The Arsenal Monday verdict: Don’t blame the ref, just learn the lessons

Just how did Arsenal blow a 4-0 lead at Newcastle in 22 minutes?

FOR the first time since before Christmas Arsenal do not have a midweek game this week – and how they need a rest after Saturday’s extraordinary events at St James’ Park.

It took some time for the dust to settle on the tumultuous 4-4 draw that saw the Gunners become the first team in the Premier League’s 19-year history to let a 4-0 lead slip.

But, when it did and conclusions were drawn, there were two sides to the debate. Firstly Arsenal still have serious defensive deficiencies; and secondly, this result is nowhere near as bad as it first seemed.

Like any match, there were also mitigating circumstances on the day, in this case some questionable decisions from the officials, but they should not be held responsible for the result.

No team should ever let a four-goal lead slip in the final 22 minutes of a game, regardless of the circumstances. Least of all an Arsenal side who are making a serious bid to win the Premier League title.

Arsene Wenger, for once, reined in his post-match comments and flatly refused to get involved in criticising referee Phil Dowd for his decisions, even if the most questionable call, the second Newcastle penalty, was actually made by a linesman.

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“I knew at 4-0 the game was not over because it was important to keep our nerves and continue to play,” said a surprisingly calm Wenger afterwards.

“A team that has already lost the game, when they get back into the game you are always under threat. That was very important for us, not to allow them to get back into the game. Therefore, we are certainly guilty by going down to 10 men.

“We were worried too much on protecting our lead after that because we were down to 10 men. Instead of continuing to play, we invited pressure. Afterwards we were very unlucky with some decisions as well. I cannot do anything about that.”

Perhaps even more decisive than the sending-off and the penalty decisions was the injury sustained by Johan Djourou early in the second half.

The Swiss centre-back has been at the heart of Arsenal’s recent solidity – before Saturday they had conceded just once in five league games – but when he hobbled off with a knee problem the score was still 4-0, so it didn’t seem like it would be too much of a blow.

However, 60 seconds later Abou Diaby had his moment of madness which, even if Joey Barton’s initial tackle was borderline dangerous, was also indefensible.

With no Alex Song on the pitch, Arsenal were suddenly a man down and also lacking three players who usually provide the muscle in the central areas. That weakness was all too glaring as the game wore on.

Arsenal dropped deeper and deeper, and tried to play their way out from the back. It is the only way players like Jack Wilshere, Andrey Arshavin and Cesc Fabregas know, but this was when a collective mindset to just see out the game should have taken over.

Sitting on the Newcastle bench was a player who would have done just that. Sol Campbell was never one for hesitant defending and indecision. He would put it in Row Z, hoof it upfield, head it into touch time after time, see the game out, whatever the circumstances.

Djourou’s replacement Sebastien Squillaci did not do that, but it would be unfair to point fingers at individual players. This was a collective lack of defensive cohesion, and it is not the first time we have witnessed it.

These players need to learn, as Wenger had suggested, that no game is ever won until it is over and you are shaking hands after the final whistle.

Running out after half-time, with a 4-0 lead in their pockets, Arsenal had the swagger we have come to expect, and that can be their downfall.

As against Tottenham in November, the players just seemed to feel the job was done, and surrendered the initiative. As soon as they conceded the first penalty, you could sense Newcastle had a chance, just as Spurs had when Gareth Bale pulled a goal back at the Emirates in that 3-2 defeat. Spurs also had the memory of another famous recent comeback to call on; their own 4-4 draw against the Gunners in October 2008.

In part that is down to the way this Arsenal side play, and there was ample evidence of the positive side of that in a first-half performance of scintillating style to build a seemingly impenetrable 4-0 lead.

But football is about winning matches, not turning on the style. Style over substance has often been levelled at Arsenal, and Saturday was another reminder that those arguments have truth on their side. It is up to the players, and Wenger, to prove that is not the case.

A lack of leadership is also a fair criticism – there was nobody to galvanise the side, like a Sol Campbell, to make sure simple jobs were done. Every winning team needs vocal leaders. Djourou is perhaps becoming that player for Arsenal, another reason his absence was so keenly felt on Saturday.

It is worth remembering, however, that this was not a defeat, it was a draw. And when Manchester United were beaten at Wolves, and then 24 hours later Chelsea lost to Liverpool, the top of the table suddenly didn’t look so bad.

In cold, mathematical terms, Arsenal are better off, a point closer to United than they were before the weekend. They are off the hook, and actually unbeaten in eight league games.

But, as Wenger suggested on Saturday, the psychological damage may have more impact than those two dropped points. Arsenal have shown weakness, and teams will be aware of it. They must recover quickly, and convincingly, if the fallout from Saturday is not to cost them a chance of the title.