When you cover a team for a while, you get into a bit of a writing rhythm around game days. You know that beforehand there needs to be a preview and there needs to be team news, and after the game there should be some coverage of what happened, some sort of tactical breakdown or at the very least a discussion of the events of the game and how those events contributed to the win/loss/draw on the day. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Most games, this is kinda fun and isn’t particularly hard; there are a lot of games with a “smoking gun” type incident, be it a great goal, a defensive failure, a referee being an idiot, or some such triggering event that causes a specific outcome. And sometimes, games are just bad, because that’s how sports works and that’s how humans are.
But my problem this morning is that I don’t get it. I don’t get how Arsenal could go into a Cup final - even a “minor” Cup final like the League Cup - and just do that. How they could, in their defense, play decent soccer for 20 minutes, in which they successfully slowed, even if they didn’t completely shut down, one of the most potent attacks in English football at the moment. For that opening period of the game, Arsenal looked comfortable enough in denying Manchester City their space, and it was effective, if not aesthetically pleasing.
Then, in the words of the Guardian:
What if Shkodran Mustafi had not reacted to a slight nudge in the back from Sergio Agüero with all the resolve of a flighty Victorian maiden glimpsing a mouse, throwing out his arms in horror and desperately hoping somebody, anybody – a trusted servant, a passing dragoon, Craig Pawson – might help? What if he had actually done a basic bit of defending and grappled back?
Mustafi, instead of defending, decided to stop and appeal for a foul he was never going to be given, because it wasn’t there to give. And after that, Arsenal...well, they didn’t fold, exactly, because that would imply a level of drama that just wasn’t there. What they did do was nothing. They didn’t adjust their gameplan, they didn’t start to chase the game, they just sorta kept going through the motions as if they didn’t want to be there, but they knew they couldn’t just walk away because that’s not how sports games work.
This is where things get a bit circular, or at least tiringly repetitive, because you know by now exactly where this is heading, don’t you? That lack of mental fortitude, that lack of either a plan B or some sort of fallback when things don’t go the way you want - that’s all down to one person. It is 100% the job of the manager to prepare his team for pretty much anything that happens on a game day - whether that’s holding a lead, regaining equilibrium, or otherwise responding to game events as they happen.
And, as we all know so well by now, Wenger has demonstrated no ability to do that. His teams play one way, and when that way doesn’t work, the players are completely at sea. They have no resilience, no ability to reach into the memory banks and say “okay, the boss said that if this doesn’t work, try that”, at least on the evidence presented over the last few seasons.
We’ve talked about this state of affairs pretty constantly over the last couple seasons - none of this is new, so I’m not going to dive into the reasons and the symptoms here, because we all know what they are. But the fact that Wenger can’t get his team properly prepared for a Cup final is maddening. Arsenal are in this weird purgatory right now, where they’re not actively bad relative to about 15 teams in the league, but they’re nowhere near good enough to be a serious challenger to the other four.
And, again as we all know, nothing will change until managerial change happens. Sitting through another season of this type of soccer will be incredibly painful for those of us who do, but I have a feeling that a lot more people will just stop watching if nothing changes between now and August.
What I’ve been trying to figure out this morning is, when did this state of affairs start? Was there one game, one incident, that made Arsenal into this odd good-but-nowhere-near-good-enough team, or is it just a gradual decaying? I mean, Wenger’s arc is pretty much well defined at this point, and despite all his amazing achievements in his first decade, he fact that he doesn’t evolve as the game has evolved has meant Arsenal, with all the institutional advantages a club could ever want (great location, great history, astounding amounts of money), have been left behind, and the evidence of that could not have been more starkly on display than it was on Sunday.
I don’t have answers; I don’t have a plan for Arsenal to be better other than “Please, Arsene, go now”. And I really don’t think that’ll happen, and I’m decreasingly optimistic that it’ll happen this summer either. But I was hoping we could sort of crowdsource my question above - when did this state of affairs start happening? I mean, it seems like this has been coming for several seasons now, but is that true? Or, more worryingly, is this version of Arsenal truly just an inevitability of the way the club is run now?
I’m at a loss, and I hate being at a loss. Let’s see if we can figure this out, at least, and maybe then I’ll feel better about the state of things. Doubtful, sure, but more clarity is better.