Arsenal - the club who have forgotten how to win
Trophyless again, the past week has summed up everything that is wrong with Arsene Wenger’s side
WE HAVE been here before, have we not.
Arsenal have imploded in springtime again, and the recriminations have begun.
Everything from sacking Arsene Wenger to hiring Jose Mourinho has been suggested in the past week, but most people acknowledge that neither of those things is going to happen.
That is despite the fact that Wenger bore the brunt of the criticism after another tortuous week at the helm, and admitted that he is the right person to blame for another season of promise that has gone up in smoke.
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Arsenal have been found wanting again at the season’s business end and, after watching the same failings for six successive seasons, some Arsenal supporters have had enough.
What used to be an anti-Wenger minority among Arsenal supporters has grown in size in recent weeks. There is not a universal desire for his removal but there is a clamour for him to change his ways.
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“If you can convince me that the principles are wrong, then I am ready,” said Wenger after Sunday’s defeat at Bolton. “But I feel we try to play football the proper way.
“When you don’t win, your principles are questioned. You always have to take the right distance to see what is right and wrong in what you do. I think if something is wrong in our team, it is not the principle of playing our football.”
Most critics would agree with that assessment, up to a point. Arsenal do play very good football but only going in one direction. As an attacking force, they are almost unrivalled. Defensively, however, it has been established that this team has major issues.
Not just the defenders are to blame – this is something that runs through the team and can be seen from the way, even in the past week, that Abou Diaby failed to get close to Rafael van der Vaart at White Hart Lane for Spurs’ first equaliser, and at how Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie failed to stop Tamir Cohen’s header finding the net on Sunday.
Collectively Arsenal do not have the defensive cohesion or organisation to not concede goals at crucial stages of matches. And when they do concede those goals, there is a mental weakness in recovering from that blow psychologically to find the resources to win the game.
In each of the three crucial games Arsenal failed to win inside a week to send their title challenge crashing off the rails, this was in evidence.
Against Liverpool they were handed a lifeline of an injury-time penalty, but did not have the awareness and professionalism to see out the remaining 90 seconds.
Against Tottenham, a 1-0 lead lasted less than three minutes and a 3-1 lead the same amount of time. The lessons from the Liverpool game had not been learned, they had been ignored.
And against Bolton, despite attacking almost incessantly for the entire second half, Arsenal failed to find a winning goal – and then allowed their hosts to score one from a set-piece that was not defended properly.
Tamir Cohen’s winner was the 20th Premier League goal Arsenal have conceded from a set piece this season, more than half of the total of 36 goals against. Communication appears to be a major problem at the back, something that was epitomised by the awful error that handed Birmingham the Carling Cup at Wembley. Another game Arsenal should have won, but somehow contrived to lose.
Punditss have pointed to that game as the moment Arsenal’s season unravelled, but that moment actually came three weeks earlier, at Newcastle. Arsenal led 4-0 at half-time after a display of such crushing dominance it bore the hallmark of champions. The capitulation in the second half was astounding.
Again there were so many basics that went wrong in that game – Diaby getting stupidly sent off early in the second half, the concession of two penalties, the lack of any kind of leadership or fortitude as Newcastle sensed the most unlikely of comebacks and ultimately achieved it.
Teams who win titles do not blow 4-0 leads. Football supporters of any club know that, and yet, it seems, the players at one of the country’s biggest clubs do not.
They don’t seem to dig in when games need winning, closing out, shutting down or, in the modern way, dribbling the ball into the corner to waste time by the corner flag.
Experience of the game is what teaches everybody these things, but all footballers have a winning instinct. They have, after all, been playing the game for most of their lives.
Arsenal though, seem to have forgotten those basic principles, and they are paying the price time and time again. Some players who understand what it takes to win football matches and are prepared to make that sacrifice of substance over style are certainly needed. But so is a major shift in the attitude of Wenger and, more importantly, his players.
They have to remember how to win, and to remember that winning, ultimately, is what matters in football. Perhaps another blank season and another long, painful summer will finally deliver that message.