Arsenal’s dismal away form continued yesterday with a 2-1 defeat to Bournemouth, a side that had won just a single game from their last twelve. Despite taking the lead through Hector Bellerin midway through the second half, the fundamental brittleness and lack of defensive ability cost us, and two goals from the home side condemned us to a fifth defeat on the road this season.
Without Mesut Ozil, sidelined because of a knee injury, and Alexis Sanchez – left out of the squad due to the uncertainty around his future – there wasn’t much creativity or craft in the team. Jack Wilshere tried, bombing around midfield as best as he could, but we did little to trouble a team that have struggled defensively all season.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles clipped the top of the bar in the first half but beyond that we really struggled. We had Calum Chambers to thank late in the first half for a great block, and the referee for not spotting a potential penalty for handball, but the second period was more of the same until Alex Iwobi split their defence open, Bellerin ran through and squeezed his shot in despite Begovic getting a touch.
We didn’t look like scoring any more goals, so defending well was going to be key. However, this is a team that cannot do that. The sight of four Arsenal players chasing down one Bournemouth player – like schoolboys swarming towards the ball – was bad, but Petr Cech’s decision to come and try and take the cross compounded that as Calum Wilson got there first and poked the ball home.
Arsene Wenger’s reaction to that was to take Chambers off for Aaron Ramsey, switch to a back four, and within minutes Bournemouth were ahead. A simple ball into our box wasn’t dealt with, Wilson laid it off to Jordon Ibe who had all the time in the world to fire a shot in off the underside of Cech. Once again Granit Xhaka’s lack of defensive awareness, or lack of effort (perhaps both) was exposed, and while it’s frustrating I question our insistence on expecting him to do that job when we surely know by now that he can’t (or won’t).
At that point I knew our race was run. We looked bereft of ideas and creativity, and we ended up in a situation where Alexandre Lacazette, our £50m club record signing striker, took it upon himself to drop into midfield to try and make things happen. He knew he wasn’t going to any service worth speaking about, so he did what he could, as Ramsey hung about the centre forward position, substitute Theo Walcott attempted to be offside as many times as possible, and Danny Welbeck Welbecked around the final third like a gazelle who has been hit in the head with a tyre-iron.
The referee even gave us an extra minute of injury time to try and salvage something, but it was beyond us. The final whistle, if not quite a death knell for the season and the manager, was the sound of more points dropped away from home, and another illustration that this is a team without shape, identity and so lacking in quality as to be unrecognisable from the kind sides Wenger has built down the years.
Our lack of defensive ability is not a new thing. It’s never been his greatest strength and while I do think it’s been overblown at times, we’re as bad as we’ve ever been back there at the moment. Personnel doesn’t matter, formation doesn’t matter, we just can’t do it consistently, and the lapses in concentration are endemic. They speak to a group of players who don’t believe in what they’re being asked to do, or don’t understand what they’re being asked to do.
What we’ve always had, however, is attacking potency which has gone a long way to make up for it, but this team does not. I felt sorry for Lacazette who made run after run which nobody saw, or people saw but didn’t have the confidence in their passing to try and find. There was one moment early in the first half which summed it up. As Arsenal broke, Iwobi either didn’t see the space for the pass, or felt he couldn’t play the ball into the space Lacazette could have exploited.
He’s now without a goal in nine games, and while some will choose to put that on the player, when you give your main striker no service, you have to look at the bigger picture. He cut a frustrated figure yesterday, understandably so, because when you join a club and think about playing with Ozil and Sanchez, and you’re asked to feed off scraps from the players we had out yesterday, it’s a very different reality.
It seems a bit pointless dealing with the specifics like that though, because the bigger picture is the most important. Arsenal sit sixth in the Premier League this morning, eight points off a top four spot, with just two wins from nine. Our joint leading scorer is on the verge of leaving the club because a) we’re not a place he wants to be anymore and b) we’ve handled his situation abysmally; our form is in the Trainspotting toilet; there’s nothing good about the way we try and play football these days; and we have a manager who tells us after a game like this that ‘We were 1-0 up and suddenly we lost two goals and we don’t know where they came from.’
But anyone who has watched this team knows where they came from. They came from our lack of quality and organisation at the back. They came from a team being allowed back into the match because of our inherent fragility. They came from the fact we cannot control a game from midfield, and have not been able to do that for going on two years now. They came from the fact that we don’t have enough attacking power to build on the one goal that we scored so the opposition always know they have a chance.
They came because we have a manager who knows we have problems – he must know, whatever else you think about him, he’s not blind – but remains unable to do anything about them. I don’t believe he doesn’t try to sort these things out, but the weight of evidence tells us that he simply can’t.
