Before the first whistle had blown this season, Arsenal were largely unfancied. Only Thomas Vermaelen had arrived to bolster a side who had required a remarkable turnaround just to finish fourth the year before. With United, Chelsea and Liverpool (whoops) expected to contest the title, our Champions League qualification was now under threat. Former stalwarts like Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor had jumped ship to the snowballing threat of Manchester City, whilst Tottenham were insistent yet again that this would be ‘their year’.
When our season began at Goodison Park, we took people by surprise. In a new 4-3-3 system based on Barcelona’s high-tempo model, we hammered a lacklustre Everton 6-1 at Goodison Park. Every one of the front six worked to exhaustion, chasing and harrying and not allowing Everton a moment on the ball. It was exemplary stuff.
The form continued and so did the victories. Before long talk of Arsenal failing to make the Champions League had metamorphosed in to talk of title challenges and ending the wait for a trophy. The players, through graft and no small share of ability, had stuffed one up the critics. And do you know what? They were proud.
Unfortunately, pride – as they’ve said ever since Adam and Eve got a bit haughty about their jungle paradise – comes before a fall. As soon as Arsenal felt they were part of the top three rather than the chasing pack, they were a different team. The points were still racking up, but under different circumstances. The work-rate had dropped and teams were given an easier ride. We celebrated last-minute winners when perhaps we ought to have been wondering why they were needed. The hallmark of this Arsenal side’s early season form was that you barely had time to think, let alone get a foothold in the game.
Fitness problems played their part. The injury to Robin van Persie meant that we lost not only our best finisher but also the natural leader of that attacking line. He was the one who instigated the pressure; who drove those around him to work ever harder. Perhaps it’s also fair to say that as the injuries kept on coming, the players who remained simply tired.
I’m not sure I buy that. We have one of the youngest, most athletic squads in the league – Arsene wouldn’t have it any other way. What actually happened was that this team forgot what had lifted them above the chasing pack and alongside Untied and Chelsea. It wasn’t the skill of Arshavin, the passing of Fabregas, or the shotgun striking of Robin van Persie. The technical ability of this team has never been in doubt. What marked this team’s improvement was working hard for each other and defending as a unit.
You’d think the exhibition of team play that Barcelona put on for us across two legs might have acted as something of a wake up call. It didn’t. Following on from that we were beaten by a super-motivated Spurs team and, from a position of absolute comfort, managed to crumble in just ten minutes against Wigan to be beaten 3-2. “Mental strength”, one fears, is a facade that Arsene’s post-match interviews can no longer keep from falling down.
People will point to individual errors, and rightly so. Only a player far more gifted than Abou Diaby would deserve the indulgence with which the manager has treated his lack of defensive discipline. Lukasz Fabianski, meanwhile, is far more befitting of the “clown” jibe once hurled at his countryman, Jan Tomaszewski. Massimo Taibi was shunted out of United after just four games – one wonders how long Arsene will take to learn the lesson that some players are just not cut out for the high-pressure environment of Premier League football.
However, it’s important to remember that any player can make a mistake. Thomas Vermaelen might go to clear and completely miss the ball, but it doesn’t matter if Sol Campbell is there to tidy it up. If a unit is strong most individual mistakes are recoverable. And, frankly, if you’re concentrating sufficiently on your responsibilities then they’re less likely to happen at all. The problem with this team is that they believe they are the “great entertainers” the press build them up as. But if you don’t do the basic work, skill is pointless. Barcelona recognise that they can’t do any damage without the ball, so they fight incredibly hard to get it.
I mentioned Sol Campbell there. You have to feel for him. As a friend said yesterday, he plays every game as if it’s his last – probably because it might well be. But the thing to remember about Sol is that, a few ‘wilderness years’ aside, he’s done that for his entire career. The difference between a player like him, who has won medals and accolades at every level, and an unfulfilled talent like Abou Diaby is entirely psychological. Campbell can’t hold a candle to Diaby’s technique or fitness. But Sol knows that to win a title you have to fight just as hard if not harder than a team battling relegation. Every ball, every tackle, every header is a statement of intent. Sol wore the armband yesterday, and deserved better from those around him. He must be kept on as an example of the required attitude.
Although Sol was a January signing, this problem is not something that can be remedied in the transfer market. An ethos cannot be bought, and Arsene knows that better than anyone. At the start of the season I was impressed that our usually stubborn manager had revised his thinking: he’d changed his formation, and seemed to have recognised that hard work had as big a part to play as technical proficiency. Over the course of the season, perversely just as success started to come, that philosophy was lost.
The responsibility lies with the manager. It’s no good signing another two centre-halves if the team is not compelled to work for each other. Every player must know that if he does not fulfil his responsibility to the team, he will pay the price with his place. Not in the starting-line up for the next game, but in the squad. If we want success here, we only have room for winners. It’s a lesson the likes of Nani have learnt well at Manchester United. If we want to match their achievements, our players will have to suffer the same kind of tough love. Over to you, Arsene.