A frustrating start to Arsenal’s run of Christmas fixtures has unnecessarily stacked pressure on Arsene Wenger and his squad. Like a student attempting to cram 6 months’ worth of revision into a single night, it seems like this Arsenal squad have already failed their Christmas exam.
The result against Everton, a team who had won one in ten until they overpowered Arsenal on Tuesday night and the ensuing 2-1 loss to City, seem to have culminated into a defining moment for this squad – or should that be a groundhog moment? A team that have previously been able to grind out results and create something from nothing in weeks gone by failed to trouble a defence that had conceded 11 goals in 5 games. To add further insult to injury, Everton have scored 4 goals in the same period and 2 were against the permeable defence of Prodl and Britos. Similarly, City have struggled in recent weeks. They were comprehensively beaten by Chelsea two weeks ago. Last weekend they were embarrassed by Leicester City. Yet, when tasked with taking on the team who were sitting 2nd in the league, City were confident of getting a result – buoyed by the suspicion that this Arsenal team are no different to the Arsenal sides of the last 12 years.
There comes a point when the question must be asked: why have Arsenal as a club failed to overcome their mental fragility? The constant acquisition of intricate playmakers, the reluctance to buy ready-made stars, the failure to hold onto key players and the lack of spending have all, somewhat, been rectified. The only constant that still remains is Arsene Wenger. Wenger is undoubtedly a catalyst for much of the good that goes on within the club but that shouldn’t exempt him for taking responsibility for the one remaining imperfection that continues to derail Arsenal’s title hopes.
“The two goals are two offside goals in a game of that stature I feel enough is enough for us. We got some bad decisions for the whole season and today I looked at the goals and both are offside. The second one is five yards offside. The first one is still offside. But what can I do?
If ever a quote summarised what was wrong with a club, surely it is this. Both goals could be argued to have a slight infraction. Sane may have been millimetres offside – this is still unclear despite numerous replays. David Silva was undoubtedly in an offside position, however he did not contribute to the goal in any way. Cech was at full stretch as he dove to his left hand side, there is no evidence to suggest he was even aware of Silva’s positioning. Rather than questioning the referee’s judgement, which I think was sound on both occasions – shouldn’t Wenger be questioning his side’s insipid second half performance and possibly even apologising for his own? As the Arsenal squad left the field at half time, they were firmly in control. City’s defence had looked vulnerable at every probing attack, the left hand side of the defence was particularly vulnerable and yet when Arsenal emerged, it seemed like the players had thought they had already won the game – or worse that they couldn’t possibly build upon their advantage. They surrendered possession. They yielded territory. They gave up the fight. They capitulated.
Arsenal are no longer a team of kids. They have title winners, European Champions and World Champions amongst their ranks and still this team lack the mental fortitude to challenge for a league title. On a number of occasions, in both the Everton and City game, Alexis could be seen berating his colleagues for not supporting him in pressing the opponents. He was constantly trying to cajole Oxlade Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil and the midfield pairing to put pressure on the opposition’s defence. Yet each time he was left out to dry. Whether they have been instructed to sit deep – which shows a worrying lack of tactical acumen from Wenger or whether they are lazy which is equally disturbing, there is clearly a problem within the side.
Furthermore, Wenger’s decisions from the sidelines continue to frustrate and confuse. Arsenal fans were subjected to 71 innocuous minutes of Theo Walcott against Everton. Additionally, it was clear that there was no system or at least very little instruction into how Arsenal were supposed to break down this energetic Everton side. Everton allowed Arsenal to dictate proceedings for the opening 20 minutes before realising that there were obvious deficiencies in their opponents, at which point, the side awoke and began to swarm Arsenal’s every pass; Alexis’ goal only served to rouse Everton from their slumber as opposed to rattling them. As the minutes ticked by and the crowd grew louder, the Arsenal eleven shrank and failed to build upon their early advantage. But this is the Premier League, renowned for its unpredictable and often volatile nature – Arsenal just merely seemed to be the ship caught in this particular storm, a night when only the firmest of hands could steer them clear of treacherous rocks and unseen reefs. Yet the man at the tiller seemed unable to take the appropriate evasive action; in fact never mind evasive action, he hardly seemed to know where the lifeboats were.
After allowing Walcott to flounder for 71 minutes, both him and the Ox were taken off for Giroud and Iwobi. Whilst it was a relief to see Walcott make way, the rationalisation for taking off the Ox didn’t stand to scrutiny. The Ox has added an element of consistency in recent weeks but the moment that seemed the turning point arrived as his cross was met by Giroud in order to smuggle a point from Old Trafford three weeks prior. Whilst not scintillating against Everton, Oxlade Chamerlain was still attempting to provide width and deliver crosses. Walcott did not. The introduction of Giroud should surely have been complemented by keeping the equally direct Ox on the pitch with him.
The second issue with the substitutions was the introduction of Iwobi. I am a huge admirer of Iwobi, he is neat and tidy in possession, he drifts between the lines and can often provide that element of genius that Walcott and the Ox often lack. Yet wouldn’t his arrival not have been more suited to when Arsenal had the marauding Alexis as their number 9 and not the lighthouse impersonating Giroud? The substitutions felt obligatory, a chance to show that Wenger was being proactive; however the reality was far from it. It seemed a desperate throw of the dice – the introduction of two players, neither suited to each other’s individual styles, thrown together in a potent concoction of ineptitude and futility.
The same questions arose at the Etihad on Sunday. Walcott, despite his goal, struggled to impact the second half. Coquelin and Xhaka were embarrassed by the performance of the revitalised 33 year old Toure, yet no reinforcements were introduced to help ease the burden. Ozil remained on the pitch despite being anonymous for 45 minutes, as he was against Everton. Giroud was predictably brought on, which ultimately signified the complete surrender of any sort of pressing whilst the more agile and aggressive Lucas Perez sat twiddling his thumbs on the bench. Wenger was unfortunate to lose Oxlade Chamberlain so early to injury but then his choice of Elneny over Perez equally confused; what was his game plan? Did he want someone to run with the ball, create opportunities, poach a goal or to retain possession?
Questions have often been asked of Wenger’s perceived tactical acumen. There is no doubt that he is astute in many aspects of the game but one wonders whether Walcott would have lasted as long as he did against Everton under Mourinho, Conte or even the huggable, affable Klopp. One would also wonder whether the introduction of the static Giroud, when a more mobile attacker willing to press may have been better suited in both matches, was the correct decision. Finally, one has to question what Wenger said to his side before sending them out at half time against a shaky Manchester City defence - how could a team so firmly in control surrender their authority so willingly?
With rain hammering their faces, waves pounding the ship and thunderclouds looming, a safe hand at the tiller was required to navigate the Arsenal crew to safety; Arsenal have the men and the resources to do so but the current captain is set on his course of action regardless of what lies ahead. A change is needed. Time to mutiny.
Til next time,