Thoughts from Wembley: Torturous afternoon’s Final flourish

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I don’t know about you, but I remembered reaching an FA Cup final as a good deal more fun.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m delighted to be there — and being there is undoubtedly what matters — but the journey was as torturous as a coach ride with that Man City fan in the Barclays ad.

Let’s focus on the positives: however shoddily, the job got done. A positive result in the final will vanquish any traumatic memories of the painful semi. In recent weeks, Arsenal have been criticised for a failure to grind out results on the big stage. Yesterday, they managed exactly that.

A penalty shootout is a test of technique. However, it’s also a test of nerve. It was to my considerable surprise that Arsenal passed that particular test with flying colours. Settled by the confidence and competence of Lukasz Fabianski, our takers executed their kicks perfectly.

I was chuffed too for Per Mertesacker, who would have been hugely unfortunate to have been cast as the scapegoat in the event of an Arsenal defeat. A mistimed lunge led to the Wigan penalty, but he eradicated the error with the crucial equalising goal. It was a better finish than it looked: Mertesacker had to twist his body quickly to direct the header in to the near post.

Whatever you might hear or read elsewhere, our celebrations were justified. We’ve reached our first FA Cup Final in nine years, and have a fantastic chance to end a protracted wait for silverware. There was joy, and there was enormous relief. Stranded in the press box, I crumpled over my desk, exhausted. In the cup, results are everything. We had what we needed.

If all you’re interested in is basking in the promise of a return to Wembley on May 17th, I understand entirely. It’s probably best you stop reading now. I won’t begrudge you: I’m about to take a sip from my editorial glass which will take it from just over half-full to a little under half-empty.

The uncomfortable truth is that I saw little yesterday to convince me that that the chasmic flaws in the side are anywhere closer to being fixed.

We were dreadful. The team looked devoid of imagination, robbed of courage and drained of energy. After 120 minutes, we were held 1-1 by a team from the division below. It was hardly encouraging. Reaching the FA Cup Final is undoubtedly a good achievement, but avoiding defeat to a Championship team is primarily a disaster averted.

The decision to start Yaya Sanogo looked questionable before kick-off. By half-time, it looked plain absurd. I felt sorry for a player who is clearly not ready to be playing for a club of our stature. Going by some of the furious gesticulating when Wenger chose to replace Podolski rather than Sanogo, some of his team-mates feel the same way.

By the time the game entered its last 20 minutes of normal time, I was physically shaking with the enormity of what was unfolding before me. Make no mistake: Arsene was within 10 minutes of being forced to leave Arsenal on a sombre note. What’s more, he looked powerless to do much about it. It was grim viewing.

After the game, a journalist joked that I should ask Arsene what the plan was against Wigan. There’s no point answering a question to which there is no discernible answer.

I’m delighted we’ve made it to the final, particularly because it ensures an opportunity for a glorious finish for a manager who has served this club with remarkable distinction. Arsene was asked after the game if the result of the final would have any bearing on his future. His response was curt and immediate: “No”. Increasingly, I feel his mind is made up. Perhaps he, like me, thinks it could be time for a change — regardless of what happens when we return to Wembley.

Everton 3 – 0 Arsenal: Is it over?

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Is it over?

Not the title race. That’s been over for a while. Not the “race for fourth”, either. That’s got a good way to go, and looking at the respective fixture lists, I still fancy us to come out on top of Everton.

No: the operative *it* in this instance is the reign of Arsene Wenger. After this latest capitulation, serious questions have to be asked about his suitability to take the team in to next season — regardless of what happens between now and May. Truth be told, I happen to think we’ll make the top four. Call me crazy, but I still think we’ll win the FA Cup too. But that doesn’t assuage all my fears about the manager.

