We were always going to lose at Old Trafford today. That’s the thing to keep in mind about this result. We were always going to lose. We didn’t have the players to expect anything else. And if anyone allowed themselves to actually believe we could have won, Wenger included, then they either don’t understand football or they are willfully ignorant. The team that played yesterday could not have beaten Manchester United. Just remember that for a moment, because the tough question comes next.
Why does Arsenal Football Club have such a threadbare squad that an 8-2 result is even possible? That’s the important question. Would we have lost 8-2 with Gervinho, Jack, Song, Sagna and Vermaelen? Probably not. Would we have won? Maybe. I actually think we may have won with that group available. But they weren’t available. And the players that were available were six goals worse than United.
Forget the two goals we scored and the two more we could have had. They’re irrelevant. Because when you have so little concern for defending or ability to defend, it doesn’t matter how many chances you create. We may have troubled United from time to time, but it was clear early-on, that we were going to concede a mountain of goals on Sunday. They scored eight times and could’ve scored more.
We need to stop pretending we are unlucky or cursed. It’s an excuse making mechanism that needs to be put to rest. United’s team was younger. United’s team was arguably missing more first-teamers. I think Alex Ferguson was almost trying to make a point with his starting XI. I think he was saying, “here’s a team filled with my backups and young talent, just so you can’t make any excuses when we whip you.” They didn’t start Chicharito, Valencia, Park, Carrick, Rafael, Vidic or Ferdinand. They did start Wellbeck, Young, Anderson, Cleverley, Smalling, Evans and Jones. And that group just beat our stand-ins by six goals.
When you lose players to injuries and suspensions, it’s expected that there might be a drop in quality. In season’s past we’ve had a horrific injury record. Yet we still produced results that avoided embarrassment. We’ve had to play without RVP, Cesc, Nasri, Theo, Song, Vermaelen and others in the past. But there were relatively competent professionals prepared to take their places. Maybe no world-beaters, but professional footballers ready for the challenge. After the match Wenger said, “we do not have the squad to compete when we have this many players out.” He picked his words perfectly. It’s not that we don’t have the squad to “win,” we don’t have the squad to “compete.” And that is inexcusable.
I have no problem with Arsenal working towards developing young talent for the future. But the balance is out of whack. And I think it’s time to question whether the talent is as good as we always assume. Let’s not forget that Arsenal’s much vaunted reserve team got beaten 10-1 by Aston Villa’s reserves last season. Two of the starters from that game were on the bench at Old Trafford today. Were they going to come on and rescue us?
I’m not suggesting we don’t have brilliant young talent. I’m not suggesting that these players can’t still come good. But they’re not good enough now and Arsenal is not a youth-development program. Arsenal is supposed to be one of the strongest clubs in European football. We are one of the most profitable sports teams in the world. It is beyond ridiculous to field such a weakened squad in any match, let alone a match against the reigning champions on their ground. Again, it’s not because of injuries and suspensions. It’s because the team isn’t strong enough beyond the first XI.
What’s even more disheartening about Sunday’s match is that our most experienced players were some of our worst. Robin van Persie, despite scoring, was terrible. His touch was poor and his missed penalty was an early omen of things to come. What bothers me about his performance is that his body language seems to suggest he was fed up with his team. I’m sorry, but if you’re going to publicly say that the manager should spend some money on quality players, then you need to carry your weight too. Convert your penalty. When a beautiful ball over the top of the defense puts you in on the ‘keeper with all the time in the world, don’t try a difficult volley with your weaker foot. Top players score from those positions. RVP can say we need to strengthen, and he’s most certainly right, but if he had done his part on Sunday, things might have been different. At least a little bit different.
Theo Walcott is another player that annoyed me on Sunday. He seems to think he’s a star now. He’s got a book out. He has scored a couple of good goals. Life is good for Theo. Now he seems to believe that he can berate his teammates at every opportunity. He loves to throw a fit when they don’t get him the ball in the area. Why do you want it Theo? So you can slam it into the ‘keeper like you did in Italy on Wednesday?
One of my favorite moments of the match was when Theo Walcott had a go at Carl Jenkinson for his defending. Where do you even begin with that? Walcott loves to ignore his defensive responsibilities and the penalty he gave away late in the game was sheer immaturity. Jenkinson runs his heart out. He gives his all. It’s not his fault that he was playing in League One last season and isn’t ready to start against United at Old Trafford. He’s just not ready for this yet. It’s honestly not even fair to him.
