Since the Carling Cup final Arsenal’s form looks like this:
As many pointed out on Twitter it looks like a Welsh town. Instead it’s the reason why an Arsenal team that we’d hoped would fight for first are now, most likely, going to finish fourth. The first win was against Leyton Orient in the FA Cup, the second against Blackpool away and the final victory of that awful sequence was the one over United a couple of weeks ago.
Even yesterday Newcastle’s last minute equaliser against Chelsea meant that second place was still up for grabs. Instead we were witness to another wretched result as this season shudders to a dismal halt. Undone in the first fifteen minutes by a Villa side that started much more brightly than we did. First, Bent was played onside by Squilvestre and he lobbed the ball over Szczesny to make it 1-0. A few moments later Vermaelen’s slip allowed Young to play a ball in behind, this time Bent’s speed of thought and movement left Sagna behind and he slid it home to make it 2-0.
I know football fans are fatalistic at the best of times, true believers in Murphy’s Law, but I don’t imagine there were too many people surprised at what they were seeing. Arsenal responded in the only way they know how at the moment, with crabalicious sideways passing and crosses to no-one. We perked up a bit just before the end of the half, van Persie hit the post, but when the whistle went the team left the field to a sustained and pointed booing.
Arsenal dominated the second half but it was only late on that Friedel was really tested. Eventually Robin poked home a consolation after Bendtner had bundled his way through but it was too little too late. I know many will point at the referee and ask why we didn’t get the stonewall penalty in the first half, why Chamakh’s goal was ruled out, why Petrov didn’t get a second yellow, and more, but as bad as he was, and he was bad, he wasn’t the reason why we lost yesterday.
We lost because this is a team that is absolutely and utterly shorn of confidence. The Carling Cup final, and the 4-4 at Newcastle, have damaged them as a group, most likely irreparably, and the form since has reflected that. As hard as some of them they try, as a group they’re running through treacle. Only the goalscoring efforts of van Persie have prevented this from being an outright disaster. As it is, it’s the kind of form that sees managers the world over get their P45s.
To be in four competitions – whilst accepting that winning all four is a ludicrous expectation – and then to finish the season in this fashion is beyond frustrating. We’re just lucky there aren’t more games to play because if there was a way of finishing outside the Champions League places I think I’d put money on us finding it.
Already word from the inside suggests that we’ve seen the last of certain players. Some of them I think we’ll be happy to say goodbye to. Others, one in particular, will hurt, and hurt badly, but there’s no doubt serious change is coming. I still don’t see the manager’s position as being under threat from the board, at least, whatever thoughts he might have himself are known to him alone.
As the team struggled in the second half, the crowd sang “6%, you’re having a laugh”, more ammunition after the club’s ill-advised price hike. The stadium emptied before the ‘lap of appreciation’ with a relatively small percentage of the crowd left. I wondered at the time if it were the right thing to do, that the reaction to the players might be less than positive, but it seems that the majority of those who had nothing good to say made their point by leaving before it began.
Criticism of the players is natural. There are those who have performed this season, who have given their best every time they’ve gone out, and there are those who have not. We go back to those in the comfort zone, the complacent, selfish performances which have had an impact on our results. Yet it’s not just the players, far from it. The manager has created this culture at the club and despite all the faith he’s placed in his charges they’ve let him down. When he needed them to respond, when I’m sure he implored them to stand up and be counted, many of them did not. If the manager stays this summer then those players may well find reward such behaviour is a change of scenery. And that will be no bad thing.
At the same time though, has Arsene let some of the players down? The ones with the real talent and ability, the ones around whom teams should be built, have perhaps been asked to carry sub-standard, bargain basement players for too long. We’ve been over and over the wheres and whyfores of that plenty of times but again it has come down to Arsene gambling on potential and too many of them have not paid off.
It has been a collective failure, manager, players, the club itself. We’ve come close, no doubt about it, but nearly never won the race. It’s time to accept that it has gone wrong, badly wrong, and that it needs to be fixed. A Southampton fan said to me yesterday on Twitter ‘Oh, it must be terrible to be third in the Premier League’. I know where he’s coming from, I know what he means, and I’m definitely not one of those people who thinks we have a divine right to win trophies year after year.
However, considering the position we were in, third is terrible. And fourth, which is where I think we’ll end up, even more so. It means a Champions League qualifying round which, because it’s unseeded, could prove a lot more difficult than we might like. That is the cost of our end of season capitulation and unless we take stock and seriously address the problems we have then we’re not doing ourselves justice.
Sure, it’s another top four finish, the possibility of Champions League football next season, and of course there are countless other teams who would like to swap places with us, but it’s still tremendously disappointing given the context in which it played out. We had the league in our hands, we had second in our hands, we had third in our hands, we had the chance to win the Carling Cup, yet we’ve chucked away all of them, like footballing hot potatoes.
And my overriding emotion this morning is not one of anger, although I suspect for many it is. I understand that. I’m just sad that a season which promised so much has delivered so little and delivered it like a scabies infested, leprous postman with violent halitosis. I feel sad at what it says about the team, sad at what the club have done during this period, sad that a man I respect as much as Arsene Wenger looks as broken as I’ve ever seen him, and sad that some of the consequences of this end of season collapse will be painful and create more unhappiness.
Yet such is the nature of football and our support that it has, rather perversely, made me look forward to the summer, because I want to see how we fix things. I want to see if we have the ability to be ruthless, to clear the decks a bit, and to get ourselves back on track. As my blogging chum from the East Lower says:
The fans are in foment and the team is in end-of-season freefall. Bring on the summer and bring out the new broom.
And that, for me, is the silver lining to this doleful, end of campaign cloud. I never, ever want Arsenal to lose. I don’t understand why anybody would, regardless of how they justify it, but what’s happened over the last couple of months is impossible for the manager or the club to ignore.
It’s time to put things right. Whatever it takes.