So. Where were you last Sunday when Harry Kane took a dive after being tripped inside Arsenal’s penalty area?
Me? I was sitting at a table in my local pub, surrounded by friends who have suffered the same slow death of their souls, brought to all of us afflicted by a love of Arsenal football club.
As soon as Kane wrapped his gangly leg around Gabriel’s shin, we just looked at each other and sighed.
It was over.
Even with more than half an hour to go, it was clear that Arsenal were going to need a comeback of significant proportions to get a result. It was equally clear that the team wearing red and white weren’t in a position to get one.
It was 2-0 to Tottenham, it could’ve been 4-0, and it might as well have been 20-0.
Despite sticking with three/five at the back, Arsenal had no answer for either Christian Eriksen’s constant knack of finding space between the lines, (like we’d like Mesut Özil to do) or Dele Alli’s ability to be exactly where a defence doesn’t want an attacking midfielder to be, running past them while they worry about marking the player in front of them, (like we’d like Aaron Ramsey to do) or Heung-Min Son’s incessant work rate and willingness to shoot from anywhere, (wait, we have Alexis. He does that, and gives out to his teammates for not chasing as hard as he does at the same time. We’re fine there) or Harry Kane who manages to be strong enough to hold up the ball, while also possessing the ability to run down channels AND be a credible attacking threat to the defence. You know, like Olivier Giroud, but the exact opposite.
On Sunday evening, the league table showed that Tottenham were 17 points clear of Arsenal. On Sunday afternoon, the league table wasn’t needed to show that difference.
Tottenham looked like a team that knew how they were supposed to attack, defend, and how to adapt if either of the first two weren’t working.
Arsenal looked like a team that was trying to figure out how they were supposed to defend, had been left to their own devices on how to attack, and had no idea how to adapt if either of the first two went wrong.
As much as everyone, including myself, had welcomed Arsene Wenger’s decision to finally try something different in order to help change the team’s fortunes, it’s clear that moving to a system that requires months of practice to get used to is not the thing to be doing in April.
July, maybe. When there’s not an excessive amount of pressure to save your season, perhaps.
Now? Probably not.
You also need to have the right players available to fit into the new roles you just created from changing the system.
That doesn’t mean you need exact fits. Chelsea are about to win the league with Victor Moses playing at right wing-back for crying out loud, but everyone has to be at least comfortable where they’re playing and know what’s required of them.
Moses is competent in the role he’s asked to do. Is playing Mesut Özil as a right inside-forward a proper use of his skillset, or is he there because we can’t drop him? And, if the latter is true, why are we playing a system that doesn’t suit a player we don’t want to drop?
We have the best young right-back in the world, and we’re not playing him at the moment because we have a right winger, who we apparently think will play centre midfield eventually, playing at right wing-back instead, even though our new formation is perfect for a pacey right-winger who likes to come inside to the ball and run at defenders.
Our best left-back is now playing as a centre-back, even though any time our best young centre back has played, he’s been excellent.
We play our slowest striker when we need pace on the counter away from home, yet we play our quickest striker when we’re at home against a team playing with ten men behind the ball. We play Francis Coquelin at home when we need playmakers to pick open a defence, we leave him on the bench when we need someone to help shield the back line.
Do I need to go on?
There are three possible reasons as to why Arsenal haven’t lived up to expectations this season:
- The manager isn’t good enough to get the best out of the players
- The players aren’t good enough to follow the manager’s gameplan
- Both the manager and the players stink
We’ve seen more than enough evidence this season to determine that the first option is, at the very least, plausible.
The fact that only Alexis is in the conversation for making any ‘Team of the Season’ (even then, it’s a struggle for him to get in. Lukaku, Kane and Ibrahimovic as strikers, Hazard and Son as left wingers) should show that the squad, as good as we thought it was at the start of the season, isn’t performing to their fullest capabilities.
Some of that can be put down to the manager, but when there’s an audible sense of shock in the Emirates when Theo Walcott tries to pull off a trick whilst dribbling for the first time in half a decade, how is that the manager’s fault?
That would seem to rule out options 1 and 2 then.
So if the answer is indeed option 3, where does that leave Arsenal?
It would imply that it’s not just a change of manager that’s needed, but an overhaul of the playing squad as well. We may have the funds available to do both, but do we have the time we want to do it?
All five of the clubs ahead of us in the league table could be playing Champions League football next season, if Manchester United remain in 5th place and win the Europa League.
We’ve been fortunate over the last few years that one or more of those teams currently ahead of us have failed to qualify for Europe at all, giving us a crucial negotiating advantage towards signing new players.
With that now working against us, are we going to be able to get who we want, both in the playing and coaching department?
After seeing our season end at White Hart Lane, none of us want the rebuilding to take too long. But seeing the way it ended showed just how much work lies ahead for Arsenal, and how long it might take.