Lately Arsene Wenger has shown the disturbing willingness to tolerate players who simply aren’t good enough. He did that with Denilson. He did that with Almunia. Now he’s doing it again. I realize that Armonde Traore is not our first choice left-back. He might not be our second choice left-back. But the fact remains that he should never be on a football pitch in an Arsenal shirt. It’s become taboo to speak honestly lately, but let’s get serious. Before the match even started I asked Arseblog how he felt about Arshavin and Traore on the left. He said he was terrified. I agreed. Well guess what? There was every reason to be terrified. Because Manchester United could’ve scored 20 goals on Sunday just by attacking our left side. Traore’s positioning defies common sense and you have to wonder what Arsene Wenger sees in him other than an excuse not to buy another left-back.
It’s a little bit terrifying how much we missed Thomas Vermaelen and Barcary Sagna. They are the glue that holds our defense together. Without them, everyone else looks terrible. Johan Djourou looked almost competent on Wednesday, but I can’t remember seeing a more shocking performance by a center-back than the one he turned in on Sunday. Laurent Koscielny was decent, but couldn’t compensate for Djourou’s display. Basically, when three of your four defenders aren’t Premier League quality, and you’re playing Manchester United at Old Trafford, you’re going to concede some goals.
You could go on and on and on picking out players who had a bad game or quit on their teammates. At one point I honestly believed that Arshavin was trying to get sent off because he’d had enough of the match. Think about it. He intentionally handled the ball when he was on a yellow card. Then he committed a Cattermole-esque tackle when he was miles from getting to the ball. Webb should have sent him off and we should have been down to 10 men much earlier.
But the vast majority of the blame for this match falls on the manager. I’m sorry, but it does. If he’s going to get the accolades and hear the fans sing “one Arsene Wenger” when things go well, then he must take the blame when things go poorly. He said there’s enough quality and belief in this side. He said there was enough mental strength. He was wrong on all counts.
Forget Arsene’s failure to strengthen the side for a moment. Let’s ignore that. Let’s just look at the tactical decisions instead. He should’ve known we were in for a battering today. It was clear for all the world to see. He could’ve set us up more conservatively in an effort to stifle United. He opted to go for it. And when the match was clearly lost, and a big scoreline was becoming a possibility, he did something I literally cannot explain in any way. He took off our holding midfielder and replaced him with a young attacking midfielder who has never played a game for the club. I realize that in Arsene’s mind there was no difference between losing 3-1 and 8-2. As he said, “we tried desperately to get back but we opened ourselves up and were punished.” That sounds reasonable, but it just shows a stunning lack of common sense. It shows an inability to appreciate reality. Frankly, it smacks of delusion.
Now for the really awful part. Our lack of quality is why we lost on Sunday, but it’s not why we lost 8-2. We were still good enough to keep that game closer. No matter how poor our team was, and no matter how inexperienced some of the players were, there was still enough talent wearing an Arsenal shirt to prevent what happened. You don’t lose 8-2 because you were outclassed. You lose 8-2 because you quit. You lose 8-2 because you have no heart. No guts. No discipline. That’s reality. Think of the awful teams that have been in the Premier League over the past few seasons. How many have United scored 8 against? We’ve seen Wigan concede a similar number, but they’re one of the most destitute sides in England’s top flight and constant relegation fodder.
Do I think that we would’ve gotten a result on Sunday if we played with courage? No. Not by a long shot. Because courage can’t compensate for a lack of quality. But I know for a fact that we could’ve kept it closer. The team wasn’t helped by the manager’s inexplicable decision-making. That kept the snowball rolling down the hill.
What I saw on Sunday was a team that thought it was fun to keep pushing men forward in numbers when they’d already conceded 5 goals. 6 goals. 7 goals. Where’s the discipline? This isn’t a Sunday league match they were playing for fun. Those men are paid huge sums of money to play football and represent Arsenal Football Club. Why are they playing like it’s a testimonial in a Premier League match? Why is Theo giving away penalties out of frustration? Why is the manager putting on more attackers when we are getting taken behind the woodshed? Good questions. No answers.
