Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: A different kind of frustration

I’m used to finishing matches between Arsenal and Chelsea with a feeling of immense frustration gnawing at me. It generally floods in to replace the dread that’s accompanied the build-up to such games.

However, this time round it’s been different. Heading in to the match I was actually excited. We had such a weight of momentum behind us that I was convinced we stood a really good chance of ending Arsene Wenger’s ugly record against Jose Mourinho. If there was ever to be a time to end the hoodoo, this felt like it — 13th time lucky.

It wasn’t to be. I do feel frustration now, but it’s not the hair-pulling, hand-wringing hysteria that previously accompanied our capitulations in these top-of-the-table clashes. I think Arsenal did most things right. Game-management has been Arsenal’s undoing on so many occasions, but they were largely able to negotiate this fixture with intelligence and maturity.

Nevertheless, they couldn’t shake the Mourinho-faced monkey from their back. We did most things right, but he clung on to preserve his record. This was an Arsenal team ready to win, but they faced a Chelsea team who weren’t ready to lose. The scoreline may have been a draw, but only one manager left with the result they came for.

At this point in the season, Mourinho has given up any pretence of trying to appease Abramovich with attractive attacking football. He abided by that decree in the first half of the season, but on this home straight he’s reverted to type with some execrably pragmatic displays. It’s regression to the meanest of footballing philosophies, but it works.

For Arsenal, there’s no shame in drawing with the champions elect. It’s actually a very decent result, especially in the light of Manchester United’s defeat at Everton — but it also feels like an opportunity missed. Chelsea might be weaker in future, but with eight consecutive wins behind us I’m not sure we’ll ever be stronger.

The fact we still couldn’t break them down suggests that when we do eventually beat them, it will require the rarest of defensive lapses. As John Terry marshalled Olivier Giroud into subordination, his hilarious slip at Stamford Bridge felt like an awfully long time ago.

This game was understandably talked about as an opportunity to lay down a marker for next season, but the reality is that Arsenal do not need to beat Chelsea to win a Premier League title. Far more important is to avoid the sort of disastrous start to the campaign which handed Mourinho his insurmountable lead.

Arsenal didn’t get the landmark win they craved but they gave a good account of themselves nonetheless.

Traditionally, my exasperation has stemmed from the fact Arsenal have humiliated themselves. This time, it’s due to the fact that we weren’t able to humiliate Mourinho. I’m choosing to look upon that as progress.

Arsenal 1-3 Monaco: On our never-ending naivety

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A despondent Arsene Wenger had finished giving his press conference, when a voice cried out from the back of the room to ask if he would mind answering one question in French.

Wenger stood at the head of the media lounge. He didn’t respond, but nor did he depart, so the voice went on. What, it asked, was the most disappointing aspect of Arsenal’s performance?

You didn’t have to be fluent to understand Wenger’s answer: “notre naïveté”.

Naive is a word that has become synonymous with Arsenal. As a bit of a test, I ran it through the search engine on my own blog. Here are the most recent uses:

“We all know that Arsene Wenger isn’t going anywhere until 2017. With that in mind, we have no choice but to demand more from the players. They can’t hide behind his diminishing reputation. They might not like it, but this is their mess too.  It’s never just one thing, and Wenger’s tactical naivety does not fully excuse theirs.”

Then:

“However, neither of those can match the humiliation of losing 6-0 at Chelsea. The tactical naivety Arsenal showed in that game is what makes me a little concerned about the length of Arsene Wenger’s new deal.”

Then:

“Wenger was comprehensively outmanoeuvered by Roberto Martinez at Goodison Park. 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.”

I gave up at that point. Not even I am so morbid as to dig deeper in to the mire.

However, you might see what I’m getting at. Naivety ought to be a temporary thing. It’s a state of being characterised by a lack of experience or sophistication. That should get better. It should be fixable. And yet here we are, approaching the end of a decade of defensive guilelessness. We’re a team caught in arrested development.

Google “how to stop being naive” and it’ll tell you the process can be accelerated by having your heart broken. Well, that one doesn’t seem to have worked for us. The painful lessons keep on coming, and we keep on ignoring them.