Wenger was comprehensively outmaneuvered by Roberto Martinez at Goodison Park. It started with the team-sheets. We persisted with a midfield that hasn’t really functioned properly for several weeks now. All the evidence suggests we’re better when we employ the pace of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flank, yet Wenger continued with his bizarre policy of selecting both Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky, with neither player seemingly asked to do any defensive work on the right-hand side. In a game in which a point would have been a good result for Arsenal, it’s tempting to call Wenger’s tactics naive. However, considering how long he’s been in the game, one has to revert to an altogether more damning adjective: negligent.

By contrast, Martinez made some bold selections, starting Steven Naismith as a false nine and Romelu Lukaku wide on the right. Naismith frequently dropped in to the area between Arsenal’s defence and midfield, becoming a natural pivot around whom the Belgian pair of Mirallas and Lukaku could buzz effectively. Arsenal didn’t have an answer.

At half-time, Arsenal were 2-0 down and not even in the contest, and yet Arsene Wenger didn’t make a single change. Arsenal needed an act of decisive leadership. Instead, inaction felt like surrender.

My mind cast back to the January transfer window. That was another time when Wenger needed to make a bold decision, and dithered. The consequences have been disastrous.

Arsenal were gutless against Everton. More worryingly, they were rudderless. Never mind a back-up plan — there didn’t appear to be any plan whatsoever.

I don’t want to diminish the achievements of the first half of the season. However, it could be argued we’ve only been able to stave off this kind of collapse due to vagaries of the fixture-generating system

Much has been made of our improvement. However, the stats show we’re now just four points better off than we were at this stage last season. The back-loaded nature of our fixture list has evened out our points tally, and the relative progress compares poorly with that made by the likes of Liverpool.

We’re fourth in the league, and that’s a pretty fair reflection of our ability. We’re good enough to beat pretty much everyone below us, and not really good enough to beat those above us. Your contentment with the manager largely depends on your acceptance of that status quo.

I’m in the camp that believes another manager could improve upon some of our existing issues. What worries me is that the team’s faults appear to be Arsene’s faults. There is a lack of attention to tactical detail, a chronic absence of depth in key positions, and a question of motivation. Those are all ultimately the manager’s responsibility.

Wenger’s contemporary failings don’t diminish his previous greatness. However, you’re only a revolutionary once, and Le Boss has never felt more replaceable than now.

Whichever way you slice it, he’s going sooner rather than later. Wenger doesn’t have another decade in him. Those who advocate stability have to face the fact that eventually, a change is going to come. With the manager’s contract at the point of expiry, now seems as good a time as any.

Looking back, his stalling tactics on his contract felt like a calculated game of brinkmanship with the fans. If the jeopardy of losing him increased, we might draw him closer to our collective bosom. Around Christmas, it seemed to be working. However, on the back of our recent collapse, the adverse effect has occurred. As the prospect of losing Arsene has moved closer, the idea has become increasingly palatable. Few fans are eager to sign up for three more years of this.

I’ve backed Wenger for a long time. If he chooses to stay on, he’ll retain my support. However, he must be wondering whether it’s time to hang up the sleeping bag/coat that has adorned him in recent years.

If Wenger loses the FA Cup semi-final next week, it’s indisputably over. Even if he wins the competition, it may be more of a celebratory send-off than cause for a new contract. It’s not over yet, but it feels like it’s accelerating towards a gloomy conclusion.

I don’t like it. But I’m not as scared of it as some.

Everton Preview: My glass needs refilling

I’ve seen our draw with Manchester City cited as vindication of our abilities against the top teams. I can see why one might think that: it was a valiant fight-back against a team in rampant form who are still in the thick of the title race.

My glass, however, is half-drained. I’m more inclined to observe that we haven’t beaten either of Manchester City or Chelsea, home or away, all season. The aggregate scores aren’t pretty. We secured draws in the home games, but they were draws the opposition were more than happy to take. The point suited them far more than us.

