Beat the rich, lose to the poor: Examining Arsenal's Robin Hood complex
By Mac Johnson (Deputy Editor)
When Arsenal fans looked at the April fixture list, I'm sure most predicted a good start to the month, and a poor end. Matches against Palace and Brighton looked winnable, if a bit tricky—both are notorious bogey teams for Arsenal, but we were in excellent form coming into Palace, and Brighton's fixture was played at the Emirates. A floundering Southampton team was considered an easy win.
And for an Arsenal team that hadn't won against so-called "Big Six" opposition all season with the exception of September's destruction of Sp*rs, the prospect of a week playing Chelsea at the Bridge followed immediately by Manchester United didn't exactly raise spirits. And yet, as so often happens with the Arsenal, the polar opposite of the expected came to pass.
We were deservingly crushed by Palace, who were the better team on the day, and Brighton's win was lucky, but we also didn't show up to the races. We were toothless against Southampton. A run of injuries within the team hampered progress, sure, but the fault can only be shared among the remaining members of the squad, and the manager.
Personnel-wise, we learned a lot from those three matches. Cedric and Nuno Tavares don't work together as a full-back pairing. Granit Xhaka is crucial to our midfield, with or without Thomas Partey, and should never play left-back again. Lokonga is best in a pivot, or playing ahead of a more defensive partner. Alexandre Lacazette is fighting his confidence monster again. Eddie Nketiah is relatively anonymous when the battle is fought in close quarters. We still rely too much on Saka and Ødegaard.
And maybe those little tidbits of knowledge helped us against Chelsea, because we were a different team. Fighting for every ball, crunching into tackles, first to the 50/50's, and working to force the Blues into mistakes, the London Derby spirit was unmistakable. Rightly, though, there were those who asked, after the match, why oh why we couldn't have showed an iota of that tenacity against the midfield teams to whom we had just lost.
Some of that comes down to coaching and preparation. When you specialize in a positional play system, it can often be difficult to chop and change while keeping the same formation. Asking Nuno Tavares (or anybody, for that matter) to replace Kieran Tierney is a fool's errand. The only way to work around that is to reinvent a system that suits the players available. We did that against Chelsea and it worked a treat. But still, the question isn't entirely answered as to why we didn't show up in the weeks previous.
I think the match against Man U helped resolve that question. Though it was frenetic, frantic, fast-paced, and fraught with errors from both sides, Arsenal came away the victors, mostly because we capitalized on the chances presented to us, not to mention making a few of our own, but also because we played the match on the front foot, regardless of the tide of play at any given moment.
We're a team that works and scores especially well in transition play, when we're able to disrupt and opponent and capitalize on opportunity. Teams like Crystal Palace, and Brighton, and Southampton, specialize in sitting deep and slowing momentum. When the matches are competitive and open, it suits us far better than the slow tedium involved in attacking many teams lower in the table. And because those tactics are created to combat teams with the firepower of Liverpool, Manchester City, and Chelsea, they tend to work quite well against Arsenal, too.
However, I think this team often accedes to the style and tempo set by other teams, instead of looking to control the game. That works well against bigger teams, who inherently look to play a more open, faster style that suits the speed and aggression of this Arsenal squad very well. But against smaller teams, we often let them dictate proceedings in the important moments, even in the matches where we hold high amounts of unproductive, useless possession. Much of that comes down to youth and lack of experience of the players, but also to the inflexibility of our tactics when things aren't going well.
In order to unlearn this Robin Hood complex, it's clear that we cannot approach matches with a sense of superiority or from a position where we believe we "should win" a match. Because often, it's that arrogance that leads to complacency, and complacent is the last thing Arsenal can possibly be if they wish to qualify for the Champions League next season.
We have the momentum. We have the talent. Now we just have to pull the mental side of the game together to keep this run churning. Because we can't afford another slip-up, not with the race for top four so tight. Take it one match at a time, and take nothing for granted. For the first time in years, we've actually got a lot to lose.