Defeat to Man City yesterday can’t have been unexpected to anyone who has watched Arsenal this season. We’ve been too flaky, too inconsistent, and too lacking in quality in terms of how we play to have been confident of victory, but watching Arsenal players perform like that in a cup final was sad to see.
There’s something about the occasion that demands more from you. It’s not to say that all of a sudden everything will be all right, but at the very least there should be some fight and determination, and while I know I’m straight into the realms of intangibles, you know when your team is up for it and when they’re not.
We’ve all seen it, and we’ve all seen the opposite, and we know what it is one way or the other. Yesterday, until the final ten minutes when City were happy enough for us to have a bit of the ball and to play the game in their half, we were on the back foot right from the start. At no point did we control the game in any meaningful way. We played like a team that knew and felt it was inferior, and that had no way of dealing with what they had to offer.
The worst part about that is that this wasn’t even Man City at their swashbuckling best. I’ve seen them play far better than that this season, but because our mindset was so negative from the start, it was easy for them.
People will point to the Aubameyang chance early on, and of course goals change the dynamic of matches. It was a great opportunity to go ahead which he fluffed, but I do wonder if it would have stood the test of VAR as he appeared to be offside when Mesut Ozil squared the ball to him.
What also changes games are mistakes, and quite what Shkodran Mustafi was thinking for their opener I just do not know. Claudio Bravo thumped a goal kick downfield, the German was standing the wrong side of Aguero who gave him a tiny nudge but to stand there with his arms in the air claiming a foul was as pathetic as his initial positioning. The City man raced forward and lobbed Ospina with ease to give them the lead.
Mustafi was found wanting for the second goal too. First he conceded a really stupid free kick on the edge of our box then, when it was cleared, he got done by the silky skills of
Kevin de Bruyne David Silva Leroy Sane VINCENT KOMPANY which led to a corner from which the City captain scored.
There was a referral for VAR which decided that Sane, despite being offside, was not in the way of Ospina, something which irked Arsene Wenger afterwards, but his complaints were those of a man clutching at any nearby straw he could find. Arsenal were masters of their own destruction, as we have been far too many times this season.
As we waited to bring Danny Welbeck on, City got a third. David Silva turned Calum Chambers and shot across Ospina in an almost carbon copy of the goal Östersunds FK scored in midweek. Same defender, same shot, same outcome, and that was always going to be that.
I should point out that at 2-0, you could see what tiny smidgen of hope and belief that existed in the Arsenal players minds evaporate completely. It played a part in the third goal, and this morning I’m thankful that City decided they didn’t need to turn the screw because if they’d really tried I think they could have won by more.
What else is there to say about the game itself? We were well and truly beaten by the better side, there’s no question about that. The 27 point gap between us and them in the Premier League was evident on the pitch from start to finish yesterday. They didn’t have to play that well, and we played just as badly as we have on numerous occasions this season.
I actually found it quite amusing how offended by us Gary Neville seemed to be. I think he went a bit far in his criticism of individuals, but what he said about the kind of football we play these days rings very true for me. We’ve always had an identity, a team with flaws no doubt, but you could see what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. That’s not been the case for some time now, and it’s a point I’ve made here and on the podcast countless times.
If someone asked you how Arsenal played football, how would you describe it? It’s almost impossible. We just throw players out there and hope that somehow it will click and come together. Sometimes it does and we fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve discovered a new recipe, but we haven’t.
Yesterday was Arsenal’s sixth defeat in 2018 alone, and we’re still not at the end of February. We’ve lost to Nottingham Forest, Swansea, Bournemouth, Sp*rs, Östersunds FK and Man City. Sometimes we’ve lost with a back three, sometimes we’ve lost with a back four. What is consistent is the fact that we’ve been unable to play anything that comes close to the kind of football Arsene Wenger has served up during his time at the club.