Those results are ultimately what have knocked us out of title contention and in to a customary battle for a top four finish. Today we face Everton in what is being called a “six pointer”. Arsenal hope to have an FA Cup Final to look forward to, but this is undoubtedly Everton’s cup final. Lose, and they face an unexciting trudge towards the Europa League. Win, and they will believe they can overhaul us and reach the Champions League.

This is undoubtedly a huge game. However, it’s only become a huge game because we failed to win any of the other huge games. Everton are striving to climb the mountain; Arsenal to arrest the slide.

Given Everton’s challenging fixture list, a point would be fine. I think Arsenal might set up more conservatively than usual. If we avoid defeat today, our run-in looks manageable.

Come on you Gunners.

Ready, Set, Go: The Race for fourth is underway!

Arsenal 2 – 2 Swansea

Even the most wildly optimistic fan has forgotten about the title now…
With Everton making good ground behind us, all focus is on securing a top four finish. It’s a somewhat depressing reality at the end of an exciting season, but fortunately we still have the carrot of a potential FA Cup win dangling ahead of us. Without that, the fans would be in full-blown meltdown.

The defending on the first goal was far too casual…
Just as at Chelsea, Arsenal just weren’t switched on enough. That said, it was a terrific cross and a great leap from Wilfried Bony.

Watching Bony at close quarters was interesting…
Like Giroud, he lacks pace, but everything he does is done with real power, purpose and intent. He’s not the calibre of striker who could take our team to the next level, but someone of his ilk would definitely have helped bulk out the squad. Watching Olivier Giroud labour around the pitch wasn’t pretty.

Giroud looks drained of both stamina and confidence. Although he added to his goal tally in the second half, this was one of his poorest performances of the season.

At half-time I said on Twitter that Arsenal could win the game if they brought on Podolski…
When the German score and created a goal inside 66 seconds, I thought I might be be awarded a modicum of credit. Swansea’s late equaliser soon put paid to that.

As for Podolski, he is a curious case. He is undoubtedly efficient in the final third. He has a shooting accuracy of 67%, as compared with Giroud’s 41%. Only Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil have been more deadly in front of goal, and Ozil’s stats are somewhat skewed by his steadfast refusal to shoot.

However, defensively he remains something of disaster. From an attacking point of view, we seem to need him. And yet, defensively, we can’t seem to afford him. It’s a paradox, all right.

Bringing Sanogo on seemed strange…
Granted, Giroud was knackered, but I would far rather have seen either Nacho Monreal or Carl Jenkinson introduced. Wenger has employed his “all the full-backs” strategy to good effect on several occasions this season. Giving Sanogo a two minute cameo seemed like an unnecessary concession to Arsene’s latest pet project.

Mathieu Flamini didn’t deserve to score that own goal…
He was one of our better performers. In the second half, he marshalled Bony superbly. His display showed the folly of leaving him out at Stamford Bridge.

To end on a positive…
…Kallstrom looked good! Some commentators observed that he received a “good reception” when coming on for his Arsenal debut – in person, it felt more like the ironic cheers reserved for the likes of Nicklas Bendtner. Nevertheless, his passing was crisp and he showed a willingness to get involved in the physical aspect of the game.

 

Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal: Bridge of Sighs

This was a dreadful day…
The scoreline equals the 8-2 at Old Trafford as Arsenal’s worst ever Premier League defeat under Arsene Wenger. Speaking personally, I found that match more painful, due to my deep-seated hatred of all things Manchester United.

However, on that occasion there were mitigating circumstances. Arsenal were in the midst of a difficult transfer window and a defensive injury crisis. The team we fielded included Jenkinson, Djourou, Traore and Coquelin. The bench found room for Miquel, Lansbury, Ozyakup, Chamakh and Sunu.

Arsenal have injury problems, but the XI we fielded against Chelsea was still made up of experienced internationals. Our first-choice back four and goalkeeper were all available to play. And yet this game looked more like a mismatched cup tie against a League Two side than an elite clash between two Champions League teams.

