I love Arsenal Football Club. I absolutely love it. I have been with it for seventeen years, longer than my lovely wife and I have been together. I caught the bug while living and working in Peterborough, and have continued to faithfully and steadfastly follow it, while moving around different parts of the world. It is a part of me, and I think it will always be a part of me. I also love writing. I enjoy writing about almost anything: be it professional work related, as part of a degree program, or about Arsenal or any of the other sports teams I faithfully follow. I must confess, however, that writing about Arsenal has not been as much fun these past few days. It is all part of the ups and downs of emotionally investing in a team and its results – but I sure will be glad when better times and results return.
Make no mistake; tonight’s result in Portugal was bad – on several different levels. Taken alone, a 2-0 group stage Champions League defeat, away in country where Arsenal has never previously won, does not look so bad. In the larger context, however…First off, there was nothing – and I mean absolutely NOTHING – positive to take from the performance or the result. Three days after being turned over by the Spuddies, not only did we fail to produce the performance or result circumstances demanded, we are now facing more injuries to our first team squad. After storming through our first three group stage matches with 3 wins, 14 goals for, and 2 against, we are facing the possibility of failing to qualify for the group stage of the Champions League. We have our group’s proverbial doormat (FC Partizan) at home, so failure at this moment seems remote. But on the evidence of the past two games, can any of us really trust these players to deliver? Saturday was rock-bottom how does us settling for the Europa Cup feel? It could happen….
Tonight’s match was dreadful, simply dreadful. Braga was, quite frankly, awful. I thought they would be much more formidable at home than they were at the Ems. At least they showed some ambition there. At home, they were negative, dirty and did not seem to try to win. They did, however, know enough to catch us on the break – two very late goals gave them a 2-0 win. They were poor, but we were worse – and we got what we ultimately deserved – NOTHING! Arsene made seven changes to the starting lineup, retaining only Fabianski, Squillaci, Cesc, and Denilson. Djorou, Gibbs, Eboue, Jack, Rosicky, Theo and Bendtner rounded out our starting eleven. The game started slowly and did not get much better. We passed the ball aimlessly, showing – yet again – a lack of urgency or willingness to get into the box. For the match, we had 71% possession and one – that’s right – ONE shot on goal for ninety plus minutes. And that was a Cesc free kick (shortly after the half hour mark) the keeper had to tip over the bar. That was it. Still, we looked pretty comfortable at the half, while looking very, very toothless.
During the interval, I chatted to Rico that it was going ok – we were not troubled, and all we needed to do was step on the accelerator and the goals would come. I should have known better. The second half started in the same fashion – an overabundance of passes and little off-the-ball movement. When Theo, Eboue and Gibbs were able to get forward and get crosses in, nobody was in position to capitalize, with Bendtner often behind (!!) them…Other than a nervous moment when Squillaci fluffed a clearance, allowing Aguiar to latch on and shoot not too far wide, we still looked comfortable. The first major problem occurred when Cesc did his hammy yet again, while stretching for a ball from Bendtner. Nasri replaced our Captain, who now faces another spell on the sidelines – brilliant. Arsene made two other changes in rapid succession – Chamakh for Bendtner, who was just hopeless, clueless, and useless, worse than in Donetsk. Then Vela came on for Theo – at least Vela got into the box. Rodriguez clearly tripped him for a cast-iron penalty, but the Hungarian referee (more on him in a minute) booked Vela for diving. With eight minutes to go, Matheus brought Eboue down with a bad foul – with no more subs, we were down to ten men. A simple ball over the top split our defense and allowed Matheus, of all people to run clear and shoot past Fabianski. The same player scored another breakaway goal in stoppage time to inflict another very, very painful loss.
Afterwards, Arsene predictably raged about the referee. Normally I stay clear of the referee, but this guy was an absolute disgrace!! Not only did he ignore a cast-iron penalty and book our player (presumably for diving), he allowed Braga to foul almost at will and booked five Arsenal players for virtually nothing. It was almost comical, he was so bad. Homer or totally incompetent, take your pick. If I were a referee, I would be embarrassed this guy represented my profession. Poor does not even begin to do him justice.
With that said, I have no time for the rest of Arsene’s condescending and insulting garbage – not here, and not now. “We are going through a period where we have bad luck”. No Arsene, we are going through a period where we are not making our luck. The players are not taking responsibility on the pitch; the manager is pointing fingers at the system, the opponents, and the referees. How about looking in the mirror for a change? We just had two important matches in three days – two matches where the players did not perform. How is that the Hungarian referee’s fault? A single shot on goal tonight – referees fault again, right? Risking our captain’s hamstring – when you knew AND ACKNOWLEDGED it was a gamble – referee again. We can go blithely on, and on, and on….As we have done in the past…
This is your team, these are your players, this is your vision, and this is your model. When things are going well, you are quick to take credit for their development and lavish praise on them. But things don’t always go so well, do they? When we are stuck in ruts like this – when the players have no leader to look to and are utterly incapable of extricating themselves from these situations – you are happy to take shots at the referees and the opposition. And then you profess to be “mystified” by events like our second half collapse on Saturday. Is it really that difficult for you to fathom? You treat your players like children – to be protected from criticism and accountability, to be protected from themselves – and then wonder why they act like children who cannot comprehend why the bigger kid stole their lunch money.
