The Arsenal Monday verdict: Do this Arsenal team believe they can win the title?
Three competitions have gone for Gunners, but one still remains
NO quadruple then. Or a treble. And now we can forget about a double too. It has been another tough week to be an Arsenal fan.
Saturday’s surrender at Old Trafford completed a nightmare fortnight for Arsene Wenger and his side. Now the Frenchman has a massive task on his hands to rebuild a team which appears to have been both mentally and physically shattered in the past few weeks.
While there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth, the bare facts of defeats away to Barcelona (the best team in Europe and maybe the world) and Manchester United (the best in Britain) should not be seen as indicators of instant demise.
The loss to Birmingham City at Wembley that preceded those games, however, was the most surprising and, ultimately, perhaps the most damaging.
Arsenal left Wembley with a dent to their confidence that has proved hard to eradicate. They needed to be at their best for a key week of games, and yet they entered it low on morale, on belief, and on personnel.
Then the draining, demoralising manner of the Champions League exit in Spain always made you fear for the Gunners on Saturday.
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Wenger had talked of looking for a response and bouncing back, but Old Trafford is an unforgiving arena for such a task. Leyton Orient at home, Arsenal’s only win in their last five games, was more the kind of game you wanted to bounce back in, as Arsenal had after Wembley.
The Gunners’ boss did not deny after this latest defeat that it is mental strength his players need to exhibit now if they are to salvage anything from a season that held such promise.
“The disappointment of Tuesday night has played a part,” admitted Wenger. “You could see something has gone, not in our effort or our attitude, but confidence wise.”
In a week where he has personally been questioned more than ever, nobody was arguing with that statement from the Frenchman.
While he himself has stood firm against the barrage of criticism, his players have not coped so well. On Saturday they simply did not seem to believe they could beat United, especially after going a goal behind.
This was despite the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were without a number of key personnel, and started with three defenders in midfield.
But, much like Chelsea had done in the 2-0 defeat of Arsenal at Stamford Bridge back in October, United were quite happy to let Arsenal’s midfield have the ball, because they were fairly confident the Gunners would do nothing with it.
On this occasion, they were right. Arsenal’s play just seemed to peter out on the edge of the United box and, on the few occasions they did get a glimpse of goal, the giant, imposing frame of Edwin van der Sar was there to deny them.
As in Barcelona, there were some mitigating circumstances. Without Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song, Wenger had to rely on two players in midfield who have rarely looked like they are up to the task this season, Denilson and Abou Diaby.
Diaby, in particular, had been very poor in the goalless draw with Sunderland and in the Nou Camp, and yet here he was, starting in central midfield for Arsenal again. Jack Wilshere must be wondering why maybe a couple of his fellow youth-team graduates aren’t getting similar exposure.
Samir Nasri, such an inspiration earlier in the season, is another who has stepped back from the limelight in the three crucial defeats that have cost the side so dear, and was peripheral again on Saturday.
At the back, with Kieran Gibbs curiously preferred to Gael Clichy on the left, Arsenal were just a little too hesitant when both goals were scored, a little too reactionary rather than sensing the danger early and snuffing it out, as Nemanja Vidic tended to do at the other end.
In attack, Van Persie’s purple patch that saw him score seven goals in four games not too long ago, seems to have come to an abrupt end. Marouane Chamakh has only scored against Orient in the past four months, while Nicklas Bendtner was not even in the squad. Perhaps he is still pondering why he didn’t hit that late chance in the Nou Camp first time, like most Arsenal fans have been wondering.
Theo Walcott’s ankle injury which ruled him out of the three season-defining matches, has been keenly felt, whether he was to be used as in impact sub, or from the start.
With Johan Djourou now ruled out for the rest of the season, the team appear to be in something of a desperate state, but there is the small matter of a league title to be fought for.
Wenger has already made it clear he feels his players are capable of recovering, and at least they have had a clear seven days off to do so, for the first time since before Christmas.
However, anything less than victory at The Hawthorns on Saturday and the last remaining trophy will also start to disappear from view. Arsenal have 10 games remaining and each will be a massive test of character of a fragile, depleted side.
The players, perhaps with the exception of the fearless, tireless Wilshere, look like they are shrinking from the tasks that are before them.
This, a few pundits said last week, is where managers earn their money. If Wenger can conjure up a title triumph from this sorry mess, it will not only wipe away the misery of the last few weeks, but would rank with his finest achievements in his 15-year reign. Get to work, Arsene.