One win at Old Trafford since 2003
One win at Stamford Bridge since 2004
One win at Eastlands since whenever it was the oil money came in
For a big club, the last ten years have seen Arsenal really suffer when travelling to a fellow powerhouse of the national game. It also has to be said that, although marginally better, our home record against the three teams divvying the league title up between them since 2004, does not make for fun reading. In fairness, I should point out Arsenal’s record at Old Trafford is so historically awful, we’d won there once (I think) in the 10 years preceding Arsène Wenger.
Lee addressed the reasons he felt were causing our suffering earlier in the week. This isn’t so much an answer to that, as I do agree with the main point of the piece- we lose because it’s what we do– but an attempt to get a little deeper into it. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Let’s get on with it.
The biggest single bugbear most Arsenal fans, I suspect, have with Arsène Wenger today. Aside from the failure to strengthen us defensively, of course.
Last season’s defeats at Chelsea and Liverpool were maddening precisely because they were so predictable. What other manager would send a central midfield of Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and the Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out against Chelsea? That isn’t Arsenal losing because it’s what they do, it was managerial folly writ large. Particularly when you ask your full backs to push right up the pitch.
Of course, we lost one of those full backs early on (we’ll get to that), but the sight of Arteta struggling to fill in holes that Saturday afternoon will live on in my memory for years to come. The Stamford Bridge pitch must have seemed as big as Africa to Arteta that day. No wonder his legs are knackered.
I think that Chelsea game, ironically the manager’s 1,000th game in charge of Arsenal and therefore a celebrated occasion (beforehand at least), feels like a neat encapsulation of all the issues we have in this regard, but it’s by no means an isolated example.
A few years back, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side knocked a decent Arsenal team out of the FA Cup despite fielding a side containing seven defenders. More generally, Arsenal seem to have had no idea how to cope with United since Patrick Vieira left for Italy and Fergie figured out that the key to stopping Arsenal was not to try and block the ball, but block our runs. Particularly those of Cognitive Dissonance.
For me, Arsene has yet to consistently find a way of playing in these big matches that sees us defensively secure but doesn’t fully compromise us going forward. Nor does he seem too bothered about his team’s organisation- in marked contrast to almost every top level manager out there (and a few who aren’t, to put it kindly, top level).
I have seen countless examples of that this season. To borrow his famous phrase, we’re either playing with the handbrake on, or at full throttle. If the handbrake is on, we’re like a neutered cat. If we’re going at full throttle and unable to capitalise on it, well, the slightest setback basically ends the game for us. We’ve seen mumerous examples of this down the years, so here’s some from 2014 alone; Bayern Munich, Manchester United at home and… yes, Chelsea away. Which leads me neatly onto…
The single most frustrating thing about those three defeats I just mentioned is the fact that Arsenal had a very good, if not golden, chance to open the scoring in all of them. Giroud fired one just wide when very well placed literally seconds before Samuel Eto’o’s opening goal last season to open the floodgates.
In the context of that game’s final scoreline, it’s difficult to say whether Giroud scoring would actually have changed anything, but you and I both know Chelsea are a much different animal when they have a lead to defend.
Of course, Ozil missed a penalty v Bayern at a time when we were positively pulping the then European Champions. Then we have one of the misses of the season as Jack Wilshere shot straight at David De Gea when clean through and with Alexis wide open for a tap in. That United went onto take the lead without actually having a shot on target would have felt like salt in the most festering of wounds, had it not all been so inevitable.
There are, obviously, other examples, Danny Welbeck chipping against City’s post on his debut (he was unlucky, but I still think he should have scored).
In two of the examples I have given, we see how this ongoing problem of not taking our chances when on top is exacerbated. Namely, the teams we play against all have players who will take a chance as soon as look at you. Sergio Aguero and Wayne Rooney have only needed one chance to score at our place this season, whilst Robin van Persie’s winner last year came in a game that had 0-0 written all over it. Chelsea routinely score with their first shot on target against us, a habit begun by Didier Drogba and seemingly continued by anyone wearing a blue shirt.
This season’s game was made all the more frustrating as we actually played very well for the first half an hour. Once Chelsea went one up though, you knew it was over.
Priorities and personnel
I suppose the previous paragraph highlights an issue Arsenal have had since the move to the Emirates.
We used to have strikers who only need one chance to score a goal, we may even have just found another one in Alexis. However, the interregnum between van Persie and the Chilean has been filled by Olivier Giroud.
I like Giroud, I think he’s a very good footballer, but he isn’t a great one and he certainly isn’t a great finisher. This means that we usually need more than one chance to score a goal. In a way, he kind of symbolises how Arsenal have had to do their transfer business recently. Not for us the superstars of world football, no, we’ve had to make do with the Gervinhos. One level, perhaps, that our continued failure against our rivals is not that surprising- after all, they all have better squads.
