Paul Merson called Arsenal a mid-table team. He may have over-estimated a little.
Arsenal are certainly not top six material and, right now, sit outside the middle rump of seven. In other years, a total of 13 points after 10 games might place a club a few spots higher, yet in some ways Arsenal are quite lucky.
The bottom three are very weak currently. Arsenal are lower down the table, but further from the relegation fight.
Arsenal have made their poorest start since 1981-82 and look destined to finish nowhere
In 2014-15, for instance, they would have been 12th — hurrah! — but just four points off relegation. So the league table is not lying. This is a serious slump. As it stands, Arsenal are on course to finish nowhere.
Out of the Champions League places, out of Europe entirely, unless they can win a cup. Arsenal are on aggregate course to accrue 49.4 points, and that would be at best eighth place taken across the last 10 campaigns, in others 12th and, on average, around 10th.
This is their poorest start to a league campaign since 1981-82 under Terry Neill.
That year, they rallied to finish fifth, but there is scant sign of a similar revival. Arsenal are comfortably the least effective of the Big Six and also need to rein in European contenders such as Leicester, Wolves and Aston Villa — all of whom have won at the Emirates Stadium already this season.
Mikel Arteta has spent so long trying to shore up Arsenal’s weaknesses that he has neglected the one strong point they had. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: a 30-goal per season striker.
Jose Mourinho was derided as a negative coach but he knew what he had at Tottenham. Whatever changes he needed to make to defensive strategy, the imperative was to keep his two best forwards, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, firing. He has managed to put his mark on the rest of the team without reducing Kane and Son’s impact.
You can’t help but sympathise with Mikel Arteta for the players he has at his disposal
At Arsenal, the opposite has happened. Arteta may initially have made Arsenal harder to beat, but he has done so at the expense of the creativity that brought Aubameyang to life.
The midfield is dreadfully ponderous, and endless crosses as were struck against Wolves on Sunday, might suit some strikers — but not Aubameyang.
There is also the fear that the player is losing engagement and confidence; that he wanted to leave in the summer for a bigger club such as Real Madrid and when Covid economics put an end to that, Arsenal became his fall-back option.
He stayed and took the money. Cynics suggested the motivation to impress an attractive suitor would no longer be there; and he is doing little to prove them wrong. Great teams are built from the back, yet there is no sign that Arteta is emulating George Graham in his defensive regime.
Anyway, Graham combined that famous back four with an urgent midfield, full of athleticism and wide invention.
Standards have been allowed to slip and now Arsenal have a mish-mash of players
Forget the Arsene Wenger years, forget the Invincibles. This is about Arteta getting back to basics, and Wenger was a visionary. Graham is the antecedent here. Except there is not a single member of his midfield group who would not only walk into this team, but immediately be its best player.
David Rocastle, Michael Thomas, Paul Davis, Kevin Richardson, Merson, Brian Marwood. Arteta has no one like that. Anders Limpar had been added for the second title win in 1990-91. The same applies.
It is catching up with Arsenal now, the way standards have been allowed to slip. The board hid behind Wenger, rather than admitting the limit on his funds after the stadium had been built, and when that period ended, rivals who were more robust financially had taken Arsenal’s place.
Arsenal’s response was a mish-mash of inherited philosophies channelled through executives who have now left. The team reflects that.
Here’s one from the time we were going to be Borussia Dortmund, here’s some others we can’t get off the books, here’s one we pay £300,000 a week to make us look stupid on Twitter, here’s Edu’s lot.
Arsenal boss is however not playing to the strengths of star man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
So Arteta merits sympathy. He is trying to forge a Champions League team from a group of players who have demonstrated they are not of that calibre; but it is not as if Arsenal are just falling short of the target. They are shooting for the moon, and crash-landing on the shed in their back garden. They are 14th; and next visit the league leaders, who happen also to be their nearest and greatest rivals. And it might be they spring a surprise. It happens in derbies. Manchester United beat Manchester City as inferiors now, just as City won against all expectations on odd occasions when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge.
This is another moment in time when a composite north London team would probably comprise 11 Tottenham players and, at a similar juncture in 2017, Arsenal won the subsequent game 2-0. The league table told the truth, though, as it always does: sixth by the end, 37 points behind champions Manchester City, 14 off Tottenham. Arsenal may raise their game for the big occasion, but lesser teams sometimes do.
It was thought a win at Old Trafford on November 1 might prove a turning point but, since then, Arsenal have claimed a single point from three league matches, scoring one goal, conceding five. It places them just where Merson sees them; and that’s on a good day.
Never too late to educate Edinson
Having played all but one full season of his professional career in Europe, it is rather puzzling that Edinson Cavani has reached the age of 33 without anyone explaining that negrito is no longer considered an acceptable form of address. Maybe it did not come up in conversation; perhaps residents of Palermo, Naples and Paris are less demanding of their guests. Yet Cavani is well travelled and devout. He would have to be cloth-eared not to realise times have changed.
Yet language is a queer fish. Just as Cavani argues only good cheer was intended by his sign-off, ‘Gracias, negrito’, so the c-word, considered the strongest expletive in our language, can also be employed as a term of endearment. ‘How are you, you old c***?’ one friend might ask, with no slight intended.
So this could be a teachable moment, rather than one which ends in a significant suspension. Certainly, there is a marked difference in the way Cavani used a racial epithet towards a friend and later apologised for the wider offence and how it was deployed by Luis Suarez towards Patrice Evra, in a very different context.
