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No Good, No Bad, Just Ugly: Arsenal fails miserably to be a team

Something’s rotten in the state of Arsenal

Liverpool v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

It’s not much to say Arsène Wenger has seen his Arsenal slump to some spectacular defeats. Anyone who manages for 20+ years, which is to say no one at one club anymore but Arsène, will inevitably get one the wrong end of a thrashing. 8-2. 6-0. Every year against Bayern Munich. We’ve seen it before and it is a familiar thing. Same old Arsenal.

Except this isn’t the same old Arsenal; this is something far, far worse.

Since the move to the Emirates, there have been few years where Arsenal have seemed to have a solid shot at a League title (I count twice). Outside shot, darkhorse, “maybe if the fixtures fall their way”, sure. At some point, Arsenal would rise up the standings, take a long look at first place before something implodes and the team falls off to finish in one of the other top four spots. It was almost predictable, when hindsight is employed.

Then last season occurred and the streak finally ended. Wenger’s Arsenal slipped to 5th and finally missed out Champions League football. This, in and of itself, wasn’t the worst thing. Each of the other top six teams had done similar in recent years, save Manchester City, and found a way to rebuild and bounce back. Chelsea reloaded immediately; Manchester United started snapping up big money youth talent and look to be back on top; Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur appear to be set for long challenges to the top of the table. There was every reason to think Arsenal could do the same; begin to reload, learn from last season’s disaster and take the break from CL football to regain their spot. Maybe build a true contender again.

Which is why these first three games, culminating in a thrashing at the hands of Liverpool, are so worrying. The results, some will point out, are not the end of the world. That’s true; Liverpool and Stoke are hard matches away and they got the win over Leicester. The form is the issue. A desperate comeback saved Game One. Game Two was harsh on the non-calls but Arsenal showed little fight to dispatch Stoke. Game Three was an utter disaster. The lessons of last season remain unlearned.

Arsenal appear out of the title race after three games. Three. That’s a preposterous thing to even write. But it feels like Arsenal are out of the title race already and only months of solid play could convince me otherwise.

There has been much venting and finger pointing over who is to blame, many taking swipes at their favourite targets, but so abject and total was Arsenal’s defeat, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t deserve their share. Often, last season, I wrote about the Good, Bad and Ugly of matches. Well, the Good and Bad are on holiday.

The Players

It would be an interesting experiment whether you could randomly pick eleven six-year-olds from youth leagues and not come up with a more cohesive team than Arsenal on Sunday. They were a mess to such a complete degree, one wonders if that was what they were told to do. (Which clearly cannot be the case as instructions kept coming in the 1st half, enough to distract a pair of midfielders from their defensive duties.)

Danny Welbeck, an odd way to spell Alexandre Lacazette, did his best marooned sailor routine. Likewise, Mesut Ozil did as much to isolate himself from his teammates and the ball as they did to him. Alexis Sanchez, fresh from his break, appeared to still be on it.

Aaron Ramsey was everywhere, ineffectively, while his partner Granit Xhaka did his best to be everything to everyone and succeed in disappointing everyone. Hector Bellerin did his best, which lately isn’t much. (Yeah, he screwed up on the 3rd goal but geez, why was he so alone?) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain already appears to be playing for another team... and still poorly.

As for the back three, they couldn’t be found on the same page even if they printed the whole dictionary on one page. Nacho Monreal missed so many man markings, I thought he was playing wingback. Maybe he did, too. Laurent Koscielny, supposed leader on the team, had as much control over his chargers as I do on a group of gerbils. Poor Rob Holding is going to need a map to find his way out of Sadio Mane’s pocket.

Petr Cech... had some pretty good saves. He was OK. Shockingly.

But otherwise, there isn’t a player that should hold their head up high. Francis Coquelin came on to do his best Francis Coquelin impression. About what you’d expect. Lacazette and Olivier Giroud did next to nothing, probably still bewildered why neither started. The rest of the bench are lucky enough not to be a part of Wenger’s disastrous set up. Good for them.

Whatever the reason, the team was rolled over. Unprepared, unwilling and untalented. There really is no excuse for ever seeing this type of performance again; I refuse to believe they all forgot to play football overnight.

