The Arsenal Monday verdict: Wenger betrayed by his players’ lack of belief
Gunners boss has had too much faith in this side to deliver under pressure
STAYING positive is a mantra of modern sport, and a phrase that has been heard all too often at the Emirates in recent times.
“We have to keep believing. We won’t give up,” said Robin van Persie immediately after Saturday’s soulless, liefeless, goalless draw with Blackburn Rovers.
But the look on his face betrayed his words. The Dutchman knows that Arsenal have missed their chance again, and so too does Arsene Wenger.
The Arsenal manager looked as down as he has done for a long time in the aftermath of Saturday’s result, and given the recent defeats at Wembley, the Nou Camp and Old Trafford, that is saying something.
But after each of those tournament exits Wenger knew that the main trophy, the Premier League title, was still firmly within his side’s grasp.
Not any more. Two more dropped points at the weekend, a third draw in succession, have cost Arsenal dearly and they now trail Manchester United by seven points.
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The accepted logic suggests that deficit can be trimmed to a single point if the Gunners win their game in hand and then beat United at the Emirates on May 1.
But that is ignoring the painful reality that presented itself on Saturday; that at the moment Arsenal don’t look capable of beating anybody, least of all the side who are top of the table and showed once again at Upton Park on Saturday why they are clear favourites to win a record 19th title.
The statistics make stark and depressing reading. Arsenal have won only once in their last seven matches, and that was against League One Leyton Orient in an FA Cup replay.
It is a run of form depressingly familiar to the collapse at the end of last season that saw Wenger’s side relinquish a Champions League and title challenge in April and May.
A year earlier it was the same with United doing the damage in Europe and Chelsea inflicting a semi-final defeat in the FA Cup.
The year before that, in 2008, Arsenal imploded after that now infamous draw at Birmingham in February that saw Eduardo injured and William Gallas lose his head.
Birmingham, again, have been the catalyst for this season’s demise. The gut-wrenching Carling Cup final defeat at the end of February seems to have sucked all the belief out of Wenger’s side.
The pressure of ending the six-year wait for silverware seemed to be too much for Arsenal that day at Wembley, and confidence has eroded further in the ensuing weeks.
‘Mental strength’ – one of Wenger’s favourite buzzwords – has again proved to be fragile, a failing that appears criminal given the situation Arsenal found themselves in at the start of March.
Despite that Wembley heartbreak, the Gunners still looked primed for success in the main competitions, but needed United to slip up in the league.
They duly did so with the controversial 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge, which was followed by a 3-1 loss to Liverpool at Anfield.
The door was open for Wenger’s side, but Arsenal’s malaise had already started with the 0-0 draw against Sunderland, a pivotal result that let United off the hook.
The cup exits at Barcelona and Old Trafford followed, but even after the draw at West Bromwich Albion the title still seemed a two-horse race. Until Saturday.
Wenger detected the lack of belief in the 2-0 FA Cup quarter-final defeat to United, but felt it was only a temporary problem that could be restored.
But there has been more to the recent slump than a loss of confidence. While injuries have played their part, most notably to Cesc Fabregas, other key players have lost form and influence.
Samir Nasri, so explosive in the first half of the season, has struggled to find that form again, and has now not scored for 13 games, a goals input that has been sorely missed.
On Saturday it was down to players like him, Van Persie and Andrey Arshavin to provide the invention to unlock a stubborn back four, but the task looked beyond them.
“I don’t think the players did not want it against Blackburn,” said Wenger afterwards. “We were just one-paced and that is not our game. We had nothing in the tank to produce a change of pace. We looked very predictable and usually we are not.
“You get your belief through your attitude and, of course, we have been shocked by what has happened. That is why we have to put even more effort in.”
Wenger did not seem himself after Saturday’s game and even suggested he was ready to consider his future at the end of the season. “I want to finish the season and we will see,” he said, cryptically.
However, it is more likely he was thinking about the make-up of his squad and how it might change this summer, because some of this group of players, after six barren seasons, have perhaps had their chance.
A new, even younger generation, spearheaded by Jack Wilshere but with a growing supporting cast, is ready to push through, while some key big-money acquisitions – which Wenger dislikes so intensely – may also have to be considered.
Wenger knows that what he has seen in the last month, when everything has been at stake, has simply not been good enough, and has suggested he is contemplating an overhaul.
“We’ve known for a long time that these games were coming and we had to win them,” he added, before fading away slightly; “It’s difficult to explain.”
While the fight will continue until the final game, as it has to, Wenger must know that even in this most unpredictable of campaigns, Arsenal’s title chances are all but extinguished.
The Frenchman’s belief in his squad has never wavered this season, until now. Have they let him down or has he placed too much faith in a group of talented, but ultimately inexperienced players?
That is an argument that can be addressed come season’s end if, as will surely now be the case, it heralds a sixth season without tangible reward.