Arsenal 2 – 2 Swanswa City
0 – 1 Bony (11)
1 – 1 Podolski (73)
2 – 1 Giroud (74)
2 – 2 Flamini (90 og)
The alternative title to this morning’s post was Arsène Wen ger: My Part In His Downfall, a memoir by the 2013/14 Arsenal squad. A point that feels like none is the best way to describe the mood after last night’s attempt to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It sums it up when the players can’t even manage to do that properly. Post-match, the manager spoke of spirit, spirit and more spirit. I’m minded of the Paul Weller tale I related a short while ago; Arsenal are enough to drive you to drink at the moment and it isn’t a very long journey.
In common with the two previous occasions after a heavy defeat, the players were understandably nervous having conceded six at Stamford Bridge. That sense of trepidation was not helped by the lax play which led to Wilfred Bony’s opener. Too much space was conceded on the Arsenal right and Taylor duly obliged by crossing for the striker to head home. Knees will be jerking toward the transfer window demanding that Arsène sign him. If he’s still around, of course.
Arsenal were undermined from the outset by the inclusion of Flamini and Arteta. There was no need for the pairing in a home match against a team fighting against relegation who only know about clean sheets because they were in John Lewis at the weekend. It should have been a routine win and with two ostensibly defensive midfielders, Arsenal’s attacking outlets were curtailed. Indeed, after Olivier Giroud had given Arsenal the lead, the duo were overrun in midfield as territory and possession were ceded. It is a tactic which has worked previously this season but last night it blew up in our faces. Swansea were able to wander through midfield at will and even though it was comedy gold for the equaliser, it was not unexpected. And to be honest, nobody is laughing.
Lukas Podolski made the difference, it is hard to say if he would have from the start such is his own inconsistency at times. A goal followed by creating one for Giroud within a minute had turned the game on its head, Arsenal seeming to have delivered an ‘ugly’ win. Kieran Gibbs showed the type of reaction the manager wanted from Saturday, no doubt spurred on by a sense of injustice even if it had been rectified. It was his fine run that made Podolski’s opportunity. A pity that no-one else really followed his lead.
Everton’s win at Newcastle puts the pressure firmly on Arsenal. Manchester City arrive at The Emirates on Saturday with just six points separating the fourth and fifth placed teams. Fulham entertain the Merseysiders on Sunday before Arsenal travel to Goodison Park the following weekend in a fixture which could see them drop out of the top four, having played a game more than their rivals. To put it bluntly, Arsenal must win against City and with their confidence brittle, that is a tall order. Of course there are still twists and turns for the remainder of the season but a club which has made a habit of finishing strongly in the last few seasons, suddenly finds itself bereft of the will needed to achieve that. Actually, it isn’t sudden at all; two wins and two draws from the last seven Premier League games tells you all that is needed about the squad at the moment. They have never fully recovered from the drubbing at Anfield and last Saturday has finished the job. It is the sort of collapse we have induced in Tottenham over the years; is Arsène’s luck about to run out?
Perhaps a fifth-placed finish is what the club needs, to shake the complacency out of the senior management. Understandably there is fear of the unknown when it comes to replacing the manager. Like two generations of Arsenal supporters, Arsène is all they have known and I question whether they are brave enough to challenge him over decisions. And if luck does run out, it is of Wenger’s own making. The lack of strengthening to the squad is not just the past two transfer windows, it goes back further. We are left with a decent centre-forward but one who, when he has been needed, has not made the difference in the way a Wright or Henry could. It feels odd criticising a player who has scored 19 times and he has dug us out of holes this season which is appreciated. It’s just now, when he is needed, he has not delivered consistently enough. The scuffed chance at Stamford Bridge might have changed the outcome, we’ll never know but he scuffed it. An outsider looking in might take the view that his personal indiscretions have impacted on his work. It happens but it has happened at the wrong time for Arsenal. And therein is Wenger’s problem of his own making; his choices are a youngster who has yet to score for the club or a player who he has unsuccessfully tried to sell since 2010.
The problem is that injuries will be held in mitigation and there is merit in that argument. Ramsey has been sorely missed; Walcott, Wilshere and Özil likewise. Add Koscielny to that list and the extent of disruption to the squad is clear. The issue is that they take so long to recover, leaving the squad short. Ramsey and Walcott were long-term absentees before the transfer window closed. Signing an injured thirty-something on loan at the last minute indicates poor planning on the club’s part during January, continuing the theme from last summer. So whilst I sympathise with the manager on the way this has panned out, I find the situation in both senses hugely frustrating especially since this is nothing new; we suffer horrendous injuries every season. Eduardo and Ramsey having their legs broken is unpredictable, so are some of Walcott’s injuries but in the case of Wilshere for example, Arsenal exacerbated the problem even though they knew the player was at risk of injury through wear-and-tear. Necessity forced them into that position as a result of poor planning. Lessons are never learned it seems and that complacency needs to be robustly challenged by the board. Perhaps they do but if so, they are ineffective.
It is clear that a major task of rebuilding needs to begin this summer and contrary to whatever beliefs he may hold dear, Wenger is going to have to sign at least half-a-dozen players to replace those leave, as well as creating depth in the squad. Should it be Wenger? That’s the question only time will answer.