What are the tired, old maxims that get attached to Arsenal every season? The ones that are utilised with such relish, the smug utterances that seep out of the perfectly round, shiny heads of Alan Shearer, or Andy Gray, or some other, maybe more follicly endowed (but equally bland) pundit. The ones with which Arsene Wenger has been battered for the last 9 trophyless years, like a man caught in an endless hail storm, repeatedly buying flimsy umbrellas from street vendors that are quickly shredded in the icy maelstrom.
“Arsenal have no leaders in the squad, no dominant personalities with which they might establish a team identity.”
“Arsenal have failed to appoint a captain of any substance since Viera.”
“Arsenal have no grit in midfield, there are too many fragile creative players, not enough enforcers.”
“Arsenal’s squad is too shallow, and if a glut of injuries occurs, the cover available for key players is not up to standard.”
“Wenger refuses to be tactically pragmatic enough; he is too stubbornly focused on a playing with a style that is increasingly being exposed as not muscular enough to compete.”
“Wenger’s reluctance to spend heavily in the transfer market, preferring to spot rough diamonds and develop them into stars worked for a while, but these days, with the universal detailing that goes on with young footballers, the system is faltering and it’s to the detriment of the club.”
And so on, and so forth. We know them all by heart by now. And Arsene Wenger rolls his eyes and shrugs them off, preferring to get on with the business of designing and executing a self-fulfilling prophecy of mid-to-late season collapse every year.
It’s enough to make you feel like committing a bit of the old ultra-violence.
How many times has this happened? That Arsenal have looked strong at the beginning of a season and, in the face of all this criticism, have electrified the league with sublime, attractive football, only to, around two thirds of the way through, wave in the direction of the injury crisis that’s patiently waiting in the wings, signalling that it’s their cue, bow out of the title race, then self-destruct painfully and inevitably into a desperate, limping lunge for fourth place. They may not even achieve that mainly financial consolation this time, which would end a run of 16 consecutive seasons of qualification for Europe’s elite competition.
Remember this goal? Ah, the pre-collapse memories.
The thrashings this season have also seemed more brutal than in recent seasons passed. The 6-3 to City. The 5-1 to Liverpool. The world’s worst ‘Happy 1000th Game, Arsene’ present, the 6-0 to Chelsea. And now this season’s most recent hiding, Everton’s stunning 3-0 win on the weekend. And really, although the 6-0 was catastrophic, the latest result may just be the one that best illustrates the grains of truth that reside in all the tired maxims.
Some reflection is needed.
Losing badly to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea is something that many teams have done this season; in fact it’s difficult to remember a time when the Premier League had three teams in it that were so relentless and merciless in attack. But the last time Everton beat Arsenal 3-0 was in the 89/90 season. On the weekend, Everton lost one of their midfield mainstays, Leon Osman, after 9 minutes. Anyone would think that that would be a significant blow to the Merseyside club, so early in a vitally important game. But it allowed the excellent Ross Barkley to come on and join a midfield that was to dominate the rest of the match. Arteta and Flamini seemed to be uninterested in pressuring any player in blue that entered the middle of the park. The third goal that was eventually credited to the Arteta, the former Toffee, came about because Mirallas was allowed, firstly, to easily win the ball on the half-way line, then run, completely unchallenged by anyone, from the left wing inwards to the edge of Arsenal’s box, and to play an unopposed through ball to Naismith. That alone is bad enough. But then, after Szczesny parried weakly back into the centre of the box, Mirallas had the space and time to run onto the follow up and as-good-as score the goal himself. Look at the way Arteta dawdles after the Belgian, and then ponders as the keeper makes the first save. He barely makes the effort to score the own goal. The way another Belgian, the superlative Romelu Lukaku, took his goal also typified Arsenal’s lethargically anaemic display. As Lukaku shoots, following a great run from the right, there is a group of four Arsenal players around him (they’re actually between him and goal, if we’re being accurate). How many of them try to block the shot? How many throw them hurl themselves wildly to prevent the goal? How many even show a hint of urgency in the midst of what is an emergency situation? Not one.
Lukaku was able to dominate on the right hand side, pulverising Nacho Monreal who was deputising for Kieran Gibbs, who is, wait for it … injured. The Spaniard is not an adequate deputy and Roberto Martinez expertly identified and exploited this weakness tactically. Olivier Giroud continued his run of terrible form, often miscontrolling the ball, and generally excelling at being peripheral. He was eventually replaced by his own deputy, Yaya Sanogo, a player who has five star potential in Football Manager 2013, but is currently not good enough to be the second-in-command striker for a real-life Arsenal. Ozil, Walcott, Wilshere and Kolscielny are all also injured, and as such did not feature on the team sheet.
Listlessness is a word that comes to mind. And as an attitude to take in what was a match that could potentially decide fourth place, Arsenal’s decision to adopt it is nothing short of disgraceful. Wenger knows he will be competing on multiple fronts every season, that his squad is pitifully thin when compared to his rivals, and that being financially stringent now that the Emirates Stadium is finished won’t fly as an excuse for not addressing these issues. Arsenal have money, a lot of it, just ask the supporters who pay the ticket prices. And yet it’s like Groundhog Day every season for Arsene and his team, and Alan Shearer and company can recycle the old maxims without fear of being proved wrong. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, after realising he has to eternally relive the same pseudo-holiday of mind-shredding monotony in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, decides to kill himself. Alas, he wakes up the next morning, fully alive and intact. So he does it again, and again, and again and each time he finds himself back where he was. Arsene Wenger needs to find his own Andie MacDowell, learn to be a good person, try to save a homeless man from dying of old age, learn jazz piano and … erm, well, the metaphor kind of falls down here but you can see what I’m getting at. If Wenger wants to disprove the preconceptions that are held about Arsenal (not to mention win something, anything), he needs to stop constructing teams that annually prove them right.