While nothing seemed to be going right for Arsenal at Stamford Bridge, Arsene Wenger gazed at his ailing players, expressionless and giving the impression that he had resigned to the fact that the Gunners will end up enduring another embarrassment. Olivier Giroud did pull one back late in the game, but it was probably more than what Arsenal deserved, considering their pathetic showing at the Bridge. The loss came days after their home ousting at the hands of Walter Mazzarri’s Watford and it wasn’t a surprise to see Wenger raise questions about the mentality of his otherwise able players. After all, it’s the same old story that is unfolding for a side that is confident enough in challenging for the title, but gratification about finishing in the top four settles in, once the season wears on.
It isn’t just the end-product that is familiar enough for anyone even remotely associated with the club, but the means to that end is just as familiar. And if there’s anyone that is to be blamed for the Gunners’ woes, then it is their heralded boss himself.
As the pair of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Francis Coquelin started in the midfield against the Blues, it was clear from the very sight of it that the game will be lost in the midfield. And throughout the game, Arsenal lacked the grit to fight out the battles in the heart of the park and break Chelsea down in the areas that they win games from. Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante overran the Arsenal duo to ashes, as Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain looked helpless to recover balls and circulate it forward. The absence of the suspended Granit Xhaka and that of AFCON-tied Mohamed Elneny had only worsened the situation. Arsenal lacked the fire, the hunger and determination to fight out a game that could well have kept them in the title race, if only they had characters like Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Thierry Henry in there.
Arsenal’s current position in the table doesn’t seem to speak volumes for the kind of season they have had. They may have succeeded in getting some decent results against the lesser-able sides in the division, but their soft underbelly always seems to get exposed against the bigger sides. More so, there have been some wins on the way against the smaller sides that were down to luck, if not an unfortunate loss of concentration of the opposition’s part.
The Gunners have accumulated the least amount of points against the top six sides: five, tied at the bottom of the pile with Manchester United. A draw at home to arch-rivals Spurs and a rather lucky 1-1 at Old Trafford are the only times when they haven’t lost a single game to a top six side, while their 3-0 win over the then struggling Chelsea only acts as a watershed moment in the ongoing Premier League season. Since then, Chelsea haven’t been what they were before that.
Gary Neville was rightly critical of the way they have been performing against the giants, when he was commentating in the loss to Chelsea. The former United full-back said: “It just feels like the same. Not strong enough, not resilient enough, not powerful enough and not good enough ultimately to compete in a match of this nature in an important part of the season when they can apply a bit of pressure to their rivals. They have fallen well short.”
The manner in which the first goal went in at Stamford Bridge was reminiscent of how physically docile the current Arsenal side is. Diego Costa managed to trample Hector Bellerin into submission, before almost scoring from a blistering header. After Petr Cech had kept out the former Atletico Madrid man’s header, Marcos Alonso bundled in the rebound, dominating Bellerin aerially and physically. It all happened despite Alonso not being the burliest of Chelsea players in the side. If it was, say Kyle Walker or Antonio Valencia at right-back, the ball would never have gone in.
The era of the Vieira, Adams, Keown, Henry, Parlour and Lauren is probably one that was synonymous with utopia, but harking back to that time isn’t a mere escape route to ignore what is transpiring at this great club. It probably is something that Arsenal fans would like to have at a club that lays more emphasis on the attacking side of the game, as things stand. Players don’t drop deep to do the dirty job of defending and covering the opposition players. The above mentioned era saw Arsenal have players who knew how to fight games out and nullify the opposition by showcasing a sufficient amount of determination to defend and get stuck in. If their Invincibles tag isn’t valid enough, ask the Manchester United side of that era to talk about how intense they were.
Teams have a clear idea about how to beat Arsenal. If you’re physically robust and sound enough to impose yourself in the midfield, the game will go your way. And the Gunners always fail to deal with sides that dictate play from the heart of the park. These are times when Arsenal look clueless. For example: the recent Chelsea game.
When it comes to the lack of the right mentality, Arsenal don’t have the characters who know how to spur teammates on when things are not going right. They may look like a formidable outfit when beating sides like Crystal Palace, Hull or Sunderland, but as soon as sides in the upper half start giving them a run for their money, Arsenal begin to falter. There have been games like those against Bournemouth and Burnley when the opposition was let down a minor error. If not for that, Arsenal would probably have lost those games too. And it would not have been a surprise. They may have players who look like perfect son-in-laws, with good looks, attractive hair-styles and all the more good attacking football, but there’s a clear lack of those no-nonsense characters that can shout at the players and put them into their position, when the morale is hitting rock-bottom.
While these players don’t appear from out of thin air, they need to either be produced or bought from clubs that have them. The reduction in the efficiency of youth academies means that uprooting an able, steely determined youngster is a far-fetched idea in the modern-day footballing scenario.
The other option, that pertains to buying, isn’t something Wenger has had a dip into. He may be signing quality players here and there, but there hasn’t been a single no-nonsense player that has embraced the Arsenal emblem. Shkodran Mustafi is a top notch defender and it would be fine to single him out as being the most defensively sorted out Arsene Wenger signing in recent times. Arsenal are one of the richest clubs in the world right now, but they haven’t delved into the modern day modus-operandi of spending big on players. Although, it’s good to see a powerhouse club adhere to that, it hasn’t worked out. And time is probably running out for Arsene Wenger to realise that. Apart from Per Mertesacker and Gabriel, who have both fallen down the pecking order because of Mustafi’s assuring presence, there hasn’t been another signing who oozes authority and dominance. The downfall, in that sense, is well and truly inevitable.
With only some months to go and the fans crying out for a possible replacement, it has to be curtains for ‘Le Professeur’ at a club that he has done a lot for. The club, though, is an aura of consistency about it, but that exists in a rather unwanted space. Arsenal haven’t won the title for 13 years now and the chain of events has become a tale of the Rabbit and Tortoise, just because everyone knows what will happen once the seasons heads to the business end.
Wenger has to stop thumping blame on his players, because he it’s time he accepts the fact he is at fault for whatever is happening at the club.