Where Did It All Go Wrong?
Maybe this article should really be held over for the end of the season, but the optimist in me hopes it won`t be necessary by then. Besides which, whatever else happens this year, this team have outstripped the estimation of 95% of the footballing populace and there have been many great moments to savour, hopefully there`ll be a few more yet. But at what is probably our lowest ebb (though it will in all likelihood get worse on Sunday), the sadomasochist in me is trying to pinpoint the catalyst for this capitulation. There have been a fair few moments post Christmas which have been hoisted onto a neon mast and trumped as the fall of our season. I thought I`d put forward my own view on each, chronologically deconstructing one misery after another. If you don`t feel like reading on, I don`t blame you. (Look, I spent my teens listening to Radiohead, Nirvana and the Smiths; I was always going to be attracted to the melancholy!)
The 5-1 reverse at the Lane- Some contend that this foreshadowed our current predicament. I think most of us expected defeat at some point this millennia, even a stopped clock gets it right twice a day. But the manner of the defeat and the size of the score line has been put forward by some as the moment it all went wrong. Bendtner and Adebayor`s embarrassing tiff elucidated the loss of team spirit and the sure-fire sign that we had lost our heads under pressure. Since their tiff, it is noticeable that Bendtner largely celebrates his goals on his lonesome. The match and the score line itself had little effect in my view; we immediately sauntered to convincing victories over Fulham, Newcastle times two, Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers, so it did not affect our results. Maybe there is something in the team spirit question though, Gallas was on hand to arbitrate the argument, and it looked as though Bendtner took exception to his intervention. That apart, this is a competition Arsenal don`t place nearly enough emphasis on to derail our season, nobody attributes our 2001/02 title win to the fact that we pummelled United 4-0 in the Fourth Round of the Worthington Cup.
Going Five Points Clear- When United slipped up at home to City, Arsenal took on Blackburn needing to win to race five points clear at the summit of the Premiership. The Gunners raced into an early lead, looking imperious. But the nerves clearly set in and we endured a tense night at the Grove before Adebayor wrapped up the result in injury time. The enormity of going five points clear affected their play and the subsequent results sequence ever since suggests we haven`t coped with the pressure. Early season, Arsenal revelled in their role as underdogs, but as fatigue began to set in and we were elevated to the status of favourites, we have capitulated. I would put this down to a lack of experience in the squad, Gallas is the sole bastion of experience in the side with the collected, calm Jens and 'Mad` Gilberto now out of favour. We just haven`t had the experience to see it out.
The 4-0 Reverse at United- Similarly to the Tottenham match, I don`t really think the team placed nearly enough emphasis on this game for the result to adversely affect their psychology. In fact, we stopped just short of throwing the game. In the pre match press conference, Arsene Wenger affirmed that he would prefer to lose than draw the match, thus avoiding an undesired replay. The fixture was always treated as an inconvenience. Players aren`t stupid, that wasn`t the real Arsenal that day and I think they know that. Had United struck a last minute winner in a closely contested match, I would accept the psychological implications of that. That said, winning was a habit we were in up to that game, we soon fell out of it. The Nani ball juggling incident was something of nothing, blown out of all proportion by an increasingly moronic press. Nani was not wrong to do it and he did not receive "a kicking" as reported. Gallas` flick out was petulant, but so was Nani`s on Hoyte thirty seconds previous.
The injury to Eduardo- Not just because we lost a fine player who was just beginning to become an integral part of our side (I would wager at the very least, one of our recent draws would have been a victory had he still been fit), but the sickening manner of the injury. Now, I accept that for that game, the players would have been troubled by the quite appalling sight of their team mate`s leg in tatters. But to pinpoint that for the subsequent series of poor results is stretching it too far for me. The consequential press reaction might not have helped, but save for Wenger`s initial reaction and immediate retraction, little of it came from the club. I feel the nature of the coverage has been covered on these pages quite enough. Save for losing an important player, you can`t put one win in the next six games down to the psychological impact of the injury.
