Bolton 2-1 Arsenal : Broken

It’s rare that I sit here and don’t quite know where to start the blog. I know there’s a lot of anger out there but this morning my overriding feeling is one of sadness at another season which promised so much delivering nothing.

Arsene Wenger Bolton

Sadness that a game we should have won was let slip. Sadness that when we needed someone to be the hero nobody was there. Sadness that we were undone by basic defending. And sadness that what it tells us is that this team is just not good enough to win things.

We had our strongest XI out there yesterday – bar Vermaelen – and yet Bolton looked more dangerous. We should have had a penalty early on when Matt Taylor felled Theo Walcott but it was only very late in the half, when Cesc smacked the bottom of the post, that we troubled Bolton seriously. Until then we played like we were seeing phantom Bendtners in the box, firing in cross after cross after cross for Cahill and Knight to head away time and time again.

There were warning signs. Sturridge was almost clean through but Sagna got back to hook it clear. Lee was clean through but for some reason decided he’d try a flick to a teammate rather than shoot. And then Sturridge put Lee in over the top forcing a great save from Szczesny. From the subsequent corner Bolton scored. Alex Song lost Cahill, Clichy, who was marking Sturridge, went to the ball and when it was blocked on the line the on-loan Chelsea striker had nobody near him and a free header from 3 yards out. 1-0 Bolton.

We began the second half shakily. Sturridge won a penalty with some theatrics but justice was done when Szczesny saved from Kevin Davies. Not long afterwards we were level. Robin van Persie combined with Cesc on the edge of the box and fired home to make it 1-1. From then on we tried and pressed and put Bolton on the back foot. There’s no doubt we gave a lot, I have no beef with the effort, just the quality.

The best chance fell to Samir Nasri. Running on to van Persie’s excellent ball over the top he was clean through with just Jaaskelainen to beat but he fired it straight at the keeper. His contribution this season has been excellent, in fairness, but if this were 2002 and that were Freddie clean through from a Bergkamp pass it would have been 2-1 Arsenal. In games like these you need players to step up and show they’ve got the temperament and quality for the big moments. Yesterday, we didn’t.

We kept pressing, Nasri and Chamakh contrived to squander another couple of openings, but at no point was Jaaskelainen really troubled. As we came forward Bolton exploited the space, Elmander clean through forced another great save from Szczesny leading to the corner from which they got the winner. Again it was basic stuff. Poor marking from Djourou allowed Cohen to get ahead of him and flick a header in at the near post. An emotional moment for the Bolton player and the referee who booked him for taking off his shirt really ought to be ashamed of himself this morning.

From our point of view though it was ridiculous. You can’t defend like that and expect to win titles. If a Sunday League player did that he’d get a bollocking and rightly so. SZCZ lumped the ball downfield, angry that he’d been let down by his defenders. Twice he made outstanding saves and both times they scored from the subsequent corners. Here’s a telling stat : 56% of the goals Arsenal have conceded have come from set pieces (via Orbinho).

That really is amazing and to me it suggests that a lot more than new personnel is required to fix it. We need education and organisation, as well as a defender, or two, who will ensure we’re stronger and more difficult to break down that way. Let’s face it, two fairly average corners cost us the game yesterday and at this level, when you’ve got an Achilles heel like that, other teams can take advantage. They don’t even have to be that good to do so. These weren’t Beckahmesque deliveries or anything. 56% of all goals conceded from set pieces. Just not good enough.

Afterwards, Arsene tried to deflect the focus away from the players and onto himself, saying:

It’s very unsatisfactory because it’s one of the easiest run-ins we’ve had for a long time and we didn’t take our chances many times. That’s frustrating because you feel the potential is there but you have to take your chances.

The players have been outstanding all season. If there is somebody to blame, it is me. I pick the team.

I’ve watched Arsene for many years now and I’ve never, ever seen him like this. He looks broken and I find it a bit hard to watch, if I’m being brutally honest. It’s noble of him to try and shoulder all the blame and, ultimately, the buck stops with the manager at any football club.

These are the players he has bought, the players he’s talked up, the players he’s given chances to, the players in whom he has had such public belief, and as such he’s responsible for what they do. At the same time he’d probably be right to expect better than he’s got in some games this season. Chances squandered, goals given away through carelessness and poor defending, leads let slip late on, performances in the big games (one or two exceptions apart) just not up to the level they should be.

Maybe it’s a reflection on the personnel, and the way they’re managed, but I couldn’t help looking at that game yesterday, on top of many since the Carling Cup final, and wonder if the problem goes much deeper than that. If it were another team and we looked at it objectively, might we opine that the players just don’t seem to be doing it for their manager, for whatever reason?

What’s not in doubt is that once again, at the crucial part of the season, Arsenal have fallen apart. When it comes to final games of the season we lack the character to go and win the games we need to win. It’s in direct contrast to Wenger’s successful teams who used to finish the season much more strongly (see timeline of the Guardian’s Sean Ingle for more). Is it lack of experience? Lack of fitness? Lack of character? Lack of ability? Most likely a combination of all of them but it is a big problem.

There is no mental strength. If there was we would have won that game yesterday. Nasri would have slid that chance home and we’d have defended last minute corners with determination and concentration. I don’t buy Arsene’s argument about how we’ve done well because nobody expected us to fight for the title. A classic straw man. Maybe people did write us off before the season began and maybe we did prove those people wrong but when you’re in a position where the league is in your own hands – as it was with us – then there’s an expectation that a team like Arsenal should, at the very least, fight right to the end.

There’s an expectation, and not an unrealistic one, that from games against Sunderland, Blackburn, West Brom and Bolton, you come away with more than 3 points from a possible 12. There’s an expectation that you don’t let a lead slip having gone ahead in the 98th minute, that you don’t let a two goal lead go at Sp*rs. And those expectations come from being in the position we found ourselves in, that the team and the manager worked hard to build.

We had this league in our own hands and, over a period of a couple of weeks, we’ve stumbled and fumbled it to United like it were a hot potato. That’s why there’s so much frustration. It’s not the first time we’ve done it in recent seasons either and while the old reliables (‘Should have bought X, Y and Z’) are rather too simplistic there’s no doubt at all that something’s got to change. If you keep making the same mistakes, keep showing the same weaknesses, you cannot fail to address them as we have in recent times.

Yes, the team deserve credit for getting into the position where the league title was attainable. At the same time that leaves them, and the manager, open for criticism when they blow it. Again. Questions over the manager will be asked again, and more loudly, and that’s a natural consequence of what’s happened. On this, however, I’m with the ‘holic who asks that debate be reasonable and mannerly.

I think Arsenal’s online fanbase is fantastic, obviously, but as my esteemed blogging colleague points out none of us has the right to speak on behalf of anyone other than ourselves. Arseblog is what I think and no more. Never has been, never will be. There are those who presume to represent great swathes of Arsenal fans. Maybe they share an opinion, but no more. Everyone has a voice, everyone has an opinion, and it’s no more or less important than anyone else’s.

It can be disheartening to read the invective hurled at the manager or players or even at other Arsenal fans who do nothing more than dare to think differently than someone else. It’s poisonous at times and it makes my toes curl at others. Everyone can be frustrated and even angry but you’ll be taken a lot more seriously if you can get your opinion across without resorting to abuse. And if you think that’s the only way you’ll be heard then fair enough, we’ll agree to disagree.

Four games left to play, the champions elect come to our place next Sunday and we still have some work to do to ensure we finish as high in the table as possible. The title challenge is over but the season is not. It’s worth remembering that.

Till tomorrow.

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