The days when it works are becoming fewer and farther between, and I think yesterday, despite what people might say, was another step backwards. What has been the manager’s saving grace over the last number of years has been his ability to firefight, and get a response from his players when our backs are to the wall.
It’s not even a new thing. Think about ‘Mind the Gap’, or those seasons when we had to scrap our way into the top four. That was the beginning of this decline which is becoming ever more pronounced. We’ve seen it more recently too. His reaction to that dreadful run of form last season was to change his defensive formation for the first time in 20 years because that was all that was left at his disposal.
It worked for a while. A good end of season run saw us miss out on the top four by a point, but also win the FA Cup on a day when many expected Chelsea to complete the double. Earlier this season there was a North London derby for which the old enemy were favourites but we put in one of our best performances of the season.
But, in the same way the hairdryer treatment from a manager becomes background noise if he uses it too often, the message about fighting for your lives must lose its impact. We all saw what happened at Wembley yesterday. Arsene Wenger couldn’t get his team up for a cup final, and that’s surely the point at which you really have to draw the line.
There’s no shame in losing, especially to a team as good as Man City, but there’s something shameful about barely going through the motions during a final. We can pin it on the players all we want and of course they have a responsibility, but it’s ducking the real issue. At any club the man in charge is the one whose job it is to elicit the performances from them.
Whether it’s tactical, motivational, or anything else, it’s his job to make sure his team is ready and able for the game, tailored to the opposition regardless of how good they are or how bad they are. And yesterday I felt really sad watching an Arsenal team so far off the pace on a big occasion.
It was sad to see a manager who has done so much, and brought so much happiness to supporters down the years, be so ruthlessly exposed by a team which didn’t even have to work that hard to do it. If it felt like end of era stuff, that’s because that’s exactly what it was.
These players need to hear something different from someone different. I can’t speak for fans, only for myself, but to me the need for change is beyond obvious now. Thousands of Arsenal supporters left Wembley early yesterday, not simply because their team was losing a final, but because of how we were losing it. When the players look as if they can’t be arsed, then who would blame fans for knocking off early?
I remember Paris in May 2006 and as heartbreaking as it was to lose that final, the sight and sound of Arsenal fans singing with real pride for the players, the team, the manager, and club, is something that will live long with me. Now, we’re 12 years down the line and something’s got to give because it’s all so different.
We’re ten points off the top four with ten games to go; the way we’re playing – and nobody should be under any illusions about how bad that is at this moment in time – means that the Europa League, while still something to fight for, is unlikely to be the thing that will save our season. I mean, you never know in football etc etc, but I wouldn’t put 10p on us to win it at this point.
So, what’s left? We struggle through the rest of this season, with anger, disenchantment and dissatisfaction ever increasing, and attendances ever dwindling. Maybe we turn it around, maybe Wenger finds the formula, but he’d need some crazy magic to turn this group of under-performers into anything approaching a consistent team.
I really fear it could get a lot worse and a lot more angry, even if the overriding feeling I have this morning is a long way from that. It’s simply resignation, an acceptance that we are what we are, and what we are is a football club that is in urgent need of a change of manager.
The man himself won’t step away, believing that with even more work he can make it happen again, and the board – who despite everything must be able to see what’s going on – will be quite content to let Wenger take all the bullets as they fail to make decisions.
I think it would a real shame if Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal came to a fractious, ignominious end, but I really think that’s where we’re heading, and yesterday’s performance was just more evidence of that. With Man City again on Thursday in the Premier League, it’s hard to see how we get a response from players were so quick to accept defeat on the pitch yesterday.
At what point does enough become enough? Arsene is like an old fighter getting battered, and there’s nobody around to throw in the towel. Someone has to care enough to call this one, because it’s getting uglier and uglier with each passing game.
James and I will be recording the podcast for you this morning, so if you have any questions or topics for discussion, please send to both of us @gunnerblog and @arseblog with the hastag #arsecastextra. I think it could be a long one.
We’ll have that for you before lunch, until then.