Monday, February 29, 2016

The same sinking feeling as scared Arsenal sabotage their title chances

I’m an Arsenal fan who always likes to look for the positives in any performance, no matter the result. The 3-2 defeat to Manchester United contained no positives whatsoever. This was the worst Manchester United team in living memory and Arsenal made them look alright with a scared and embarrassing performance that was, frankly, a disgrace to a team that claims to have mental strength and is supposedly challenging for the Premier League title. 
Even the fact that Arsenal scored two goals after a bit of barren run in front of goal isn’t a positive. How did Arsenal only score two against a back four consisting of two midfielders, a youngster and a player retuning from injury, who was subsequently replaced by another unknown youngster!? It pains me to write this but the reality is that this Arsenal team, despite the odd game to suggest otherwise, is too soft. Where was the ruthlessness to expose the weak opposition? Why were the team scared of playing at Old Trafford having won there in the FA Cup last season? Where was Theo Walcott and what did he do in the 60 minutes he was supposedly on the pitch for?
Ultimately, the buck stops with the manager after such a performance, especially at a time when Arsenal should be pushing on in the league, not wilting away. Arsene Wenger picks the team, and he made two big errors in leaving out Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker. He has to motivate the players and get them gelling, and it’s felt like they haven’t done that for most of 2016. But, I still think he can’t be wholly responsible for the rubbish excuse of a performance Arsenal gave on Sunday. Very few of the players can look back at the game and feel like they gave everything and put in a performance worthy of the Arsenal shirt. Whether the manager is making the right decisions or not, that’s no excuse for a lack of effort or not looking hungry to make something happen. 
There were signs early on in the game against Manchester United that Arsenal would be able to pick their way through the makeshift defence at will. Nacho Monreal, who scored against United in the FA Cup last season, wasted a good opportunity as his effort was blocked by De Gea following a sumptuous Mesut Ozil chipped pass. But unlike when Arsenal blew United away in the early stages at the Emirates earlier in the season, the Gunners didn’t look to expose an obviously weak home team and allowed them to get a foothold in the game and then, inexplicably, a two-goal lead. 
Theo Walcott ran into a United player in midfielder despite having plenty of better options, allowing the hosts to build-up an attack. The ball from the right wasn’t dealt with well at all by Gabriel, giving Marcus Rashford a free shot from eight yards. Cech was initially unsighted and couldn’t keep it out.
Moments later, Gabriel helped Rashford grab a second goal with some woeful marking from another cross from the right. Even if it’s just a teenager in his first Premier League start, you don’t give a striker a free header from six yards out. The kid made a lot of the headlines and he does look to have a bit about him, but surely he couldn’t believe the chances Arsenal gift-wrapped for him on Sunday. 
The Gunners did get back into the game with an excellent Welbeck header from an Ozil free-kick, and should have had a penalty when Rashford handled near his own line (but that would ruin the narrative of his fairytale Premier League debut to report that he should have conceded a penalty!). The momentum should have shifted, but Arsenal didn’t take advantage of the weaknesses in the United in the second half and got punished again for some dozy defending.
Ander Herrera had a ludicrous amount of space on the edge of the box to score the hosts’ third goal, via a big deflection from Laurent Koscielny, as the Arsenal midfield disappeared. 
Again, Arsenal gave themselves hope as one of the few times they got a decent cross into the box, the United defence panicked and eventually Mesut Ozil fired into the top corner. There was still plenty of time to find an equaliser and more, but Arsenal could barely rally themselves and create much pressure. In truth, they never really looked like getting back to 3-3 as they seemed bereft of ideas. 
The title dream isn’t over yet as a couple of dodgy results for Leicester, and two wins for Arsenal this week, will put the Gunners right back in contention. But Arsenal have no momentum at the moment and confidence must be draining away so it is hard to see that happening, and if the defeat to Manchester United feels bad, it’ll be even worse if the Gunners get beaten at White Hart Lane on Saturday. If the players can’t look motivated or interested during that game, they shouldn’t be near the Arsenal shirt again. Regardless of league positions, the Derby is one of the few games that is even bigger than Manchester United away, so showing total commitment in that game is the absolute bare minimum, and it doesn’t bode well if Arsenal can’t lat least do that at Old Trafford.
The manager, the players and the board are all culpable in their own ways for how Arsenal performed in such an important game on Sunday, and it’s incredibly sad that that is the case. Although another poor week for Arsenal and it’ll feel even worse. 
We’ve been here before with Arsenal title meltdowns, and it’s even worse this year because of who else is at the top end of the league and how this year was made to be the one after the back-to-back FA Cups. But nothing is beyond this Arsenal team when it comes to throwing away title chances and it’s not good enough. 
In terms of technical quality, this group of players are good enough to win the league this season. But, mentally, they’re not good enough. I’m fed up of hearing criticisms of Arsenal crumbling under pressure but, depressingly, the team keep doing things that makes that criticism spot on. Sort it out Arsenal, or this season that promised so much, could end in a very ugly way.