The Manager

Last winter, Wenger was on the ropes. His team was getting beaten in and they looked like one that had no urge to play the game. It appeared his time was up. Then he did something; Wenger made a tactic change and moved to 3-4-3 or some version of it. Arsenal rattled off all but one of their final games of the season as wins and won the FA Cup by beating Man City and Chelsea. It was, well, fun. It appeared Wenger had found new life.

Three months later and the same formation looks about as good as the 4-1-4-1/”Let’s find a spot for Jack Wilshere” abomination of 2015. Whatever tweaks he has made have completely undone any good the change brought about. Perhaps other teams have figure out ways to counter it but the inflexibility of an Arsenal team to respond when getting flat out clobbered remains a familiar theme.

The team, so prepare by Wenger, remains unable to respond effectively. There is no change in gears or strategy that comes about. They keep bashing their heads against the wall until something works or breaks. It might suggest there isn’t enough brains on the field to fill a thimble but more likely Wenger doesn’t have the answers himself. His grand move today was to remove Ramsey from the field, deservedly, and replace him with Coquelin who adds nothing to a team chasing two goals.

The overall trend of random squad selections doesn’t help. The reason for dropping your £50+m shiny new striker for a massive fixture doesn’t exist. When Lacazette did get on the field, he was shunted out wide for Giroud to take up the center forward position. The supposed new wingback Saed Kolasinac wasn’t even on the pitch. Nor has he even played in the wingback position. Much like Xhaka last season, the games with new signings continue.

Whether this is again stubbornness from Wenger to “ease in” already seasoned players of the game or a refusal to believe these transfers were needed doesn’t matter. Wenger, who has control of the team, goes out each summer to strengthen the team and then refuses to play the strengthened team. His back line has been three games a mess as though he has no plan for it. Should Koscielny, the only sure bet, get injured, this team has no real response. They sold Gabriel; they’re selling Shkodran Mustafi! Unless a new name suddenly is added, and not Calum Chambers who is clearly dead, Wenger has another mess on his hands of his own making.

Wenger is too experienced to be this naive. His desire to make things work the way he thinks they should rather than how they actually do hurts Arsenal. He shelves players who have use and clings loyally to limited and flawed ones. Arsene Wenger should have left Arsenal; instead, they continue to pay for his repeated mistakes.

Doing something over again and expect different results is the definition of...

The Ownership

There is a silent partner in the mess that is Arsenal. Stan Kroenke and the Arsenal Board hold the money. They sit and are made wealthy off the team and could have every bit of leverage to enact change in this club the way others in the EPL have done.

But they won’t. Whether it cowardice, apathy or incompetence, the Arsenal ownership has always lacked leadership.

In a way, Arsene Wenger has saved them. In the years of the Emirates move, Wenger fairly expertly made profits from player sales and kept together a team that could maintain the Champions League money. Sponsorship or TV deals hadn’t kicked in to the level that are allowing Spurs to finance a similar stadium move. Wenger kept the team in business and made people rich.

It could be, that explains the loyalty to the man. Now, no matter how disorganized it gets, Arsenal remain a lucrative disaster. Money rolls in regardless of results.

Yet it makes no sense to rest on laurels. The idea that ownership doesn’t care how a team does, they’re in it for the money, ignores what a money world club football has become. Extended Champions League runs; titles; season tours; top players - all of these drive sponsorship, exposure and profits up. What owner doesn’t want a successful team?

The simple fact is that Arsenal have no effective leadership in them. Not on the field, not in Wenger, not on the board or from the owner. No one is taking a hand in steering the sinking ship, so the team drifts further out to sea. The board won’t take matters into their hands and remove Wenger from power. They’ve shown to not even make plans to know how to do such a thing, failing to even understand the world contingency.

At the end of the day, Arsenal needed change. Yesterday. The board needs to change, the manager needs to change, the players need to change. Already, players are set to flee to safer shores. If Wenger or Kroenke or Ivan What-The-Hell-Do-You-Even-Do Gazidis won’t change, then they all need to leave with them. Immediately.

Sadly, this team seems so far gone, it doesn’t mean the change will end up being good. Or bad. It’ll likely just end up Ugly.