It was sickening but not surprising. Arsenal have collapsed in each of their three games away to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, conceding a remarkable 17 goals along the way. We’ve only conceded 34 goals this season, meaning half that tally has come in our three most important games.

Each of those games was seen as vital in our bid for the title. Each of those games took place at 12.45 on a Saturday. And each of those games saw us effectively surrender in the first quarter. Across the fixtures, we conspired to concede seven goals in the opening 20 minutes.

It can’t be just coincidence. Something is deeply wrong.

We haven’t looked like champions for a while…
Arsenal have now won just three of their last eight games. Three times this season we’ve faced a supposed “Death Run”, and it’s difficult to argue we’ve come out of any of those periods well.

The team selection was wrong…
Sticking with the same XI who played at Spurs was a strange decision given our awkward performance at White Hart Lane. After the first meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea in the league, Jose Mourinho boasted that he had stifled Arsenal by suffocating Mikel Arteta. He did exactly the same thing at Stamford Bridge. Perhaps the inclusion of Mathieu Flamini alongside Arteta would have helped the Spaniard cope with Chelsea’s marauding midfield.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain produced one of their worst performances in memory…
He was absolutely atrocious. Wenger is famously reluctant to make early changes – the fact he was withdrawn at half-time speaks volumes. Given his recent form, I must confess I did not see this coming.

Arsene was as frustrated with Giroud as the fans…
Friends at the game tell me he frequently showed his displeasure with the striker’s performance. His frustration mirrored that experienced by the fans at home. Many of our players looked as if they were running through treacle — Giroud looked as if he was running through cement.

However, the fact remains that it was Arsene who put his faith in Giroud, and Arsene who neglected to bring in another striker. Giroud’s flaws have been evident for some time. He certainly isn’t going to become quicker anytime soon.

What next for Arsene?
The manager neglected to turn up for his post-match press conference. Presumably, he didn’t know what to say. When asked by BT Sport if he could have anticipated such a catastrophic result, he said it was “unfortunately unpredictable”.

Arsenal’s capitulations at the Etihad and Anfield suggests he’s wrong about that. Distressingly, every time Arsenal head in to a big match away from home, this kind of humiliation is on the cards. The floodgates opened in August 2011 and Wenger can’t seem to find a way to close them.

It’s not entirely his fault. The players have to take responsibility for their abject performance. However, Arsene is in charge of selecting and preparing them. He is struggling to break the cycle which sees this kind of display occur again and again.

Today will have hurt him. His contempt for Jose Mourinho is clear, and the Portugese’s barbed comments about Wenger’s many “bad moments” prior to the game will have stung. That pain will be amplified by the prophetic nature of Mourinho’s words – this game will surely rank among Wenger’s worst moments as Arsenal manager.

On Friday, Wenger spoke with confidence about the prospect of signing a new deal at Arsenal. One wonders if a result like this might give him cause for reconsideration. On the biggest stages, his team continue to freeze. The spate of new contracts suggest a full recast is unlikely. To continue the theatrical analogy, the simplest thing might be to change the director.

Wenger is intelligent and self-aware. If we can see his problems, the chances are he can too. His last eight years at Arsenal have been characterised by his selfless sense of duty. Perhaps his final selfless act will be to recognise a new man may be required to fix some of the underlying problems in this team.

I don’t know if it’s that simple, in truth. I’m certainly not wishing Wenger in to a hasty retirement. I’m merely articulating my concern at seeing the same issues reoccur again and again. There’s been much to admire about this season, but when you break it down the problems — defeat at Stoke, frailty against the big boys, a failure to invest in the crucial midseason period — remain worryingly familiar.

Given this teams propensity to self-destruct, the FA Cup semi-final currently engenders feelings of anxiety rather than comfort.

Much to ponder — and I’d be fibbing if I said I had the answers. Unfortunately, I’m not confident that Arsene has them either.