So that’s that, then. Unless we see the greatest comeback in European Cup history, any hope of seeing Thomas Vermaelen climb up some steps and lift a silver pot has now been extinguished for this season. And while the idea that Arsenal should be winning at least one competition a year is ridiculous, the fact that we find ourselves out of three cups and languishing 21 points behind the league leaders in February was depressingly predictable.
All throughout the season, we’ve seen game after game being lost thanks to some individual errors of a hugely inept nature, tactical naivety, a lack of willing from the team to play to the maximum of their capabilities on a weekly basis, or all of the above. And over the course of the past week, we saw those failings in stark reality.
The F.A Cup 5th Round. At home. Against a team who are a division below us and have a set of owners that make ours look like the greatest board ever assembled. If ever there was a chance to give some of the players that are usually on the bench a chance to make a case for more playing time, this was it. So did any of them take this opportunity to try to stand out and show they should be starting in bigger games, ones like the then upcoming Champions League tie, for example?
Did they f*@k!
As an Arsenal fan, I expect very little from the team. Winning is fantastic, but it’s never been a pre-requisite for me to cheer for them. All I want any player to do for Arsenal, is the exact same thing I would do in their place; try their hardest to win. That’s it. And on Saturday afternoon, they didn’t. Only when Blackburn score did it seem that they cared about not losing. Note that I didn’t say “winning” there, I said “not losing”.
“Winning” isn’t something you can teach someone to want to do. The desire to win is born out of a need to be better than everyone else, it’s one part ambition, one part arrogance and one part…….well……….there’s only one way to say this……..one part c*@t. Now, go through the Arsenal squad in your head and think of who has those three traits in their character. Jack Wilshere is one. After him, no-one immediately springs to mind, and therein lies the problem with this group of players. Instead of worrying about not winning, they’re scared about not losing. And there’s only one thing that any person is good at when they’re feeling scared, I won’t go into graphic detail about it but a change of underwear is guaranteed to be necessary afterwards. I’m just saying.
Fear can paralyse even those who have the strongest of characters, so when it creeps into the minds of those who use their mental strengths to perform, it can cause havoc. Ask any artist, musician, poet, comedian or writer what it’s like to be scared, whether it’s because they don’t have the right paints, or they can’t come up with the best way to illustrate what they’re thinking, or that they have to have their project finished in a very short space of time, and they’ll all say that it’s horrible, and that the usual result of working whilst scared is a error-strewn mess that frustrates both the creator and those who view it.
Does that sound familiar? One of the constant traits that we’ve seen in Arsene Wenger’s teams at Arsenal is that in terms of tactics employed, apart from the change to 4-3-3 a few years ago, we haven’t seen any changes in the way we play, no matter who the opponent was. Instead, it’s been left to the players on the pitch to figure out how to score, and when you have players as intelligent as Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Vieira, etc, then that’s what you should be doing, freeing them of any tactical plans and let their creativity and technique tear defences to shreds.
But the key difference between that team and today’s team is that whilst both teams are full of international players, the 2002-4 team weren’t just more talented, they were more interested with winning instead of not losing, especially away from home. Almost all of our most memorable performances were away from Highbury; Dennis’ wonder goal at Newcastle, Pires’ lob over Schmeichel at Villa Park, Henry’s hat-tricks at Roma and Inter, winning the league at both Old Trafford and White Hart Lane, and so on.
That team would turn up determined to show the home team exactly how much better we were than them, and then have the skill to do it. Today’s team just don’t have that same attitude, the same inclination to not only beat a team, but to destroy them. It’s only when a game seems lost that it suddenly dawns on this team that they might lose and that they have to do something about it. It happened at Reading and Bradford in the Carling Cup, against Blackburn in the FA Cup, Swansea and Norwich in the League, enough times to show that it was more than just a reaction to going behind, it was something more deep-rooted, that the team as it’s constructed right now just isn’t built to win on a consistent basis.
Do you know who are? Bayern Munich, that’s who.
The most revealing aspect about Tuesday’s loss wasn’t that they beat us 3-1, but that they beat us 3-1 and we didn’t play particularly badly. We are almost sick to the back teeth now of seeing away teams of inferior quality to us, set up with ten men behind the ball and sit back whilst waiting for us to make a mistake. Not Bayern. They defended high up the pitch and bombed down our left wing repeatedly, with Phillip Lahm providing over-laps for fun. And how did we respond to this tactically? We didn’t. Instead, Vermaelen was left to deal with two players running at him on a regular basis, and because he has a tendency to come forward and make interceptions instead of falling back and helping keep the back-line solid, he was caught out of position repeatedly. The result of this was the conceding of two goals from our left wing.
It’s the little details like that which separate the good teams from the great teams. Bayern were a talented, well-coached team who executed a tactical plan brilliantly and were deserving winners. Arsenal were a talented team that tried hard but were found wanting. It was as simple as that. No drama, no suspense, just a clinical example of how Arsenal right now just aren’t good enough. The key question now is a stark one.
“Will something significant be done to address this decline?”
For me, there’s no doubt. All the contending teams have a top goalkeeper, solid centre-backs, a no-nonsense defensive midfielder capable enough to pass to someone wearing the same jersey as him, a talisman capable of scoring at any time, and, maybe most importantly, the ability to switch tactics at the drop of a hat to capitalise on an opponent’s weakness. After all, only Barcelona can play the attack at all times philosophy that Wenger has used at Arsenal, but even with half of the World and double European Championship winning Spain team, coupled with one of the greatest players in the history of football, Barca lost last night to a Milan side with half the talent, but tactically adept enough to keep Barca at bay and clinical enough to take advantage of the few chances that came their way.
We’re never going to have the likes Pires, Vieira, Bergkamp and Henry on hand at the same time to win us a game again, so we have to come up with different ways of winning matches, as the players we have today just can’t put together the consistent set of results needed to win trophies, whilst playing the way we do right now. I can see it, you can see it, Gunnersaurus can see it, even the stewards standing whilst facing the crowd can see it. We’re just not good enough.
So with the new commercial deals starting next season, and with TV rights set to be more valuable as well, there are no more excuses for the club to hide behind. The money is there to bring in top quality players, and if Wenger says he won’t spend it, then the board has to insist that it be spent. It’s one thing to run a club for financial gain, it’s another to run a club solely for financial gain. As Man United have shown, the best way to bring in revenue is to be competing for trophies every year. Saving money for a rainy day is fine, but not when the roof is leaking, and at the moment Wenger is standing in a room doing a Steve McClaren impression whilst holding an umbrella as the water pours over him.
Like I said earlier, I don’t expect Arsenal to win every year. I just want them to at least try to win with all the means available to them. We haven’t been doing that for the last couple of years now, and if this season is the bad medicine that we needed to take in order to be competitive in the future, then it’ll have been worth it. But if the club continues to prioritize financial gain above football achievements, and refuses to implement the necessary changes needed to make us competitive again, then a different medicine may need to be administered, and instead of paying to boo inside the ground, it may become time to boo outside the ground for free.------------
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