Patience Required in a World of Instant Judgements

Arsenal Goalkeeper Petr Cech Causes a Stir

By Sam Limbert

With the arrival of a new head coach and the start of the new season, I was very excited going to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. The stadium was full again, the atmosphere felt fresh and there was genuine intrigue as to how Arsenal were going to play. Unfortunately, as soon as the game started there was a fairly severe reality check.

Manchester City were a team at complete ease with their system and tactics whereas Arsenal were at the start of the process, with the gap between the teams highlighting how much work needs to be done by Unai Emery. Patience will be required.

Given there weren’t many opportunities in the match to see how Arsenal’s attack will shape up under the new manager, a lot of the post-match discussion has centered around the team playing out from the back. This was the clearest ‘new’ thing Arsenal were trying and it wasn’t without its teething problems as Petr Cech almost scored an own goal that would have broken the internet with gifs, memes and retweets.Arsenal Goalkeepers Bernd Leno & Petr Cech

Manchester City were arguably the worst team in the league against which to try and play this new style as Pep Guardiola’s team are suited to pressing high up the pitch, so a lot of the time it felt like the Gunners were playing in the hands of the opposition. The side of the fan brain that expects the worse came the fore as there was a palpative sense of nervousness as soon as another goal kick was played to one of the centre-backs, with a long goal kick being cheered near the end of the first half.

This is where the patience is required from supporters. I didn’t enjoy watching the team almost shoot themselves in the foot with the passing around the back, but having made the changes in the coaching staff over the summer, there are likely to be embarrassing mistakes as the team adapt to new ways of thinking.

In a world where social media judgement is instantaneous, it seems strangely appropriate that an Arsenal player was involved in a bit of a social media storm when we need to take the longer-term view.  Petr Cech is one of the last players from the squad I’d have suspected to be involved in calling out others on Twitter, but as someone who comes across as a principled man (despite having played for Chelsea under Mourinho!), I don’t blame him to responding to Bayer Leverkusen’s attempts at banter.

The goalkeeper has been one of the major points of discussion after the game and some fans and pundits have been very quick to write off Cech. The reality is that, for all of his experience in the game, he is being asked to play a style of football that he hasn’t done before in his career.

This is where I hope there has been some joined-up thinking between the Head Coach and the Head of Recruitment. If Unai Emery was clear that he was going to play out from the back in this style, then he needed a goalkeeper well equipped to do that. Bernd Leno may well be that guy in the future, but if he isn’t deemed ready to start a Premier League game ahead of the more experienced option in Cech, then we have to trust the judgement of the coaching staff.

For all of the criticism of Cech last season, he still had some very good games and remains an excellent goalkeeper. He’s the best Arsenal have got in terms of the fundamentals of goalkeeping, but the expectations on players in that position are changing.

Cech will start again on Sunday, and I think that’s the right decision. Despite the money spent on Leno, I still had a gut feeling that Cech would start the season as the number one. While plenty of changes were required and have been made in the squad, it makes sense for any new manager to have some experienced players to rely on to help the transition between eras and help Unai Emery’s own adaptation into the Premier League. With Laurent Koscielny out injured, Cech’s leadership, both as one of the five captains below the Frenchman and to help organise the defence, will have worked in his favour in Emery’s selection.

In the long term, I expect Leno to replace Cech as the number one, and that could happen later this season if he does well in the Europa League and cup competitions. But for the moment Unai Emery has understandably opted for a safer pair of hands, albeit not necessarily a safer pair of feet.

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The most Arsenal-like game of the season?

