Here’s a fun fact you may have seen yesterday in the wake of the 4-3 defeat to Liverpool: Arsenal have won just once on the opening day of the Premier League season in the last seven years. That was in 2014-15 when an injury time goal from Aaron Ramsey gave us a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace.
This year’s horror show follows up last year’s 2-0 defeat to West Ham. In 2013-14 we had that abysmal 3-1 loss at home to Aston Villa, while the three years preceding that saw goalless draws against Sunderland and Newcastle, and a 1-1 draw with Liverpool. You have to back to August 2009 for our next win, a day we ran rampant at Goodison Park, winning 6-1 after Denilson had opened the scoring with a cracking shot from outside the box.
In short, our results on the first day have been consistently poor for far too long. Some will point out that this coincided with the introduction of pre-season tours and travel and plane journeys, and perhaps there’s something to that. However, it’s a fact of football life, something most teams have to deal with, and few of them have a record as bad as ours on the first day.
One win on the opening day in seven years. It’s not a fluke, it’s not the exception, it’s the norm. And the reason is our preparation is simply not good enough. Yes, we had the European Championships to contend with, but that’s not an excuse. When you have top international players this is part of the deal, you build a squad to cope.
Arsene Wenger didn’t use Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud or Laurent Koscielny yesterday, having given them an extended break. He pointed to the hamstring injury suffered by Aaron Ramsey as justification for that, suggesting it was using the Welshman so soon into the new season after his summer exertions was the reason for his hamstring injury. Or, you know, it might be that a player with dodgy hamstrings just found himself let down by them once again. He said himself last week after playing 63′ against Man City:
It felt good to come in and play the last game before the start of the season. It’s good fitness for us and I felt good to get back out there again. I feel ready to go for Liverpool.
Despite some of the punditry yesterday, I absolutely understand the need to give players rest after a summer tournament. Arsenal fans are well aware of how rushing players back can be detrimental. There’s a long season ahead and Wenger is frequently lambasted for not doing exactly what he did yesterday. It doesn’t matter which players with similarly truncated summers play elsewhere, the absent trio are well behind in terms of their physical preparation and had any one of them suffered an injury during the Liverpool game the manager would have been crucified for it.
What I cannot understand is how this football club and this manager have gone into the new season short of players in key areas when they knew fine well how badly they were needed. That prevarication, that indecisiveness, that dithering, that vacillation, whatever you want to call it, played a significant part in yesterday’s result and performance.
Let’s look at how this summer began. Having signed Granit Xhaka on May 25th, a nice start to the business, Arsenal activated Jamie Vardy’s release clause on June 3rd. This was the striker that everyone knew we needed, and that the club had moved so quickly to fill that gap was very encouraging … for a few days. It seemed unthinkable that Vardy would turn Arsenal down, but he did, probably much sooner than we knew about but still pretty quickly. By mid-June that deal was dead in the water.
Yet here were are over two months later, that’s 8+ weeks, 60+ days, and we went into yesterday’s game without a striker. The Vardy bid was tacit admission that we needed somebody in this position, but we start the season playing an uncomfortable looking Alexis Sanchez there. Are we to believe a club with the resources of Arsenal can’t find another Jamie Vardy level striker in that period of time?
And then there’s the defence. Arsenal played Lens in a pre-season friendly on July 22nd during which Per Mertesacker picked up a serious knee injury. The club knew right away it was bad, by the time official word had been given, the BFG had had surgery back in Germany and was ruled out for five months. At that point alarm bells should have been ringing. We knew Koscielny was coming back late, and that meant Gabriel and young players like Calum Chambers and Rob Holding were all we had to kick off a new campaign (As an aside, the Holding signing is also informative. Bolton rejected a £1.5m bid back May, why did it take two months to increase it by £1m so it was acceptable to them? Maybe we didn’t want to pay a player’s wages for two months, or maybe we’re just really inefficient).
The decision not to make a signing after Mertesacker’s knee knack – and it can only be a decision – was compounded by the injury to Gabriel last weekend against Man City. We still haven’t made a signing, and it’s simply not good enough. I felt sorry yesterday for Holding and Chambers, both of whom tried hard and who were left exposed during that dreadful spell in the second period when Liverpool looked like they were going to run away with it. It wasn’t necessarily the rawness of that partnership that cost us, but a more experienced duo would have held things together a bit a better and I don’t think we’d have been taken apart like that.
Speaking about it afterwards, the manager said:
Maybe we lacked a bit of experience … but I think you have to consider we have been a bit unlucky as well. We have lost Mertesacker and Gabriel in preparation, and Koscielny is not fit. You have to sometimes accept that you cannot control absolutely everything, even if you try to be as intelligent as possible.
It is a bit unlucky to lose Mertesacker for five months and Gabriel for two months before the season begins. There is nothing unlucky about going three weeks from the first injury without making a move in the transfer market to offset that, and when you lose another central defender without having replaced the first one, your bad luck becomes rank carelessness. The consequence of that was seen on the pitch yesterday and there can be no excusing it whatsoever. When your house is on fire you don’t wait to see if it goes out by itself, you call 999 straight away. Our gaff is smouldering right now and we’ve stood watching.