If we want marquee foreign players in this country — and undoubtedly we do — there must be acknowledgment of cultural collision points. Just as the fundamentalist religious beliefs of some Pacific Islanders clash with rugby union’s policy of inclusion, so the nuances of language in parts of the world may also offend our sensibilities.
Edinson Cavani found himself in hot water after he called a friend ‘negrito’ on Instagram
At around the time of the Evra-Suarez spat, Dani Pacheco, then a Liverpool player, sent a friendly tweet to his Spain Under 21 team-mate Thiago Alcantara, in which he called him negrito. Absolutely no malice was intended, even though Pacheco is white. It seems abhorrent to us now because we forget the days when Tony Cunningham at Newcastle was tagged ‘Blackie Milburn’ and West Brom’s trio of black players were ‘The Three Degrees’.
No harm was meant by any of that but it defined individuals by their skin colour and, over time, people learned and changed. So this is all about context and teaching.
It will certainly seem a misguided reaction if the Football Association hit Cavani with a punishment resembling Suarez’s lengthy ban, rather than a longer explanation of the issue. Education is the key.
Cavani shouldn’t still be in need of it at 33, but maybe that’s not entirely his fault, either.
Turf Moor the merrier!
It used to be a cold Tuesday in Stoke that would test the mettle of men like Lionel Messi. Then Stoke got relegated, so the location shifted to Burnley.
Turf Moor is the ground that would supposedly make the world’s finest footballers tremble in trepidation, Burnley the opposition who would stand immune to their trickery. Strange then, that the last seven matches between Burnley and Manchester City have resulted in seven straight City wins, with an aggregate score of 28-1.
On Saturday, City became the first team to win four successive home games against the same opponent by a margin of five goals or more since Notts County consistently beat Port Vale, between 1893 and 1907.
Not so much ‘Welcome to hell’ as ‘Can we play you every week?’
(By the way, Cristiano Ronaldo faced Stoke twice as a Manchester United player. Won both, aggregate 6-0, scored two goals.)
Burnley crumbled against Manchester City again as Pep Guardiola’s men put five past them
At least Sunderland are winning sack race
Sunderland are two points off the play-off places, with a game in hand. Win that and, depending on results elsewhere, they could go as high as third.
They haven’t won in five games, but one of those was an FA Cup upset by Mansfield, another a loss in the Football League Trophy.
So, in promotion-chasing terms, Sunderland’s slump since beating Ipswich on November 3 equates to a home defeat by Milton Keynes Dons and draws away at Fleetwood and Doncaster — two clubs who are in the orbit of the play-off places. Fleetwood beat Hull, now top of the table, 4-1 in October.
Doncaster have played all four teams in the play-off slots this season and have won every game, including away at Charlton and Portsmouth.
So Sunderland sacked their manager, Phil Parkinson, this weekend, because that is what they do. No manager has lasted more than two years at the club since Steve Bruce, who left in 2011.
Since then, Sunderland have had 10 managers, plus five caretakers and have fallen through two divisions. One wonders whether these events are related.
Expect United to conduct business in their usual way
Apparently the computer hack at Manchester United even reached their confidential scouting and transfer systems.
With the ransom rumoured to be set at £15m, we can now expect United to conduct business in their usual way — do nothing for weeks until the deadline is almost up, then try to hand £30m to the wrong group of hackers.
Tyson’s famous quote stands for Dubois’ case
Boxing is indebted to Mike Tyson again. Not for his exhibition bout with Roy Jones Jnr, met with the widespread scorn it deserved, but for his succinct summing up of Daniel Dubois’s defeat by Joe Joyce.
‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ Tyson wasn’t specifically referring to this fight, of course, but the analysis stands.
Daniel Dubois was favourite to beat Joe Joyce but lost after suffering a serious eye injury
Sex and drugs and a tale that fizzled out…
And now a return to an occasional series entitled: imagine if that were football.
Oisin Murphy, Britain’s champion jockey, received a three-month ban after testing positive for cocaine. He explained to the French racing authorities that he had sex with a woman who transpired to be a cocaine user the night before taking three rides and failing a test at Chantilly on July 19.
Unfortunately, he could not identify the woman to France Galop, the French racing authority, as she had requested privacy through her lawyers. This is a story that appears to have all the right ingredients — sex, drugs and, through Murphy’s status at the pinnacle of his sport, no little rock ’n’ roll. Yet it fizzled to nothing.
The news made no more than a few paragraphs in most media outlets, with no follow-ups, no suspicion, no judgements, no quizzical pursuit of the mystery woman. No awkward questions to Qatar Racing, where Murphy is the No 1 jockey, or the QIPCO British Champions Series, where he is an ambassador.
And France Galop accepted his explanation — meaning Murphy will serve a reduced ban, ending March 11, and return before all the major meetings in spring. Now, imagine if that were football.
Oisin Murphy got reduced ban after his explanation for positive cocaine test was just accepted
Parachute payments don’t equal promotion
Opponents of Premier League parachute payments will view the current Championship table as Exhibit A, with the three relegated clubs first, second and third. This, however, is an anomaly.
If Norwich, Watford and Bournemouth do return at the first time of asking, it will be the sole such promotion in Premier League history. To get even two of three clubs back at the first attempt has happened only five times — most recently in 2015-16.
By comparison, no relegated teams returning has occurred on 10 occasions and the most common reappearance is just one. Parachute payments offer little assurance.
Sports ministers no more intellectually rigorous than Beckham
George Osborne wanted David Beckham as sports minister, it is said. Oh, how they laugh. Yet, given the parade of absolute mediocrities that have been through that department in recent years, what exactly would be the problem?
It is said he wouldn’t have been intellectually rigorous. What, and that lot were?