We have endured bad form and losing runs each of the last few seasons. Even though this one is only at two games, it feels different, more serious. Perhaps because it is a pair of watershed events: our “man bites dog” first home loss to the Spuddies since 1993, and the first time in a while we go into the final round of CL group matches facing the possibility of not qualifying for the knockout round. It is also more serious because the same problems continue year after year: loss of focus and concentration, no on-pitch leadership, aimless lack-of-responsibility dithering around the pitch, a team of square pegs in round holes, lacking quality in-depth. Every year we hear the problems have been addressed, that the players have grown up and are ready to take the next step. And every year we go through spells like this that shatter confidence, losing strings of two, three, four games. If a continued habit of turning one bad result into a string of bad results is not the epitome of an immature, mentally weak team, then I don’t know what is.
Nevertheless, I love the club, and I continue to support Arsene and the players. We are all upset at another losing streak we are currently enduring, and two major opportunities that we casually squandered in the space of a couple of days. But I shall continue to support the players. Who knows – perhaps it will finally sink home, the proverbial light bulb will go on, and this team will sweep their way to the league title and lay the groundwork for our first European Cup win next season. Reality will most likely be somewhat short of that, but I will still support, cheer and hope for the best. Each of us supporters has to decide for ourselves how we will deal with this. Some of us have had enough and will call for Arsene’s and the players collective heads. I understand that point of view – my patience and faith are being severely tested at the moment, too. I choose to continue to support, and hope for the best.
Arsene and the club can do a couple of things to help us with this. This first is for the club to – finally – be open and forthright about what our financial situation is. Yes or no – do we have enough money to make quality investments in the squad? No more PHW saying one thing, Arsene saying another, and Gazidis saying nothing. Tell us – with one, unified voice. This way, we can adjust our expectations accordingly. If we have the money, is it not time we built a proper squad, with leaders and strong characters. Not the current collection of one-size-fits-all and jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none young midfielders?
Can anyone reasonably argue that we have the squad balance, quality and depth necessary to sustain a title and cup challenge? If we still do not have the money, be honest. We may not like it, but you will probably find the majority will understand and adjust our expectations accordingly. But at the moment, many of us don’t know what the situation is at the club – if the money exists, why do we refuse to address the squad issues? (I think I know why and who has made the decision not to invest, but that another discussion for another day). If the money does not exist and we continue with this youth model out of necessity, tell us so and how long we should expect this to continue. Treat us supporters as partners, not as children who should be seen but not heard.
Arsene can help the players and himself by stopping the effusive praise he gives the squad. I suspect they are already comfortable enough with set-in-stone first-team slots and large wage packets. So comfortable that, as these last two matches show, they appear incapable of adjusting to a setback, and seem only to know how to revert to what they know best – pass, pass, and pass some more. If they need a confidence boost, give it to them in private – after they have had a dose of harsh reality. Comments about this squad being “best ever” are insulting to this particular supporter – and make you look like an utter fool, on the back of these last two results. You can also stop blaming everybody and his dog for our team’s losses. Bad results and bad referees are a fact of life – the sides that win things find ways to overcome these things. That is not to say that other managers don’t moan about these things – I think Red Nose and Mourinho are worse than Arsene. But these managers also seem to get their teams to overcome this. This Arsenal side does not seem able to do that. If you take responsibility for what you get wrong – and none of us are infallible – maybe…just maybe, the players will follow your lead and start taking on-pitch responsibility. Surely it is worth a try?
What next? Villa Park. We’re back to square one, and have to hope the team can lift themselves – now without Cesc and probably Eboue (I hope Sagna enjoyed his rest, it may well be his last for a while) – and get a result to stop this rut. Everything about this club is Arsene’s vision – the setup, the players, the playing style, training and coaching methods. I still consider him far and away the best man for this job. But I caveat that with a brief word of warning: I have seen plenty of teams fall apart, and the very situation we find ourselves in today is what the beginning of the end looked like for more than one of those teams. If you want to know what it looks like when it has all collapsed, ask Brad Childress. Waxing lyrical about a team’s potential and promises of our bright new tomorrow is all well and good. But at some point, the manager and the players have to deliver. I hope we are on the verge of that – there are signs we are – and signs we are not. You can count on my goodwill, hope and support. But my patience is not infinite, nobody’s is. You may think you have all the time in the world to get it right – you do not, nobody does. Life just does not work that way.
You know what needs to be done, Arsene. You’ve won with Arsenal before and I would love nothing more than to see you lift the first – and second – and third – European Cup in Arsenal’s history. But the side you have is built to play your vision of football, not win the biggest honours in the game. At this moment, I merely hope – can you and the players give me a tangible reason to believe?
Written by Oliver