I ended last month talking about how March was make or break for this Arsenal side in terms of challenging for the title.
Would we show the mental strength and fight that all champions need to demonstrate at this time of the campaign? Or would we crumble under what has been our Achilles heel all season; facing the big boys? Unfortunately it was the latter and our dreams of winning the Premier League seem to be all but over.
After the shambles at the Britannia, all our attention turned to the FA Cup. With the chance to book our first Wembley visit in over three years. Anticipation was high.
A tough game was expected, Everton had outplayed us in the league fixture in December and have been having a generally very good season. We needed a massive performance and we got that. Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla orchestrated a fine team display and deserved the 4-1 win.
When we were drew the winners of Manchester City vs. Wigan, I think we all shook our heads in disbelief at how unlucky we had been with the draw. Not just for this match but the competition in general. So when Wigan produced the shock of the season and knocked City out, one hand went on that FA Cup trophy. A game, which I will talk about in more detail at the end of the blog.
A few days later the team flew to Germany for what was practically mission impossible. To defeat this Bayern side, the best in Europe, by two goals was always going to be very hard.
We gave a pretty good account of ourselves although you did always feel that Bayern could step it up another level if they needed. A one all draw was a positive result that we could take into the North London Derby.
The game at White Hart Lane was simply a must win. I had previously said that for us to win the league we needed seven points from Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City. Not to mention a loss could potentially have brought Tottenham back in to the race for fourth.
Whilst our performance wasn’t the kind that I would like us to put in week in week out, defensively we were outstanding. A Tomas Rosicky wonder strike meant that we were in the lead from the very first minute. From then on it was a master class in defending from Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. Spurs huffed and puffed but barely created anything, and the three points belonged to Arsenal.
The belief seemed to have come back. Three extremely encouraging results and we once again had the momentum. In Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game for the club, a trip to Stamford Bridge awaited. Which manager has Arsene never beat? Which manager would he want to beat more than any in world football? The writing was on the wall or so we all hoped.
Of all the big defeats that we had suffered over the last ten years I can honestly say this one hurt the most.
For me the first thing to do is focus on the player’s performances’. A lot was made of the manager, which was always going to happen given the occasion but the players are the ones that step out on to the field. They knew how important the match was, they knew what a win would have done in terms of the championship and they knew their performances in the big games prior to this wasn’t good enough.
Yes they may have not gone out under the best tactics but the attitude and desire to work hard under difficult circumstances was non-existent. I have no problems losing football matches to Chelsea. I saw a brilliant quote on Twitter and forgot where from but it said: “Winning isn’t everything but to want to win is.” Was that the attitude shown by the players against Chelsea? Absolutely not.
Watching Arsene suffer during the match was very difficult. You could see the pain sketched on to his face. It was a mixture of hurt, anger and disappointment. These players that he had put so much faith in had let him down.
However one of the worse things about this crushing defeat was it was not a massive surprise. When things happen more often than it should, it usually suggests that it’s more than just a lack of character and this is where the manager has to be questioned.
When Chelsea went to Man City and put on arguably their best performance of the season, believe it or not, I was very interested in what John Terry said in his post match interview. He stated that for two or three days Jose Mourinho got the team together and worked on a strategy to beat City.
Compare this to Carl Jenkinson who previously said on talkSPORT that Arsenal focus on their own game rather than that of the opposition; a philosophy that Arsene has always insisted on.
It just got me thinking that in this day and age is that really the approach to have for this kind of game? Wenger’s early sides could go and beat pretty much anyone. He had developed some of the world’s best players who struck fear into the opposition’s eyes.
We now have a very talented squad but it’s not unfair to say it’s not on the same level as the one in the Invincible days. With all the scouting and stats available and knowing that the opposition are doing their homework on you surely we have to spend some time analysing them?
I’m not saying that is the sole reason we lose these big games. It’s most likely a combination of factors that would need more in depth analysis but it’s certainly worth pointing out.
Wenger called the game against Chelsea a nightmare. There was a media lockdown and many expected to see a reaction in the midweek fixture game against Swansea.
That reaction simply did not come. We began the game slowly, our confidence was shot and Swansea didn’t even have to play well to take a half-time lead.
In the second half we showed a bit of character and Lukas Podolski came off the bench to score and then provide the other to give us a 2-1 lead. However from then on, we did something that has bothered me pretty much all season.
2-1 or even 2-0 is a risky score line. The opposition have pretty much nothing to lose but on the other hand that gives you opportunities to counter attack. Now don’t get me wrong there is a balance you have to get right between over committing and leaving yourself vulnerable at the back. But often this season we have decided to stop attacking in the last 15-20 minutes of games and I have had a horrible feeling that one game it was going to cost us dearly.
Sadly that one game was against Swansea, and when the ball deflected off Mathieu Flamini for an own goal in the 90th minute, the silence around the stadium was deafening, in a strange kind of way. That was the end of our title challenge and we all knew it.
We went into the game against Man City feeling very low. It was just so hard to see how we could get anything out of the game especially with all the injuries and fatigue. The first half went the way many of us predicted with City dominating and Arsenal unable to respond.
What we saw in the second half was the kind of response that you want to see from your football team. The players didn’t let their heads drop, didn’t feel sorry for themselves, got back into the game with a well worked goal and gave it a real effort to win the match.
We managed a 1-1 draw which did not flatter us at all and pride had somewhat been restored after a sickening week.
After talk of the title for pretty much all season, it would be hard to lie and say that it’s not disappointing that we are now in a position where we have to look over our shoulders and make sure we finish fourth.
For what it’s worth I’d say it would be a huge surprise if Everton, who are the only realistic challengers to the Champions League spot, finished above us this season. Whilst I appreciate they have done very well this campaign, we have seen off stronger Tottenham sides in the last two years with a weaker squad then what we have now. As well as that, Everton’s fixture list is sufficiently harder than ours.
Despite what’s happened over this last month there still is the potential to finish the season positively. Besides a tough match at Goodison next week, I expect us get maximum points in the remaining games of the season. Let’s say we draw against the Toffees and win the remaining matches: that will leave us on 80 points. Not as many as it could have been but a very healthy total and seven more than last season. That has to be the aim for the remaining league games and whilst I have no doubt that won’t be enough to win the title it may get us third.
The FA cup semi final against Wigan has now turned into the biggest game of our season and one of the biggest of Arsene’s career. Failure to win this tournament and serious questions and pressure will be put on him.
A victory for the players could be that platform that allows us to kick on and help deal with some mental issues when it comes to crucial matches in the future.
To finish in the top four and then, in the very last game of the season, lift the FA Cup would be a fantastic consolation to missing out on the league and one everyone would have taken at the start of the season. It would allow us to go into the summer feeling optimistic over our football club.
Over to you boys…
Editors note – It should be noted that in no way is Ryan advocating that Mourinho should ever manage the Arsenal, out that we adhere to his general dour tactics. He is however suggesting we pay attention to his strategy in the BIG matches.