“Arsenal are going to win the league this season.”
I wrote that sentence only seven days ago, but it feels like an eternity away right now. I had spent three months hoping that we’d see something different from Arsenal when the season started for real, and then, last Sunday, spent 90 minutes watching those hopes blow up in my face.
After seeing how Manchester City had single-handedly revolutionised football in one afternoon, (I kid, but the reaction to Pep playing two formations in one game was extraordinary) and how Manchester United’s new collection of super-egos didn’t spontaneously combust on the South Coast, I was hoping that Arsenal, after failing to win a league that was there for the taking last season, would respond in kind.
But they didn’t.
What we saw last Sunday was the same Arsenal that we’ve seen for quite a few years now, a team that was under-prepared for the start of a season, and unable to cope with an opposition that is tactically sound. There wasn’t a single incident which made you think ‘Oooh, we haven’t seen that from Arsenal before, that looks like that might work, you know.’
We all know the drill by now. Arsene Wenger sends the team out in a certain formation, 4-2-3-1 if it’s a game we’re favourites in, 4-5-1 if it isn’t. After that, the players are given the ‘freedom’ to figure out how to break the opposition down. That works fine if you have a team full of match-winners who can produce a moment of magic out of nothing. But we don’t have a team like that, and we especially didn’t have a team like that last Sunday, yet the plan never changed.
Compare that to our opponents last weekend. For the duration of the first half, Liverpool flooded the centre with as many creative midfielders as they could muster, leaving no support for their full-backs. The result was defensive carnage, especially on their left side, with Alberto Moreno left looking like a confused puppy chasing around his top knot. Arsenal took full advantage of this, creating a goal and a penalty from feeding balls into the space where Moreno should have been.
Did Jurgen Klopp trust his players to figure it out themselves? No. He threw Plan A out of the window, and instead of flooding the centre, he told his players to attack the wings and spread Arsenal’s back line as wide as possible, so that our two defensive midfielders couldn’t just sit back and watch the ball be passed in front of them harmlessly.
As soon as this was apparent, and it was apparent from the moment Liverpool kicked-off the second half, Arsenal had to respond in kind. It was imperative to tell Walcott and Iwobi to drop back 10 yards and offer help to the full backs, and get Ramsey back into centre-midfield instead of being behind Alexis. It was crucial that we hold Liverpool out for 10 minutes before picking them off on the counter.
But we didn’t respond. Instead, 58,000 Arsenal fans, 11 Arsenal players and one Arsenal manager all stood and watched as Liverpool overran us for 15 minutes straight. It was reminiscent of the Invincibles played away from home, except this time it was us who were wondering how in the hell are we letting this happen.
That’s why, at the end of the game, fans weren’t booing as much as they have in previous opening day defeats. It wasn’t the result that upset them, it was the manner in which it had occurred. It was the same performance that they have seen for years, the same tactics, the same inability to adapt, the same mistakes being made, everything was just the same.
In essence, the game was a reflection of Arsenal’s summer as a whole. They have spent the last three months working in the same fashion that have done previously, with early positive results before a slow and depressingly predictable middle part where we get overtaken by our rivals, before we make a desperate attempt at the end to claw back some ground but fall just short.
Arsenal fans aren’t as much angry at seeing all this happening, as they are disappointed at being made to watch it happen again. It’s one thing to make an error and trying something to correct that error, it’s another thing to make an error and then make the same error again because you can’t see why it was an error in the first place.
I said on this week’s podcast that Arsene Wenger has forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know, and I stand by that. But it’s becoming more and more obvious that there is a particular way in which he wants to win, one that doesn’t leave him being accused of either ‘buying’ the league or playing defensive football. Either Arsenal wins the way he wants to win, or they don’t win.
How else can we explain such an unwillingness to change? It might be tempting to think that the board is getting in the way of Wenger working the way he wants to, but we know two things about the board: Stan Kroenke isn’t of the mind to interfere with how teams are run, and Ivan Gazidis is a mug. Neither of them are challenging the way Arsene Wenger runs Arsenal. If they were, then we’d either see a change in how Arsenal works, or a change in who runs it. It’s as simple as that.
Losing to Liverpool was a microcosm of everything that is going wrong at Arsenal right now. A lot of people will say something similar about Arsene Wenger, and as of right now, it’s virtually impossible to disagree with them.