The last minute penalty at Brum- For the last ten minutes of this game, you could see this one coming. Arsenal were a goal up and a man up and they mentally relaxed. Our play became lackadaisical until the last second; Clichy unforgivably took leave of his senses in the penalty area and allowed Parnaby to sneak in and win a penalty. The penalty award was harsh, as Clichy clearly won the ball, but to have left himself in that position was stupidity of such a degree I don`t have words for it. Despite having had such a fine season, I am afraid this is a contribution that Clichy will be remembered for. Having made a similar mistake against City three weeks earlier, he should have learned. Birmingham grabbed an unlikely equaliser and we had eschewed the chance to go eight points clear. All in all, it made for a very traumatic day. Which brings me onto;
Gallas` sit in protest- Personally, I`m not having a bar of this as some kind of adverse turning point. Not defending the penalty was completely stupid, but the sit in protest, seriously, how on earth can this be painted as some kind of mental blow for a professional footballer? I implore anybody with half a brain; ignore the media bullshit (most of which was cynically intended to take the focus off of Taylor`s poor challenge, Hansen I`m looking at you). The captain was upset at the result and sat down on the pitch shaking his head. If that is enough to mentally maul you, you should not be a professional footballer. Nobody with the talent and ability to play in a team that is six points clear at the top of the Premiership in February could possibly see a team mate sitting on the ground in frustration and suddenly think, "oh dear, I just cannot cope." I envy anybody that is that mentally fragile because they have obviously lived a very sheltered life. What do you think Tony Adams would have done in the dressing room in that situation? If these players could not cope with their captain on the ground after the game has finished, they should be thankful that Ferguson is not their manager or that Adams has retired, because I imagine his reaction would have been much more savage than that. But the press, being the disgustingly egotistical entity that they are, saw Gallas` naked reaction; they somehow think it takes on more significance for the team. I bet Gallas read the riot act in the dressing room as well. He would have been correct to do so. As an addendum, what would the press reaction have been had John Terry performed the same action?
January Transfer Window- One could say the warning signs were there in the Tottenham game. Wenger overlooked younger squad players and brought in older heads, it was a catastrophic decision and a sign that Wenger did not trust his younger squad players. I have to enquire why he did not strengthen the side. In hindsight, van Persie looked to be coming back to fitness, Rosicky (remember him?) was enjoying a rare bout of fitness disease and playing well. Diarra had demanded to leave earlier in the month, but with central midfield well stocked, the need to replace him did not look urgent. But we were in all four competitions at this point, the schedule would always get demanding. Now we are in a situation whereby Hleb, Fabregas and Adebayor, our key attacking players, look utterly shattered and there is simply nobody to replace their ailing limbs. I think one quality signing on the wing would have kept us ticking over. In January 2004, we signed Jose Reyes, and while his impact on our eventual saunter to the title was not huge, he still came up with important goals and played in our cup assaults. Who could forget his match winning contribution against Chelsea that year to keep our F.A. Cup challenge alive? Injuries have been harsh, but Chelsea lost Cech, Terry, Drogba and Lumplard at the same time at one point this season, but they coped. Obviously, their resources far outstrip ours, but the painful fact is that our squad is not deep enough. Wenger would rather play Toure at right back than Hoyte, Hleb upfront rather than Walcott. We have been punished hugely as a result. In the thirteen game winning run that propelled us to the 2001/02 title, we spent seven of those games with Stepanovs at centre half and Lauren at left back, three goalkeepers won a championship medal. We`ve circumnavigated the grim spectre of injuries before, as Chelsea have done this year. The situation has been bad, but could have been avoided with a little more foresight.
Referees- Key decisions have gone against us at the wrong time of the season. The penalty at St. Andrews, the disallowed goal against Boro, Chelsea`s offside winner, blatant penalties for Hleb and Fabregas, shady penalty for Babel. The list is seemingly endless. Luck has played a part in our demise, however, I am of the opinion that only good teams get lucky, you make your own luck in this game at times, and while officials haven`t been kind to us of late, Champions triumph in adversity. As an aside, I think there`s a point about media management here. While Wenger certainly complains about bad decisions, you don`t see the media assault that you see from our rivals. United are denied one penalty and Ferguson attacks the referee, the whole football association and the club keep it press worthy for a while. A football club can be a lot like a Government, they can manage the press and cajole them, they have contacts and pursue them rabidly. Ferguson effectively chose his own referees for the three weeks after. Michael Essien was sent off in November, quite correctly, and Chelsea threatened to put together a DVD of wrongful decisions against them. Of course it`s ridiculous, Orwellian bullying of the governing bodies, but they see that said bodies are weak enough to target and expose them. We don`t employ such Machiavellian tactics, instead we envelope ourselves in self pity and whine. Chelsea and United take active steps to ensure their voice is heard. Maybe we need to sacrifice our integrity and manage the press better? It was Malcolm X who said, "When a person gets sad, they don`t do anything, they sit and cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change."
I suppose in conclusion, one could attest that all of these factors contribute in one way or another (except the Gallas one, that`s just crass stupidity). Personally, I think the manager`s decision not to strengthen when he demonstratably did not trust the likes of Hoyte and Traore was a bad call. Luck has gone against us, but we simply have not been resolute enough to turn our own fortune. We`ve shown signs in the Bolton fight back, let`s hope we carry that forward. But the real turning point has to be Birmingham`s last minute equaliser. If I am honest with myself, I knew we weren`t going to win the league after that. It felt too much like a turning point. So it has proved.LD.