In the aftermath of the result from Old Trafford, I am sensing a distinct mood shift amongst the Gooner faithful. There seems to be an air of resignation surrounding the club right now. I am going to say what we have all suspected for some time and have had painfully confirmed to us over the weekend – it is a harsh and hugely unpalatable truth that we are no longer competing with Manchester United. They know it, we know it and the wider football community know it.
Before the game, most Arsenal fans would have taken a point with some going as far as simply hoping for an improvement on the 8-2 humiliation from last season. When did that become acceptable? When did it become the norm for The Arsenal to go into big games not believing they can win? Certainly in the Wenger period we have stood toe to toe with any footballing giant you care to mention, particularly domestically. This is not now the case. We are behind United, City and Chelsea in terms of squad quality and depth. We rarely expect to get anything from these games anymore, even at home. When did this happen?! For me, one of the worst questions arising from our visit to Manchester was the one nobody wanted to ask– was Van Persie right in what he said about the direction of our club and his subsequent defection up the M6? 15 points from 10 games, 3 loses (2 against supposed rivals) and a 9 point gap to the summit of the table says that, sickeningly, he was.
There was much inevitability surrounding the game on Saturday, not least of which was our former captain scoring against us. Perhaps taking only 3 minutes to do so was surprising but he was always going to get on the score sheet. Our current captain made a horrific individual error and £24m gets you a one shot, one goal ratio. There was the customary dodgy penalty award to United but any blame for our defeat directed towards the officials is misguided. The Wilshere sending off was hardly out of the blue. In fact, it was slap bang in the middle of the blue. Everyone watching that game could see it coming. I don’t subscribe to the theory that we should blame Wenger for the sending off as he should have hooked Jack when he was on a yellow card. Who else was going to drag us back into the game? We are relying on a kid who has been out of the game for in excess of a year but he is the brightest spark we have at the moment. Oh, how we could do with a Cabaye, Essien, Sahin or even Jermaine Jones to bolster our midfield right now. None of those names are world class but they would do a job.
By the way, round pegs for round holes work wonders. We should try it sometime instead of putting a young centre midfielder on the right of midfield and in the process risk ruining his entire Arsenal career. Ramsey has performed no worse than Podolski over recent games but that seems to pass a lot of Gooners by. I know Ramsey splits opinion like almost no other player but I think he will come good, providing he is played in position. Santos and Vermaelen were singled out for particular criticism after the game, and deservedly so. Frankly, if I were Wenger I would ship Santos out at the earliest opportunity for the half time shirt swapping alone. Not good enough. They are meant to be our hated rivals, not long lost friends. Having said that, the manager indulged in some mutual back slapping with our former captain as well so what kind of example is that to set to our squad? Cazorla scored a cracking goal that the team didn’t really deserve. Such a shame that a moment of pure quality will rarely, if ever, be relived by Arsenal fans due to the context of it.
The narrative had already been written before the game and the headline writers got what they wanted. Cue “Arsenal in decline”, “Former captain breaks Arsenal hearts” and “Robin Van Perfect*” headlines and broken crest accompanying pictorials. Our fans were immense, as they away support tends to be, and deserve all the credit they get but I wish they would stop with the “she said no” chant. For the record, singing that song does nothing except knock us off the moral high ground that we are so fond of occupying. I wish we didn’t do it but I suspect the same thing will happen in the return fixture.
Looking at 3 key United v Arsenal fixtures over the last decade, the decline of quality in our team is startling.
Manchester United v Arsenal – May 2002
Juan Sebastian Veron
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Manchester United v Arsenal – September 2006
Manchester United v Arsenal – November 2012
David De Gea
Rafael Da Silva
Robin van Persie
This is of course subjective, but how many players did we need to change in each of those line ups? I would say that in 2002 we needed 1 (Kanu), in 2006 we required 2 (Eboue, Djourou) and now? 3? 4? 5? Take your pick. Off the field we are a club to be admired and emulated. Our business model is an antidote to the corrupt, distasteful flow of oil money flooding City and Chelsea but the uncomfortable truth is that it may well not win us any trophies. You can see steady decline in our first team squad. On the field, we are going backwards every season. Not to dwell on the well publicised events of the summer but that is what happens when you sell your captain and best player to one of your rivals. Except, we aren’t rivals anymore really are we? In some ways the defeat on Saturday was even more painful as United hardly had to break sweat to beat us. We were a distant second best. Cast your mind back to the games of 2002 and 2006 – would we have rolled over for United in quite the same way? Would Lauren, Vieira or Ljungberg swapped shirts with Scholes or Keane at half time? We used to go into battle against United. It was footballing war. Now, it is a footballing festival of fun for United.
January is going to be more than interesting, it is going to be one of the most vital transfer windows we have had in recent seasons (and we have had a few!). The curious case of Theo Walcott will need to be resolved, Sagna requires some attention, the never ending goalkeeping situation is still an issue, the captaincy may need looking at, even if Giroud comes good between now and January we need beefing up in that area, will Diaby and Rosicky ever be fit again? All of this is simply so we can stand still and remain in the top 4 of the Premier League. Not much to do then.
I suspect that this season will be Groundhog Day for Arsenal again. We are not going to be able to bridge the gap between ourselves, United, City and Chelsea but we will make 4th. This is mostly due to the inability of the “second tier” Premier League clubs to gain ground on us as opposed to our qualities. Everton (our main threat in my opinion) and Newcastle will be challenging us for 4th but they will drop too many points in games against the “smaller” teams between now and the end of the season. Spurs are way too inconsistent, have a lack of strikers and a questionable manager. Liverpool are, well, Liverpool. It is a deeply saddening situation when we are looking over our shoulder at these teams as opposed to looking up at United et al but that is where we are right now.
So, what is the conclusion? Where do we go from here? That is up to Mr Gazidis, Mr Wenger and the board. Perhaps now is not the time for the “big picture” questions and we should just concentrate on the here and now (i.e. get as many points on the board as possible and get out of our Champions League group between now and Christmas) but the sad truth is that we no longer dine at the very top table of domestic football. What is it they say about acceptance being the first step towards spiritual awakening…….
*this makes me physically gag
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