Unhappily Ever After
It feels like almost a lifetime ago we were talking about Arsenal’s resolute defence, Woijech Szczseny’s clean sheet record and the remarkable statistic about remaining unbeaten when Mertesacker and Koscileny were paired together in defence. The shutouts that were a hallmark of our early season ascension to Premier League summit are now a distant memory and our once secure backline has now given way to utter chaos. All three Everton goals contained some element of farce on our part and while they were good value for their win, Arsenal didn’t exactly do anything to make like difficult for them.
In recent weeks, the defending by Arsenal has been utterly abysmal yet no lessons are learned. Leighton Baines the freedom of Goodison Park to put in the cross to Lukaku that ultimately led to the first goal. One would think the players would have taken heed having conceded in a similar fashion at home to Swansea recently. Failure to learn from previous mistakes followed shortly afterwards as Lukaku was allowed to run and cut in on his stronger foot to score the second almost identically to Chelsea’s Eto’o a mere fortnight before. The third goal resulted from a full back being caught too high up the pitch, losing possession and being punished on the counter-attack. Examples of this occurring before are far too plentiful to list here.
The Goodison, the Bad and the Ugly
One could put this down to changes in personal but for more than one player to make the same mistake over and over again, you have to wonder if they even bother looking into fixing the increasing number of things currently going wrong. Of course, once you establish defensive stability with a settled back four, it might be difficult for new players to come in and maintain that. Although, this is an argument that is countered by the fact Everton have, in recent weeks, been forced to field John Stones at the heart of their defence. Against Arsenal, the 19 year old with less than 20 Premier League appearances to his name looked far more assured and far more comfortable than any one of our own back four on the day. Stones has manfully stepped in for the injured Phil Jagielka in a way Thomas Vermaelen cannot seem to be able to do for Laurent Koscielny.
On the topic of injuries, while we cannot simply ignore the fact we’ve missed key players at crucial times this season – including 5 would-be first teamers for this match – the level of performance from the players who did play was inexcusable considering their supposed standing. The eleven players who started the game against Everton have collectively, including substitute appearances, made a whooping 1,493 appearances for Arsenal between them and each one (bar Mikel Arteta) had represented their country, at least once, at senior international level. Yet despite this, they all played like complete strangers making their debuts in an unfamiliar team. Injuries of course play a part but there is little excuse for performing that badly when you can still field a team choked full of talent and experience.
Taking the Mik
It’s almost impossible to single anybody out when the team performs so badly but Mikel Arteta’s continued involvement in first team matters really needs reassessing. It was yet another game that seemed to bypass him and his gradual regression as a player is increasingly worrying. The irony of him scoring an own goal against his former team was only eclipsed by the irony that he presumably left Everton because he thought Arsenal were ‘better’. It wouldn’t be particularly difficult to argue that he would struggle to even get into their starting line up right now.
Many people have bemoaned the manager’s failure to make changes at half time to perhaps provide some fresh impetus and claw ourselves back into the game before it got away from us. Bafflingly, he waited to make his customary 65th minute changes but by then Everton had scored their third and were home and dry. While I whole heartedly agree that the manager could/should have been more reactive to the situation, you genuinely must question if this would have made much of a difference. The mental fragility of the players in these games has been all too apparent this season so you wonder if at 2-0 the game was already lost regardless of any changes the manager could make from the bench.
Falling on your Arse
Our league form is in the toilet. Only Sunderland, Norwich and Cardiff have picked up fewer than our 5 points from the previous six matches. This poor run has seen Arsenal go from title contenders to a team whose destiny as far as Champions League qualification is concerned, is no longer in their own hands. Having led the table for so long, Arsenal are now at risk of missing out on finishing in the top four. It’s not just the results either. As has been well documented, the performances are providing little indication of any turnaround in fortunes. Ending the season without even challenging would have been disappointing enough, but that disappointment will be tenfold if the club fails to achieve its minimum target of a top four finish.
The increasing prospect of that failure has naturally led to an increasing number of fans, pundits and experts questioning the future of the manager. My feelings are the same as they were after Chelsea. For all he has achieved, he is struggling to replicate either the success or the entertaining brand of football for which he was once famed. As he gets older, it’s only natural that his powers will wane. Meanwhile, there are younger managers out there with fresh ideas looking to compete with and eventually overtake him. To ignore this would be criminal. You may love Arsene Wenger but he will not be around forever. To not even try and allow yourself to comprehend his replacement is incredibly short-sighted because, regardless of whether you want it or not, a change WILL one day happen.
The way this season is panning out, this change may even occur sooner rather than later. People are suggesting an FA cup win would be the perfect way for him to walk away with his head held high. What I worry is why so many people seem to think that the cup is a foregone conclusion because playing as we are, we would struggle to beat any of the remaining sides in the competition.
We face a potential doomsday scenario this season and I dread to think what the fallout will be a month from now. I guess to try and end this on something of a positive note, regardless of how we feel about things at this point, the team (manager and players) need our unwavering support over the next six (hopefully seven) matches if disaster is to be averted.