Archive for April 20th, 2011

Liverpool Post-Mortem and Derby Preview

82 comments April 20th, 2011

A consequence of feeling so sick about the Liverpool game that I barely had a word to say about it is that I end up discussing both it and the Spurs match together. It’s probably for the best. The two are bound together by a mutual significance, and tonight’s result will always be indelibly linked to Sunday’s.

If we go there and win, then maybe we can look back on the horrors of Sunday as a turning point. If we lose… well, it barely bears thinking about. Derbies are always big games. Rarely, however, have they been quite this big.

First, we look back to Liverpool. There’s been a lot of talk about Lucas diving, about Liverpool time-wasting, and about the referee granting them a four-minute window in which to look for reprieve. Frankly, it is us who is wasting time if we pursue that line of thought.

We have only ourselves to blame. This Arsenal team are in serious danger of becoming a joke where the punchline (capitulation) never gets old. It is often said that we’re the neutral’s favourite team to watch. This used to be because of our effervescent and enthralling style. Now, it is because our games can never be declared dead. Even at 4-0 up at half-time – or indeed 1-0 up in the 98th minute – we have an unrivalled capacity for collapse.

On Sunday it was partially the fault of an individual, Emmanuel Eboue, who made an entirely unnecessary challenge. More, though, collective blame should be laid at the feet of a team, squad and manage who panic under pressure, and don’t have the psychological strength to ensure victory.

It is embarrassing. The reason the comments of people like Patrice Evra hurt is because, frankly, they are true. Our boys just don’t know how to win.

I’m not suggesting they’re bad at football – they’re not. A glance at the league table will tell you they’re the second best team in the country, which is no mean feat. However, it is the sense of chronic underachievement which pervades this team’s identity. The pedestrian way in which United have strolled in to a seven point league in the lead underlines how much Arsenal have let this title slip.

And why does this happen? Well, sadly I believe it is embedded in the culture of the club. It was telling that the most urgency on Sunday came, remarkably, from substitute Andrey Arshavin -a man who grew up in distant climes, far from the Wenger creche, and who has won trophies with another major club.

The majority of this squad have grown up together under Wenger’s paternal eye. They’re like a family. The problem with families, however, is that too often too much goes unsaid. Where are the characters who will stand up and say what needs to be said – who will look their team-mates in the eye and demand more? When I look at our squad, I see two men with the seniority and presence to do so: Jens Lehmann, who is semi-retired, and Thomas Vermaelen, who in terms of his availability this season might as well be.

Things need to be shaken up. The Diabys, Denilsons and Eboues no longer need to feel they are part of a hand-holding, back-slapping support network. Every man in the squad needs to fight for his right be there, and subsequently for the trophies that the fans will now inevitably demand.

If we end the season trophyless, it will have been a failure. There was a clear agenda at the start of the year to bring home silverware – others we would never have put as much time and energy in to the Carling Cup. Failure to do so – as now looks most likely – will have to go down as a black mark against Arsene Wenger.

Rarely have I written so negatively about an Arsenal team, but I think I, like a lot of fans, am tired of our identity as ‘nearly men’. Moreover, I am worried that I can’t see it changing without a major shake-up. I worry that Arsene’s constant insistence about his faith in this group of players means they enter every season with little to prove other than to themselves, and they don’t seem to have the sort of characters to enjoy winning purely for the sake of winning.

When I look at the improvement in Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish, with much the same squad of players, I can’t help but worry that maybe the only way to arrest this issue is to change managers. That’s certainly simpler than ripping apart a thirty man squad.

If my mood is bleak this morning, it will swiftly change if we can win at White Hart Lane tonight. United’s draw at Newcastle last night means we still have an improbable opportunity for title success, but it is dependent on victory this evening.

I sense it’s a good time to play Spurs. They’ve expended a lot of energy in the Champions League in recent weeks, and might just be beginning to fade.

Regardless of what condition they’re in, the players owe the fans a victory tonight. Our collapse in the reverse fixture was humiliating, and only a thumping victory tonight would begin to undo the pain that caused.

As I said at the top of the piece, tonight could represent a turning point. But I’d be lying if I said I felt that was likely.

Still, it’s derby day. Get behind these players. Lord knows they need it.

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