Sunderland 0 – 0 Arsenal
Stood on the Roker Park terraces, there was moaning. The heavens opened, the football was dire, uninspiring and Sunderland is a long drive back to deepest Surrey, especially when kick-off has been pushed back by television companies to suit their own hopes of showing the champions crowned.
As it happened on that day in May 1991, nothing was decided. No goals meant ITV had to wait 48 hours for Arsenal to be handed the title whilst Sunderland slid out of the top flight without fanfare or mourning two days later.
A quarter of a century later and the only thing which has changed is the weather. Sunnier days saw Sunderland negotiate the choppy waters of the opening fifteen moments as Arsenal lost their drive and desire whilst we, the watching public, lost our will to live. The referee could have given both sides a little more time and neither would have scored.
Despite needing a win to move back to third, the players were stale and devoid of inspiration, far from being the self-motivated artisans Arsène believes them to be. The season is petering out in acrimony and apathy, sinking to a point where Leicester’s endeavours provide more comfort in their denial of title glory to Tottenham than anything Arsenal do.
Once again Theo Walcott provided a motif for the last eight months, faced with an opportunity to sprint clear of the defence, he hurdled an imaginary challenge and left the ball to be casually cleared. Team Walcott will be relieved that they don’t have to weave their magic in contract negotiations this summer; it would be an even more painful process than usual. They might have to; Arsène was less than enthusiastic about Walcott’s future last week but this time some other set of supporters can feel the pain.
Like Walcott, Olivier Giroud has become a lightning rod for this season. Both have lost confidence to an extent which almost defies description. The French international, ahead of Euro2016, has failed to score in 19 of his last 20 appearances and casts a pale shadow of the man who was hailed as Plan B.
Wenger sought to make light of his compatriot’s plight, highlighting that he’s endured barren spells such as this before. To be honest, I can’t recall one which is so pitiful or potentially damaging. Whilst he hasn’t become a bad player overnight, his place in the French squad for Euro2016 must be under threat with such a poor run of form.
From an Arsenal perspective, his inclusion was baffling. Is Danny Welbeck in need of a rest, suffering a reaction to his injury? Perhaps but the suggestion in yesterday’s commentary was that Giroud had a good scoring record against Sunderland and may have been used on that basis.
Perhaps he has but the past doesn’t guarantee anything in the future, with his lacklustre performance against West Brom suggested that Welbeck was a better bet for this match, particularly since he spent a season on loan at the Stadium of Light. His scoring record against United suggests he finds a smidgen more motivation in these fixtures.
Those two, by the way, are not being singled out as the root cause of the performance yesterday. The decision to retain the pairing of Ramsey and Elneny was surprising in that I thought better balance was achieved with Coquelin and Elneny, particularly evident at Everton. Ramsey offers support to the attack when the focal point is on form but Giroud is not that player at the moment, not even as a substitute.
But everything about the team oozes frustration. Looks shoot across the pitch at wasted possession whilst misplaced learances are met with resigned apathy. They almost know it’s coming, sensing early on that it will be a long and unproductive afternoon.
Arsène doesn’t know what to say to defend it any more.
Last week his side were no more disadvantaged than their rivals but now playing Sunday-Thursday-Sunday causes them to suffer “a little bit”. If they don’t get their act together PDQ, they will find they have to deal with that pattern of games next season whether they like it or not.
That comes down to them and him. I don’t for one minute think he has lost the dressing room, certainly not in the traditional and tabloid sense but he is struggling to motivate the players to produce their finest form consistently. Perhaps falling away in the title race – and the manner of it – has affected them more than we realise but it’s they who let it happen and I find it hard to muster sympathy for them in that respect and nor, in any case, do I feel inclined to do so since it is of their own doing.
It’s hard to know where they go from here. Sunderland were motivated to stifle and take a point from this match. Norwich City won’t be any different and certainly will fight harder than West Brom did. Of the final three games, only Villa have nothing to play for with the visit to The Etihad in a fortnight’s time fast becoming make or break.
United might be a pale shadow of former glories but so are Arsenal and it’s time that the players woke up to the fact that they are in a scrap for fourth. Wenger may be up for the fight but his players are sleepwalking into the Europa League.
And that would be a damning epitaph for this season.