An Arsenal-free Saturday is normally greeted with derisory comments about the state of English football and how it rides roughshod over the common man. Today is different, the wounds from the midweek defeat have not been entirely licked and no end of strong financial results is going to change that. A listen to this morning’s playlist, A Change Is Gonna Come will help improve the mood; as per usual, it’s on Dad’s Jukebox on the right sidebar, the page of the same name or here.
Everton will provide tough opposition. They are normally obdurate, Arsenal have only scored more than three goals at home against them once since the seven-goal spree in 2005. The saving grace is that their Premier League form is wretched; winning just three of the last seventeen games and one of the last ten. They will be buoyed by their Europa League progress in midweek and let’s be honest, having seen Arsenal’s form since the North London Derby, they won’t be frightened.
Worried, yes; the wounded beast theory and all that, concerned that the Arsenal players will now be motivated to prove the deserved and strident criticism of them wrong. It’s a good theory although I am not sure if it applies to this Arsenal squad. I’m not sure it doesn’t, before you ask; it’s a case of there is no way of being sure how the players will react.
I want them to come out fighting, to be determined to put the defeat behind them and to start scoring so freely that the unlikeliest and seemingly most improbable of second leg victories in the Champions League. I want to but I can’t, there’s been nothing from this squad that indicates this is a realisable prospect. The win at Manchester City is increasingly becoming an anomaly and not a corner being turned.
One of the biggest hurdles the players face is their own fear. They were so easily dismantled by Monaco that I expect a natural trepidation to surface in their performance. I won’t be unhappy with that so long as it isn’t a burden. If the legacy of Wednesday’s defeat is to take them back to the basics of getting the defence correct, I won’t complain so long as it isn’t at the expense of attacking confidence.
Leonardo Jardim put the tactical balance quite simply as being “an art, defending and attacking“; Arsenal were devoid of that and whilst there is some truth in Arsène’s view that the team became frustrated by their inability to break down their opponents, descending into individualism and rushing, there is a more deep-seated flaw at work to allow that to happen.
It’s been a regular criticism back to the beginnings of Project Youth. It’s a lack of leadership. Per Mertesacker appeared to have sold that problem over the past couple of seasons but this campaign has, by his own admission, only just come to terms with the legacy of the World Cup and its impact. At this point, there is a strong point to be made that relying on one player is not how this experienced a squad should be.
The question which will never be answered properly – publicly at least – is why it happened. Arsenal school their players well in media relations and the searing honesty needed is never displayed. They are as uncontroversial as can be. Let’s be honest, our bad boys like nothing more than a crafty fag. It’s hardly a throwback to the days of the Tuesday Club, is it?
Do we want that honesty anyway? There’s an interest in why the defeat happened but until the summer reshuffles begin, is it more a case that the only answer we want is on the pitch? It is for me, there have been too many false dawns in recent years and this entire season nestles in that category. Finishing third won’t represent any progress as far as I can see as we remain as far away from a genuine title challenge as we have ever been.
Wider questions emerged about the English – and club – game. Arsène believes the Premier League too intense over the course of a season for the English clubs to succeed in European competition. I have no doubt that playing four more games than some others takes its toll but what this week has reinforced is that the problem remains in the tactical abilities not physical games.
Arsenal and Manchester City were both exposed by brighter-minded opponents. Their opponents employed coaches and players who were cleverer than their counterparts. Monaco’s post-match comments when you discount the bragging all boiled down to one point; they knew exactly the style Arsenal would employ and worked quickly on exploiting it, dictating the game.
If opponents so obviously know Arsenal’s weaknesses, why don’t we? The bike is lying in a heap on the floor, we have to get back onto it and start riding.
Elsewhere, Arsène’s backing for the Qatar World Cup to be played before Christmas signalled the acceptance of FIFAs flawed decision-making process. The bigwigs at European club level are rumoured to be less than enamoured, especially with Jerome Valcke effectively telling them to ‘do one’ if they think they are getting any more money for the disruption.
That was enough to send the owners running to the armoury to get their sabres out and you hear them rattling from here. The Premier League clubs, we are told, are being lobbied to form a breakaway federation, to take control of world football. First stop Switzerland, next it’s Uranus.
Which is where this is all coming from; the clubs won’t do it – if they were genuinely serious about it, they would be putting up a candidate to take on Blatter. Instead Luis Figo has stepped into the breach on the basis that he can’t do any worse than David Ginola as opposed to believing he has a genuine chance of winning.
Little wonder international football suffers a credibility gap.