We’re in the same kind of form this season as last, when Wenger’s solution was to shock his team out of their comfort zone with a formation change. His move to a back three was a last desperate roll of the dice to refocus players who were telling us live on TV that the opposition wanted it more than they did. Even if you dismiss that as post-match bluster, it’s a shocking admission to make and it’s happened more than once since.
Do they believe in Arsene Wenger anymore? Does it look like they believe in him? I’m not saying they’re deliberately playing badly, but step back and look at this team objectively, and if it were another club you’d come to the conclusion that they no longer believe. And then we have consider what exactly are they being asked to believe in? Swift, pacy attacking football, which has been the hallmark of Wenger’s tenure?
I genuinely have no idea what kind of game we’re trying to play. We’re defensively weak, our midfield is well below what’s required at this level, and up front we’re almost entirely reliant on moments of individualism to score goals. It’s completely unsustainable, we lurch from one game to the next without any real idea of what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to do it.
So, what’s Wenger’s throw of the dice this time around (and Tim Stillman’s column last week touches on this a bit)? It seems the transfer market is the last resort, with serious links to Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang emerging, while we’ve held discussions with Bordeaux forward Malcom although nothing has yet been agreed.
New arrivals are welcome, of course, because there’s no question this is a squad which needs an increase in quality, but what it needs above all else is a new manager. That’s the change that can make a real difference, because Arsene Wenger is the man who has built this team with more money than he’s ever had before. He’s signed world class players like Sanchez and Ozil and even with them we’ve fallen out of the top four, and look a long way from getting back in there.
This group of players looks as much like a Wenger team as that hideous statue looks like Cristiano Ronaldo. There’s a vague likeness, but the harsh reality is that it is a grotesque facsimile of something which used to be so good. The issues might be Arsenal issues, but fundamentally they’re Wenger issues, and as long as he remains so too will they, regardless of who we spend money on. The death throes of any manager are usually built on huge inconsistency, and that’s the case here.
I know Wenger raises the ire of some, but to me it’s sad to see him floundering like this. Someone needs to call time on this, because it’s not good for anyone. Not for him, not for the fans, not for the club, but I think we’ll muddle on, make some signings and hope for the best. And as a fan I hope we find some form again, there’s still stuff to play for this season, but it’s hard to see any upturn being anything other than temporary.
As for Alexis Sanchez, whatever way you want to try and rationalise it to me, selling him to Manchester United would feel like a massive kick in the nuts. The sale of Robin van Persie there was somewhat understandable in 2012, before the financial situation improved and so on, but we were supposed to have gone beyond that.
We got three brilliant seasons out of him, but as we have done in the past, we’ve failed to capitalise properly on his talent, and that of Ozil too. I understand why people point fingers at players when they leave, and if they want to go that’s what they bring on themselves, but you cannot ignore the common thread that runs through so many of these situations.
Whether they develop into top class players from an early age, or whether we buy them as established stars, Arsenal have problems holding onto our most talented players. From Fabregas to van Persie, and now Sanchez, these players want to leave us. Not because they don’t like the club, not because it isn’t a nice life at Arsenal, but because their ambitions as players cannot be realised.
By all means talk about how they played their part in underachieving sides (or maybe sides which achieved about as much as they should), but when it happens again and again, you have to look beyond the individuals. It’s happening again, and it shows that we’re a club who simply do not learn our lessons. Or don’t care to learn them.
The Sanchez situation has been a hopeless mess. If Arsenal wanted to keep him, I had no issue with that, but be consistent. Tell him, ‘you’re staying’, end of story, and let him and his people work on a lovely Bosman move in June. Instead we fudged it, tried to panic sell him at the end of the summer, and since then we haven’t been in control of it at all, or seen to be in control of it.
You know, we could still keep him if we wanted, but we don’t. We’ve let a bad situation fester to the point where Arsenal think selling him to Manchester United and Jose Mourinho is an acceptable solution. It’s shambolic management to get to that point and if you want to look at dispassionately and say you don’t care where he goes, fine.
Personally, I think it’s the kind of mismanagement over which heads should roll. Wenger, Ivan Gazidis and Stan Kroenke are all culpable here. I cannot look at it outside the context of selling a brilliant player to a loathsome manager and a club who, already better and more competitive than we are, become even more so. In the meantime, we’ll panic buy and hope that a manager whose powers are on the wane somehow rediscovers some magic.
Abracadabra and let’s hope for the best.
We’ll have an Arsecast Extra for you later today, my guest co-host this week is @gunnerpunner, so if you have any questions or topics for discussion, please send to both of us on Twitter (@arseblog) with the hashtag #arsecastextra.