Chelsea Lots – Arsenal Nil
Gentlemen, this title hope will self-destruct in…oh, wait, it already has…
Which mental image you saw when you read those words is defined by your age. I confess, Peter Graves. If you have to ask who Peter Graves is, Tom Cruise was probably your man. You expected one or other to be the lead photo but Peter Cook from Blackadder? It fits if you think about it for long enough.
Where do you begin after such a defeat? You could start by blaming the referee but that is the refuge of the blinkered. By the time Andre Marriner had made you wish that Paul was officiating, the game had long escaped Arsenal’s grasp. From the official’s perspective, it was a horrific mistake; mistaken identity is the worst they can make, knowing that foul play was afoot but getting the wrong person entirely; “Ha! Moriarty. No, Watson, it was Mrs Hudson!”
I don’t know where to begin, the tumult of emotions is still raging. We repeated the mistakes of Eastlands and Anfield. The desperation of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dive encapsulated the hopelessness the players felt and despair they were driven to. He didn’t need to do it, the ball was going wide but they didn’t know how – or were powerless – to prevent the fall to previous depths. The headlights had once more blinded them into panic, two quickly conceded goals and the wheels had come off before the kettle had been filled for the half-time Bovril.
Had one of the results at the homes of the top three occurred in isolation, it is an abhorrence. Three times in a season tells us something is fundamentally wrong, that tactically we had the wrong game plan but knowing it had failed at City, why repeat the same plan at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, especially with key personnel missing. I cannot recall such a porous defence in these encounters, they are usually such tight affairs. They are matches decided by the thinnest of margins; it has been a chasm on each occasion this season. But why, especially when the two home games thus far have seen Arsenal as the better team. What is the mental block the players have when they have faced their nearest rivals this season. Is it just the players who are startled deer?
Key players missing is going to be held as a mitigating circumstance and in some respects it was. Any side will miss the quality of Walcott, Wilshere and Ramsey. However, as all three played in the humbling at Eastlands, it is something of a spurious argument. In any case, surely the point of a squad system is to cope with such absences and we largely have this season. In matches against teams in lower positions. Against those more equal or better? The answer is plain to see.
Yesterday was not a surprise in some respects. We had, after all, seen a strangely muted performance at White Hart Lane last weekend, one where we played rope-a-dope with Tottenham. Was the original plan to repeat that? If so, Olivier Giroud’s miss before the opening goal takes on even greater significance. If Arsène’s tactical plan is that, those chances need to be taken. It wasn’t and Arsenal’s failings were exposed. We have a good centre forward in the Frenchman but not one who can consistently make a difference in the big matches and that is where you need someone who can take a chance, someone of the calibre of Suarez. Players of that ilk are few and far between; when you try to sign them, you go all out not half-arsenaled. Would he have made a difference in this match had he worn the cannon on his chest? Probably not but he might have already made the outcome less relevant.
Yet Giroud is not the sole cause, his failings are but one in a multitude contained within this abysmal and mangled performance. Let’s be honest, Wojciech Szczesny won’t look back favourably on the afternoon and with hindsight we ask many questions. The problem is that we have asked these questions before as well. Why were Arsenal so slow to begin? Why were Arsenal chasing an irretrievable deficit within twenty minutes? Why did Arsenal hold a high defensive line when Per Mertesacker’s strength is not his pace but his reading of the game, his ability to compensate for that weakness by being in the position to make a timely interception or tackle if needed. Especially when you are a man down.
Arsenal will most likely finish fourth this season, the first to fall in the title race. In acknowledging that, there are some very uncomfortable questions to be asked and the answers won’t be known until the end of the season. How close you get to the title is judged ultimately in points and closing the gap from last season’s sixteen is something which has to be achieved. Progress might be considered to have been made by actually being in the hunt for the title and not knowing it has gone by October. But is it progress at all?
Arsène observed that the defeat left Arsenal in a “bad position“. It leaves us in a very familiar position; fourth place. It won’t be a battle this season unless there is a collapse although defeat at Goodison Park will make the end of the season run-in a little less comfortable. The table this morning reinforces the message about the away form; from the top down to eighth, Arsenal’s record is LLLWL with just Everton to go. It is depressing reading as it shows no improvement in the last few years. As much as the rest of the Premier League offers more points, you cannot win the title or sustain a challenge with taking more points than that on your travels. Looking for positives such as Arsène did, claiming we are better off by winning and losing in the last two matches is factually correct but pointless; Arsenal had to win both to challenge for the title. Even now, a top three finish is beginning to look a distant dream.
The pressure now turns to the FA Cup semi-final against Wigan. It’s a match Arsenal should win anyway, they are a better side than their opponents as their league positions evidence. But to make this season feel like progress, to prove that this squad is capable of going on to better things, they have to lift the trophy, to use it as a stepping stone to a concerted title next season. Next season though is a familiar refrain.