opponents, they will give up more chances. The young players, with their exuberance in the Europa league, bomb forward, lose their shape a bit, and concede goals against lesser teams. If I understand correctly what Arteta is trying to do, he is trying for a perfect system, where you have a machine that holds the ball, only gives it up when the ball is in the net, then chases down the ball to get it again off the kickoff, to start the process again. That explains the amount of passes, the build up from the back, the covering movements, the reluctance to shoot until a perfect opportunity arises. The going back when forward seems better, because going forward risks losing the ball. Can we win this, our ultimate dream? Is it possible? So, can he make it work? First let’s look at Klopp, Liverpool worry first about scoring and can live with conceding as long as they score more, they play an aggressive style which is about getting at the opposition. They need top class defenders to minimise the goals conceded. It works for them. Guardiola’s style has echoes of Arteta’s, keeping the ball, but he often has his players breaking like lightning and there are elements of Klopp’s style there too. Again Guardiola tries to also have a top defence as he accepts that aggression means concession, so you must concede less than the opposition. Arteta seems to want no risk, a patient buildup, frustrate the other side, and win all. Arsene Wenger was a proponent of winning every match and perhaps that is where Arteta gets his vision from. He is right, let’s concede that point. If you keep the ball until you score, you will win every match. Of course, nobody in the world thinks it is possible. They laughed at Wenger when he said they could go through the league unbeaten. He saw it as possible. It was. However, could Arteta be right? If you look at what is coming through, the amount of talent, Saka, Willock, Martinelli, Reiss Nelson, Balogun, Smith Rowe and many others, coupled with Aubameyang, Tierney, Gabriel, Partey, etc., maybe it is. It is a very big ask, to ask players to be disciplined, hold the ball, pass only to your own players, wait, be patient, play as a team, be a unit as disciplined as the famous George Graham defence. If you watch the youtubes of Dixon, Keown, Adams and Winterburn, you will see what I mean, moving as if on string, which took a long time to perfect but brought us glory against arguably the greatest team in English football, Liverpool in the 80’s. Or are we staring at competing in the Championship? A visionary or a false prophet? So we are tasked with waiting, to see if a new style can work, holding, discipline, learning to be a unit, a minimum of aggression, and good football winning out. And I don’t feel the system is negative, as always the intention is to score. In the meantime, as they are working on it, they get beaten, the extraordinary levels of discipline that means no hoofing it into the stands but always trying to find a teammate, or getting the ball back, has brought about a pressure that has led to sendings off, leading to defeats. Let’s contrast Mourinho, who believes the opposite, give the opponent the ball, let them come at you, then break through the holes they have left. A park the bus approach that relies on defence, and top class movement a handful of times per match. Certainly, an easier approach, but also requiring discipline. The big problem, as I see it, with such a system, is that the weaker teams, which are still good in the premier division, play a tight game, inviting the opposition to come at them. They are happy for us to keep the ball, have a slow build up, and hope they get a chance or two. Stringing 20 or more passes together will not give us any necessary advantage. And they know if they pressure Leno and the full backs, mistakes will be made. The big teams will give us chances, and judging by the Europa League, we can beat the weaker ones, but can we notch up enough wins against the Brightons and Burnleys of this world with this system, which will be necessary to win the league? The only way to find out is to wait and see. If Arteta is right and a collective 11, working in harmony, squeezing the opposition, playing beyond their individual abilities, brings us to the equivalent of Real Madrid or Liverpool in their prime, then we should be willing to wait. Of course, he could be wrong and disaster could strike. The question is are we willing to wait to find out? I would love to have foresight I will mention 2 managers here, Alex Ferguson took many years for success, and he booted out some of United’s top players like Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside and others at their peak in 1989 because of a drinking culture. But at the time he didn’t say that was why, to hold their transfer values. The fans didn't like it. It took 3 more years before he won the league. A lot of United fans were calling for him to go, if they had succeeded, maybe United would still be scrabbling for success. And Klopp has been at Liverpool for 5 years. For 4 years he won nothing. He could have been let go but if Man U and Liverpool had known what was to come they would never have complained. One never knows. I do feel that we should support Arteta to the end of the season. Stop the constant abuse from some quarters and get behind the team. We are still in 3 trophies, although the best we can hope for in the league is a Wenger trophy, and we would bite your hand off if that was offered to us now.