The road to Wembley is paved with depression
I haven’t written in a while, but I felt compelled to put fingertips to keyboard following yet another embarrassing and depressing performance away from home on Sunday.
I am generally one who looks on the brighter side of things as I believe hope is much more powerful than angst or fear. Of course, I acknowledge and feel the latter nonetheless. However, Arsenal’s inability to learn from mistakes in the big games away from home is baffling and the defeat against Everton has compounded my frustration. It becomes almost impossible to defend both the team and the manager when such a self-destructive pattern forms as it has in Arsenal’s case.
The impressive first half of the league campaign was immensely encouraging and thus elevated the fans’ expectations for this season. To an extent, this is understandable, but in the end it only made any shortcomings all the more painful. In my opinion, a top four finish and the FA Cup (not to mention the form we showed in the first half of the season) would be progression, albeit more of a small step rather than a giant leap. An FA Cup win wouldn’t fix the aforementioned issues that Arsenal have away from home in the big games, but it would be one hell of a lift for the whole club and all its fans.
However, before looking ahead to brighter things, I’d first like to address the deep, dark problems that we have faced in the big games away from home. It was really the Liverpool game that noticeably disrupted our flow, despite losing 6-3 to Man City earlier on in the season. The result at Anfield seemed to cause a general drop in confidence amongst the players and thus a drop in coherence and belief in one another and themselves. This cohesive spirit was such a huge part of our impressive displays in the first half of the season, but once it had taken a hit like it did, the results became inconsistent and generally much worse.
The game against Chelsea was quite frankly a disaster and, at the time, completed a terrifying trio of eye-opening away games against the other teams in the top four. The apprehension before hand was sugar-coated with a sense of optimism which was borne out of an idealogical vision of Arsène Wenger beating José Mourinho for the first time in the former’s 1000th game in charge of Arsenal. This apprehension (it was there) turned to anger and the anger turned to disappointment, before finally, the disappointment turned to pure sadness. The result once again reminded us that this side still have issues when it comes to the big games, especially away from home.
This leads me on to the Everton game and how we once again, despite the warning signs and the recent thrashings, gave a lackluster and mediocre performance away from home. It was like a groundhog day nightmare that I felt was inexcusable considering the three previous thrashings away from home against the teams around us. It now leaves our Champions League hopes in Everton’s hands and despite them having a tough run-in, I didn’t think it would come to this having seen Arsenal sit at the top of the league for so much of this season.
For me, the Manchester United away game, even though they are not one of the top four this season, showed how serious an issue this must be. If this much improved Arsenal side couldn’t beat the worse Manchester United side in many many years, then what could we honestly expect? This view was of course aided by hindsight, but it undeniably set a tone of disappointment away from home when the pressure is on.
It seems to me that the issue is a combination of mentality and tactics. This Arsenal side are unused to beating the bigger teams (with the exception of maybe Liverpool who improved hugely this year) and thus struggle to play without fear and tentativeness in those particular games. Those who say we don’t have tactics are wrong, but is our approach really the best way to go about these big games away from home? The side is set up in such a way that we rarely play to stifle our opposition or sit in, but rather to overpower the other team with our own attacking style. But with the power and pace that the teams above us have at their disposal, this can and does end up being a costly mistake.
In my opinion, both these issues are the players’ and manager’s responsibility, but if the manager is responsible for his team then Arsène Wenger, despite his brilliance, must be held more accountable. I am and always have been a believer in and a defender of Wenger and his managerial ability and it’s not that I now suddenly want him to go, it’s the simple fact that my trust in him has, I think understandably, been shaken and thus weakened. I don’t want to delve into a managerial debate as I could write a whole other piece on it, but these issues must be addressed at some point and I think it’s more than fair to expect more from our club in the big games.
Having said all of this, I still feel that this season has shown so much promise and still has the potential to be a step in the right direction for Arsenal. Whether it’s either a big enough step or the step we all thought it would be is unclear for now, but I certainly think that Arsenal are, in general, on an upward curve. Something that would boost this progression and lift a weight off this football club, is the FA Cup. Keeping all that is concerning in our minds, we must still look forward to the weekend, a trip to Wembley and a chance for Arsenal and Arsène to book a place in the final of their beloved FA Cup. No matter how crap the past few weeks have been, there’s still a reason to be excited and a reason to smile. For now, whatever anyone’s view, it’s all about the cup.