By Shane Thomas
It's a week like the most recent one that go a way towards explaining why I'm such a pessimistic Arsenal fan. 7 days ago, Arsenal had won three straight games, scoring eight goals, conceding none. They were up to 2nd in the Premier League and into the quarter-finals of the Carling Cup. What could go wrong?
Well Arsenal have followed up these three wins with two consecutive defeats. The first was a Champions League loss to Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. While the 2-1 reverse was by no means disastrous - as Arsenal are certs to make the last 16 of the competition - manager Arsene Wenger was extremely irritated by the defeat. Arsenal have a history of going out to Eastern Europe and failing to get a result. Added to the fact that after Theo Walcott had given Arsenal an early lead, the team seemed to think that Shakhtar would crumble as they had done at The Emirates a fortnight earlier.
Not a bit of it. Wenger had publicly acknowledged how strong the Ukranians can be on their own patch, and so it proved as their application was superior to Arsenal's throughout. By half-time, Shakhtar had a 2-1 lead that would not be relinquished.
But as I said, despite the loss, there was no need to panic. Arsenal had a few players missing due to injuries, and their advantageous position in their group means it would take a calamitous collapse for Arsenal not to make the knockout stages of the Champions League. They would return to the important business of the Premier League with yesterday's match against Newcastle where the team's focus would surely be back? Right?
No, not even close. Arsenal were deservedly beaten 1-0 by a Newcastle team who have shown that they're a different proposition from the bunch of clowns who were relegated back in 2009. But while there were mitigating circumstances for losing in midweek, the loss to Newcastle was mystifying, not least because of the team that Wenger picked.
Arsenal had key players returning from injury. Inspirational captain Cesc Fabregas & Alex Song were back to bolster the midfield in tandem with the promising youngster Jack Wilshere. Other players who had been rested such as Bacary Sagna & Marouane Chamakh were also present to show that this was not a game that Wenger was taking lightly. And yet Arsenal not only lost, but they gave their worst performance of the season (I didn't catch the West Brom game). What was this down to?
Well, it seems that the hamstring injury that has been ailing Fabregas hasn't fully healed. But his willingness to play despite this shows that despite Barcelona's attempts to lure him back to Catalunya, when our Number 4 pulls on an Arsenal shirt he cares for the club as deeply as he's ever done.
And I wonder if this is beginning to prove counter-productive. For parts of last season, Fabregas was winning games for us on his own. Hmm, a centre-midfielder, captain of his club, single-handedly inspiring his team to victory and yet still falling short of the Premier League title. Who does that remind you of? Steven Gerrard anyone...
Things at Arsenal haven't reached this stage, but on occasion, particularly against Newcastle, it seemed that unless Fabregas unleashed a piece of magic, Arsenal were certain to lose. And so it proved. The game of football has changed to the extent that no one player, even an outstanding one can carry a team to success. Fabregas needs others to pick up the slack, particularly when his troublesome hamstring means that he can't operate at 100%. Now I know that other players such as Samir Nasri & Chamakh have had strong seasons so far. But Nasri took a knock in the first-half, causing him to be substituted & I could barely see Chamakh as he was stuffed in Fabricio Coloccini's pocket throughout yesterday's 90 minutes. And Gooners had to put up with the ignominy of the closing minutes when Arsenal ended up playing long balls in an attempt to equalise. Regardless of the match situation, Arsenal are not a team to change from their tiki-taka style of play. And nor should they. Given the personnel available to them, it's the most effective way to hurt their opposition. If you're going to play route one then at least make sure you have the players to play that way. Arsenal had only four players over 6 foot on the pitch, while Newcastle had six. It was not only an ugly way of playing, but a nonsensical one. And I wonder if Arsene Wenger is indirectly to blame.
The day before the Newcastle game, tabloid revelations broke about Wenger being allegedly unfaithful to his partner. Now I'm passing no moral judgement on him. Whatever he gets up to in his private life (as long as it's legal) it purely his business and should have no impact on his ability to manage this Arsenal side. And yet, I can only posit this as a reason for Arsenal's poor performance. Arsenal looked flat, devoid of application, spirit and heart. These are qualities that are seldom lacking. Arsenal's impressive record in scoring late in games proves that.
Wenger has been at the club so long, and has nurtured so many of the squad from a young age, that he is something of a father figure to his players. Fabregas admitted as much when it looked that the might depart the club in the summer. So whether the players see Wenger in a different light now, or whether they feel protective towards him and worry about how these revelations may affect their manager (which is my personal theory) their minds did not seem to be on the job against Newcastle. And the clustered nature of this season's Premier League shows that a loss of focus will prove costly, regardless of the opposition.
Arsenal have what is now a crucial league game against Wolves on Wednesday night. Defender Sebastian Squillaci has said that good sides don't lose three matches in a row and must bounce back against the Black Country side. As luck would have it, league leaders Chelsea were also beaten yesterday, while the two Manchester clubs are playing each other on Wednesday. So an Arsenal win coupled with a draw in the Manchester derby (not an unlikely scenario) would send The Gunners back into second place, five points off Chelsea. After their troublesome week, it would be as you were at the top. At this early stage of the season, five points is still a manageable deficit, especially with Chelsea still to come to The Emirates.
But Arsenal are fast running out of second chances. If the sins of Arsenal's father aren't to be visited on his boys, then Arsenal must win on Wednesday.
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