The air of confusion that surrounds much of what is going on is hard to shake as well. After Man City Arsene Wenger seemed happy with the physical preparation, saying:
We could see that we have played together for a while now, so there’s a good fluidity and understanding in our game … physically we look ready.
After yesterday’s debacle:
Physically we are not ready … we are not capable of maintaining the level, because not all the players have the same level of preparation.
Which is it? Clearly the latter, but only in the wake of a defeat. After a win against City everything seemed much more positive. Even the Theo Walcott stuff speaks to the muddled thinking at this moment in time. After Walcott said last week he no longer wanted to be a striker and wanted to revert to playing on the wing, Wenger dismissed that and said he viewed him as a forward because he wasn’t good enough defensively to play wide. So, of course, he starts the season with Walcott playing in a position he’s specifically said he doesn’t fancy him in.
After missing the penalty Wenger said the England man was the designated penalty taker but when asked if he’d take another one in the future, said:
I don’t know.
It feels like an answer to many of the questions. Why didn’t you buy a striker? I don’t know. Why haven’t you done anything to address the obvious defensive crisis. I don’t know. Are we going to buy the players we need to compete for the title? I don’t know. Why is that Arsenal’s stockpile of cash – still an incredible amount even in this inflated market – is not being used to improve the quality of this team? I don’t know.
I don’t know either. I don’t understand it. I can’t see any logic or reason to the way we’ve acted – or failed to act – this summer. Wenger speaks time and time again about how he’d like the transfer window to close before the start of the season, and on that I agree with him. I think it should, it would be better for the game. But there’s nothing stopping him imposing that kind of restriction upon himself and making sure his squad is settled and ready for the first game.
I know, the market ‘moves’ in the final week blah blah blah, but if you want players it’s far from impossible to go out and get them. I know it’s not like going into a supermarket, but it’s also not the minefield we try and make it out to be. Almost every player has his price, but we seem unable to to change the way we do business. In more financially restricted times we became accustomed, inured almost, to the idea that any Arsenal transfer had to be done in a way that left us ooohing and aaahing over what a good deal it was. Those days are long gone. Look at the accounts, look at the money in the bank, look at the size and stature of this club, yet we still behave as if we’re the poor relation.
It’s why I was so annoyed by the comments from Ivan Gazidis this summer. When you send a message, and a very public one at that, saying you can’t compete with your rivals, it becomes pervasive. Of course everyone knows we’re not on the same financial level as Real Madrid or Man United, but you don’t have say it publicly. When the Chief Executive of a football club says ‘We can’t compete’ it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It creates an inferiority complex. It begets a risk-averse outlook and I believe it damages the perception of the club. Maybe it has an impact on making signings because players who want to win will see that message and have doubts if they can achieve their ambitions with Arsenal.
When you couple that with a manager who is untouchable and indulged on every football whim – particularly when it comes to spending money – you set yourself up to underachieve, and that’s what we saw yesterday. Stan Kroenke doesn’t care, Ivan Gazidis can do nothing to counter Arsene Wenger’s inherent conservatism in the transfer market, and the manager’s inability to address the very obvious needs of his team led directly to yesterday’s defeat.
The opening day of the season, everyone knows you need a defence, you concede four goals, that’s 100% on the manager, because he makes 100% of the football decisions at Arsenal Football Club. It’s as maddening as it is predictable as it is woeful. That excitement of the new season obliterated in 90 minutes, the anger and disenchantment from fans – most of whom I genuinely believe wanted to leave all that behind – ratcheted up once more.
Maybe we’ll see a signing this week to take our minds off it a bit. Maybe, before the end of the window we might do something else, maybe something big, but it’s impossible to make a case that it isn’t Arsenal being reactive once more. Something that should have been done before a ball was kicked is now happening and there’s a bit of you that will think – even if it’s a player we really need – that it’s being done because the natives are restless.
Yesterday was dreadful, and the reason why it was dreadful was Arsene Wenger. Sure, circumstances aren’t ideal, but his entire job is to manage those circumstances as well as he can, and I don’t think he did that. He didn’t even come close, and that’s sad and frustrating in equal measure.
Unfortunately we suffered a very serious issue with one of servers on the eve of the new season. It’s the one that controls the arses (comments), the live blog etc, and we’re working hard to get things up and running again. It’s a long way from a ‘Have you tried turning it on and off again?’ situation, and it may take some time to get fixed. Apologies for this, I know there would have been many calm and rational conversations about this post and what happened yesterday, but we’re doing our best.
We will have news throughout the day over on Arseblog News, where things are unaffected and you can comment to your heart’s content. And of course James and I will have an Arsecast Extra for you later today. Questions/topics/rage induced rants to @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter, hashtag #arsecastextra