The manager has largely done well with buying mid-range attacking players and getting the max out of them. However, I think Arsenal have suffered, and continue to suffer, massively for the lack of investment, perhaps even interest, in the defensive side of things. Add another Premier League level centre back this season and I think we’d have been a lot happier, but no, not for you.
The basic premise that if you don’t concede goals you can’t lose football matches seems to be one that Mr Wenger finds distasteful for some reason.
Even now, as we watch our attacking midfielders battle for their starting spots, we do so in the knowledge that one injury to Mertesacker and a twang of Koscielny’s Achilles and we’re f**ked.
Time and again this approach, unsurprisingly, bites us on the bum.
I mentioned earlier that our recent travails may not be that surprising.
As City and Chelsea have squads full of Super Soldiers (somehow Chelsea have even cloned our former captain) to go into battle whilst we routinely have 11 players plus seven kids the Arsenal team bus picked up on the way to the ground in our matchday squad, this is self evident. What it doesn’t take into account is the list of teams who have beaten both Chelsea and City since we last managed it. It doesn’t take into account the list of teams who have won at Old Trafford since we last managed that feat nearly ten years ago.
Even Spurs have won there twice in the last couple of seasons- Spurs!
Whilst I am happy to say that- well, not happy but you know what I mean- the big three all have had better squads than us for years, they have better squads than most other teams so what’s stopping us?
If Burnley can get a draw at City, Southampton can win at United and Newcastle can beat Chelsea, why is it two-and-a-half-years since we last beat one of the big boys? Aside from everything I have already mentioned, of course.
I think a part of it has to do with psychology, in particular, the psychology of our manager.
Think about it.
He has had enough talented, and different, players down the years to have managed to get more than the odd win here and there. After ten years, he is, unfortunately, the common denominator here. That this run has coincided with the move to the Emirates and the elevation of 4th place to trophy status tells me that the manager has spent years not just believing, but knowing his team can’t really compete. So he hasn’t tried, which has led us directly to the 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford, or the 6-0 in an oligarch’s playground.
This is a far cry from the manager who led Paul Merson to once speak of “unbelievable belief”. The FA Cup win which should have liberated both manager and team seems a long time ago now.
That being said, I am cautiously optimistic that a change in fortune may not be too far around the corner. This weekend? Maybe.
Luck and the PGMOL
Thinking all the way back to 2005 and Didier Drogba’s shinbone, it seems fairly obvious we have been very unlucky at times.
We are also now struggling with the fact that Mike Riley, the true architect of that famous 50th game in 2004, is the main man at the PGMOL (Professional Game Match Officials Limited). Which basically, means that every time Arsenal play a big game, we get Mike Dean refereeing it. There is a stat in our referee preview that shows Dean has not awarded an Arsenal player a penalty in 26 games- what are the chances of Arsenal playing 26 games without having a player fouled in the box? “Not great, Bob!” as Mad Men’s Peter Campbell might say.
In fact, Dean turned down a clear penalty on Theo Walcott against Chelsea last year. The game finished 0-0. Yet, this same referee was happy to award Gareth Bale a penalty when Bale was honing his dying swan skills at our place in February 2012.
When we don’t get Mike Dean, we get Andre Marriner- the man who sent off Gibbs for a handball by the Ox (told you). It later turned out that the offence shouldn’t even have been a red card as the shot handballed was going wide. In Marriner’s defence, he couldn’t have seen that and I think anyone who deliberately handballs a shot in the penalty area should be sent off regardless- but that isn’t the law.
It also isn’t the law that potentially career ruining tackles are ignored because of what stadium they happen in, who makes them and when they happen in the game. And yet, time after time, we see officials bottling red cards wherever we go. A trend that started with Mike Riley and any one of Rio Ferdinand, Ruud van Nistelcheat or the Neville brothers which continues to this day with various tackles from the likes of Ramires, Yaya Toure and Jon Obi Mikel unpunished.
Gary Cahill was the latest beneficiary of such refereeing largesse when his early, vicious and needless assault on Alexis was punished with only a yellow card. The score was 0-0 at the time.
I don’t think it is a red herring to talk about the way these tackles are dealt with. After all, these are key incidents which are bound to play some part in deciding the outcome of a game- for example, imagine the uproar if a referee were to continuously disallow perfectly good goals. I don’t see why failing to deal with bad tackling should be any different.
And then there is Marouane Fellaini fouling Kieran Gibbs whilst in an offside position.
It’s easy, I think, to see why the average Gooner feels a bit hard done by from time to time. I think it’s also just as easy to see why we all feel so blue after doing battle with our rivals.
I do think, though, that there is a chance this might be about to change. Obviously, we can’t do anything about the referees, but for all Mr Wenger’s faults, I do believe he is building a formidable squad.
With the right signings at the back and in central midfield, we are actually looking at a team who can start winning these games and, therefore, beginning to properly challenge at the top of the table.
It’s just a question of whether those signings get made.