As much as I’ve tried to think that Arsenal are still in with a shout of the title, despite the good wins over Everton and Watford, the chances were pretty slim before Arsenal managed to be in control of the match against West Ham on Saturday before throwing it away but subsequently salvaging a point.
There were plenty of positive moments for the Gunners during the game, but ultimately, it summed up why this team won’t be lifting the Premier League trophy in May, despite the failings of other big clubs around them.
The positives were the link-up play and the fluidity of the front four again. Since Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck have been picked from the start in recent weeks, the Gunners have scored nine goals in three Premier League games, and some of them have been works of art. The first two scored at Upton Park on Saturday fell into that category as excellent assists from Iwobi were finished off by Ozil and Alexis. Slaven Billic had hoped to nullify Arsenal’s threat by playing three centre-backs and limit the space for Arsenal to play into the inside-channels, but the movement of the front four pulled the Hammers’ defence all over the place in the first half and Arsenal deservedly scored two lovely goals.
As has been mentioned on numerous occasions in the last few weeks, Iwobi has been a breath of fresh air to the team and has, along with Danny Welbeck, given Arsenal a different dimension to the attacking play with some pace and creativity. The movement of those two has, in turn, reinvigorated Alexis Sanchez and has given Mesut Ozil more options when looking to create opportunities.
The other main positive was how Arsenal responded to going 3-2 down. At that stage, it looked like the team would crumble, but they were able to assert a bit of dominance back into the game and equalise through Laurent Koscielny. But, the bigger issue is that Arsenal should never have been in the position of needing to make such a comeback having been leading by two goals.
Being 2-0 up with a minute of normal time left in the first half, it should have been inconceivable that Arsenal would be level at the break. The Gunners made it easy for West Ham to get back into the game and then crumbled once the Hammers put on some pressure. No-one closed down the cross when Aaron Cresswell set up Andy Carroll for his first goal, and having conceded, Arsenal panicked and weren’t focussed on the next set piece.
Having conceded two, it just felt inevitable that West Ham would take the lead in the second half through the same tactics. Andy Carroll was always going to beat Hector Bellerin in the air and Arsenal were punished again for not preventing the delivery into the box as he completed his hat-trick.
Even though the Gunners went into the game off the back of two wins and two clean sheets, it was a surprise that Petr Cech didn’t come back into the team for David Ospina, and that Per Mertesacker wasn’t selected with Andy Carroll likely to start for the hosts. On seeing the team sheet, West Ham must have been delighted to see Arsenal’s two most commanding defensive players sitting on the subs’ bench. Gabriel has had some good games for the club and will get better with experience, but at a time when Arsenal have been saying that they have to go all out for wins in this final run of games, it was arguably a big risk to play him against Carroll.
Against Everton and Watford, Arsenal’s back-line was rarely tested, and when it came under the pump at Upton Park, it struggled. Laurent Koscielny is still adapting to being the leader of the defence, and even if just Cech was selected, you can’t help but think that the organisation and communication would have been better at the back. Ospina is a good shot -stopper and, to be fair to him, has deputised well for Cech in the past month, but he’s still not as commanding or dominant as the Czech. Having pulled off the coup of signing Cech in the first place, it always feels like a waste when he isn’t selected, and now he’s back from injury, he has to be in the team.
This season is meandering towards its conclusion, and the dropped points mean Arsenal have a bigger gap to make up on Spurs. Once again, the Gunners are left with North London supremacy as the only thing to fight for and, while there are moments of glorious attacking play and promise, there’s moments of defensive and mental weakness that lead to stupid dropped points, all summed up in a balmy and frustrating 90 minutes in East London on Saturday.

Gunners gain a battling point at the Britannia

As expected, there was nothing pretty about a trip to Stoke. Arsenal came away with a 0-0 draw which, while frustrating, is a significant improvement on recent trips there when the Gunners have surrendered to a meek defeat.
It’s impossible to say at this stage if the draw will be any sort of turning point or inspiration for Arsenal in the title race. Stoke have taken all three points off Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea at the Britannia this season, so a draw is a decent enough result, and it was achieved without Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin and others. Without that amount of creativity, Arsenal were always likely to struggle to prize open a pretty miserly Stoke defence, so the lack of goals shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. 
It wasn’t for a lack of endeavour though as Arsenal looked up for the physical battle that Stoke posed. For all the talk of ‘Stoke-alona’ and the improved style of play from the Potters this season, they were always likely to revert back to a more direct, more confrontational, style with Arsenal in town. Somehow, there were no yellow cards in the game as, unfortunately, the referee bought into the hostile atmosphere and struggled to recognise any fouls worthy of a card from the home side, despite there being plenty to choose from. 
Despite the more sturdy performance from Arsenal at Stoke, they were indebted to Petr Cech. Without a few fantastic saves from the big keeper, the Gunners would have felt the familiar sinking feeling at the Britannia. The standouts came in the second half as the game opened more and chances began to come at both ends. There was a brilliant double save to deny Joselu and then Bojan as Cech kept out the initial powerful effort before sliding back to towards the goal to divert the follow-up wide. He then made a superb stop with his left foot after Aaron Ramsey had headed a chance off the line.
The lines about Cech making a difference to Arsenal this season have been written to death, but they still ring very true. The presence of a world class goalkeeper between the sticks can’t be underestimated. It wasn’t just his saves that were impressive on Sunday either, but his commanding clearances and catches from crosses into the box were also things we’ve rarely seen from an Arsenal goalkeeper in this fixture on that ground.
At the other end, Jack Butland was in equally impressive form for Stoke. When Arsenal did manage to create a couple of openings, the Stoke keeper was there to keep the scores level. In the first half, he made an excellent smothering stop in a one-on-one with Olivier Giroud before denying the same player in the second half as the Frenchman sent a header towards the bottom corner. In both situations, I don’t think there’s much more that Olivier Giroud could have done, you just have to hold your hands up and accept that the goalkeeper made some good saves.
The game deserved to be 0-0, and when Stoke were intent on disrupting the game and were good defensively, it’s hard to be too frustrated at Arsenal. Alexis and Ozil would obviously have made a difference to the team going forward, but Arsene Wenger was right to leave them at home as it wasn’t worth risking them if there are any injury concerns whatsoever.  If Arsenal win the next game against Chelsea, the point will seem like a good one, especially as it should allow for the return of some fit and firing creative players to face the struggling Blues.
Just a final word on the Stoke fans’ abuse of Aaron Ramsey. I understand that certain players against certain clubs get some stick from opposing supporters, it is part of football, albeit not an attractive one. But to continually abuse a player for having his leg snapped in two is just embarrassing and shameful.