What happened against Monaco approached the absurd. Going 2-0 down was bad enough, but to concede a third having dragged ourselves back in to the game was madness. The craziest part is that I wasn’t even surprised. How many times have we seen Arsenal carelessly chase goals, only to be sucker-punched?

This latest horror show arrives days after we came inches from surrendering a 2-0 lead in the final few minutes at Crystal Palace. The further away it gets, the more that Manchester City win feels like an anomalous result against an out-of-sorts side.

Arsenal will re-qualify for the Champions League, but last night was a reminder of why it’s unlikely to get significantly better than that any time soon. You can look at our annual top four finish as a remarkable piece of consistency. Alternatively, you can see it as a staggering lack of progression — evidence that the teams of the second half of Arsene’s reign have been chronically hampered by an unworldliness the manager seems powerless to fix. We’re good, but unless something changes we’ll never be good enough.

It’s all very well for Arsene to accuse his players of naivety, but he is the man charged with educating this squad. If naivety is the problem, better coaching is surely the cure.

Is Arsenal’s victory over Manchester City down to the manager or the players?

I don’t quite know what to make of Arsenal’s win over Manchester City. My initial response was, like yours, one of shock. An Arsenal side guilty of making the same mistakes again and again appeared to have suddenly learnt from them. Frustration at their slow uptake was secondary to the joy of an unexpected victory. Arsene Wenger had got it right, and in doing so acknowledged he was wrong.

And then came his tetchy post-match interview, in which he effectively denied his side had done anything dramatically different to their normal gung-ho approach. Ignore it, I thought: he’s just struggling with publicly compromising his principles. No-one wants to climb down from their aesthetic mount on national television.

But then came this Olivier Giroud interview (“The boss didn’t say to stay back and counter-attack”), in which he appears to reveal that the players weren’t specifically instructed to let City have the ball. Arsenal’s tactical masterclass, Giroud seems to suggest, came about as much by accident as design.

Now, there is evidence against Giroud’s crude ‘big bang’ theory that re-establishes the divinity of Arsene. For example, our approach at City was fairly reminiscent of our cautious display at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. There were indications then that we had adopted a more conservative set-up. The difference, as so often in these big games, was the first goal. Individual errors granted Chelsea the lead, and recovering from that deficit away from home proved impossible.

However, if we take Giroud’s comments at face value, what does that mean for Arsenal’s newfound resolve and discipline? Where does that come from? Certainly not Steve Bould, who appears to be as impotent as Pele before his lucrative endorsement deal.

A potential answer arrives in the form of the players. Is it possible that, in spite of their manager’s intransigence, they have simply adjusted of their own accord? There are enough new ingredients for me to believe it’s possible: the eerie calm of David Ospina, the fearless physicality of Francis Coquelin, the inspirational athleticism of Alexis Sanchez. Perhaps this Arsenal, with these personnel, has taken matters in to their own hands. If the manager wasn’t prepared to teach his team some necessary lessons, perhaps certain players have – inadvertently or otherwise.

In reality, our win may be down to both players and manager. The two possibilities are in no way mutually exclusive. That would certainly fit with Wenger’s ethos: he is always eager for his players to take responsibility for their own actions on the field. The intriguing thing is how difficult that makes it to apportion credit.

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ps. TRANSFER BUSINESS: I talked about it on Twitter the other day, but my understanding is that Arsenal are confident they would secure a work permit for Villarreal defender Gabriel Paulista without too many problems. The Spanish club are holding out for something close to his €20m buyout fee, which sounds a lot until you remember just how hard it’s proven to find a half-decent centre-half. For more on Paulista, read this profile piece I wrote on him for ESPN.

Arsecast Extra 45: Stoke, Wenger and the screams of Joel Campbell

Thanks to @MattGCorbett for the image.

Hello all – just a quick note to urge you to have a listen to the latest Arsecast Extra, in which Arseblogger and I dissect the weekend’s events. This Arsecast Extra is brought to you by Audible.com – turns out you can get a free audio book download and a 30 day free trial. Click the banner below to sign up or go to audibletrial.com/arsecast.

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Once you’re done with that, why not have a read of my new column for SportsLobster: 5 questions raised by Arsenal’s defeat at Stoke. Cheers all.