There will be better times ahead for this team. When players come back from injuries and suspensions we could very well deliver an 8-2 thumping to Swansea. But that’s not the point. The point is that eleven men wearing Arsenal shirts humiliated the club on Sunday. They played without discipline or pride. Arsene Wenger has to ask why. Maybe he’s become too much like the overly permissive parent whose children start to run amok.
If you were a player at Arsenal, how would you behave? You’re surrounded by youngsters with few experienced, older teammates ready to keep you in line. You watch while players who agitate for moves out of the club are indulged by the manager as if they’re heroes or martyrs. You see players like Denilson and Diaby stroll around on defense but continue to get picked. You watch players like Almunia and Squillaci keep their jobs after proving time and again that they’re not good enough.
If I were a player at Arsenal I would believe that I could do what I pleased. Play how I want. Train how I want. Behave how I want. Perform badly. And I would have reason to believe that I could behave that way because I would see evidence of it everywhere I looked. Alex Ferguson isn’t loved by all his players, but he’s feared by all his players. Wenger is loved by all his players and feared by no one.
Unfortunately, the mentality that Wenger has cultivated within the side is all wrong at the moment. There’s little evidence of self-belief. But there’s even less evidence of self-control. We’ve had a red card in every single premier league match we’ve played. Four red cards in three matches if you count Song’s ban for stomping on Barton. And Arshavin really should’ve been sent off early on Sunday as well. It’s not just a coincidence. The discipline within the squad is gone.
There are no repercussions at Arsenal. No consequences. Play badly, you still keep your place in the team. Throw away a lead, you’re told you showed great mental strength. Concede eight goals to the team you’re supposedly challenging for the title, and the manager says it was a good experience. That kind of leadership doesn’t work. Arsenal has become a school without rules, and the students are failing their classes.
Like I said at the beginning, we were always going to lose on Sunday. But the manner in which we lost was preventable. It’s not just down to the dearth of quality in the side. We have to accept that it’s also down to the poor attitude of the players. So much time has been spent by gooners focusing on the players that weren’t available today. But consider who was available for a moment.
There were at least five first-choice players on the pitch today. Arshavin and Rosicky may no longer be first-choice players, but they are two of the more experienced members of the squad. Johan Djourou was a starter for all of last season. So that’s eight of eleven players who started on Sunday that can be considered first-team regulars. Maybe it’s not ideal, but that group shouldn’t be beaten 8-2 unless something is wrong within the squad.
We want new signings. We need new signings. But today, Arsenal didn’t look like a club that many players would be desperate to join. If you played for reigning French champions Lille, and you know that Arsenal don’t pay the best wages, and you see a group of players that don’t look happy to be on the pitch, and you watch those players quit on each other in a big match, how eager would you be to join that club? Not very. Does anyone else think that Juan Mata watched us play on Sunday and felt like he dodged a bullet?
It’s a desperate situation at the moment. There’s a few days left in the transfer window and I still believe that new players will arrive. But now I’m starting to wonder if two or three new players can fix what’s broken. Can we suddenly become a team that’s interested in defending? Will the morale within the side improve? Van Persie doesn’t look happy. Neither does Theo. Cesc was a popular player and now he’s gone. Nasri moved to a side that looks ready to fight for the title and tripled his wages along the way. It has to be depressing for the players left behind. They can’t help but notice these things. Then they talk. They talk to other players at other clubs. And you start to wonder if there’s any reason why someone would choose to come to Arsenal at this point in time. I can only think of one thing.
Here’s the one thing that would make me want to join Arsenal. Here’s the one thing that would make me want to run until my lungs burst for Arsenal. Here’s the one thing that makes me swell with pride at being a gooner. Our supporters. God bless the away supporters. Sitting on my couch, miserable at home, head in my hands, I wanted to reach through the television and hug every Arsenal supporter at Old Trafford. I wanted to be there with them. I wanted to be at that stadium, taking that beating and singing my heart out with them. It’s that kind of support that reminds you what it means to be a gooner. No matter how bad things get, and they’ve gotten really bad, the away support provided an important reminder to us all that
We love you Arsenal,
We love you Arsenal,
We love you Arsenal,
Oh Arsenal we love you!
Over to you Arsene.