It was my timid hope before the game that the 0-0 draw against Chelsea in midweek was a bit of a turning point. A kind of springboard into league games, a platform, defensive first and foremost, which we can build on.
This timid hope was squashed as Arsenal reverted back to type. Without the departing Alexis Sanchez and injury-stricken Mesut Ozil, Wenger opted for Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck to support Alexandre Lacazette. The duo had exactly the impact I expect them to have, which is to say none at all.
Seriously, I can’t wrap my head around the decision to play either. A half-dead Aaron Ramsey would have made more of a ripple. I understand our options going into the game were stretched, so much so young Eddie Nketiah made the bench (no offence to the lad).
But we did have Ramsey and Kolasinac in the matchday squad, and that means they were ready. Why not play Kolasinac at left-back, move AMN into midfield and eliminate one of Iwobi/Welbeck by starting Wilshere higher up? It is crystal clear the Englishman is the only man capable of making a difference in the final ⅓ at the moment.
However while we can rue our blunted attacking impetus, it’s shakiness at the back that has cost us again. Wenger did indeed stick with Chambers, Holding and Mustafi, but none of them looked comfortable under pressure from Ibe and Wilson. Mustafi, tasked with spreading play and starting attacks, had a 60% pass completion. Dismal.
Petr Cech didn’t cover himself in glory too. He went off his line for the first, and completely missed the ball. If you commit yourself, you simply have to get the ball in this scenario. He didn’t, allowing Wilson to tap it in. For the second the ball somehow squeezed underneath the experienced shot-stopper.
Let me be perfectly clear here: Bournemouth are far from being world-beaters. They are (now) 13th in the table, with 11 losses and a hugely negative goal difference. Not so long ago Liverpool absolutely steamrolled Eddie Howe’s side at the Vitality Stadium.
No, it is us who made Bournemouth look decent by being bang average. We don’t look like a top four team. Liverpool are a top 4 team. They have just beaten the champions-elect, by a margin only made respectable by their outright crap defenders. You would be hard-pressed to make a case their defence is better than ours, at least when you look at the personnel.
We have become absolutely incapable of doing anything of note away from home. This was our 5th away loss, two of the other four were to Stoke, currently in relegation zone, and Watford, whose form is in the toilet. Bournemouth were 16th before this game, a point above the dreaded last three places. We were supposed to be much better, a side in 6th fighting for Champions League football. We weren’t.
And let’s be honest here: what possible chances of CL football do we have playing like this? Last year we finished 5th by a single point behind Pool, a flattering deceit, given how long we were playing like a steaming pile of corrosive goo. It was obvious long before our final push we were just not good enough to crack the top 4 enigma again.
It is obvious once more, and we are only midway through January. If we don’t make the top 4, and I’m pretty sure we won’t, no one in their right mind will feel hard done by. Not when you have performances such as yesterday to look back on.
But the thing that absolutely does my nut in is hopelessness. Nothing is going to change because we lost another game. Wenger will make some generic remarks about the quality of our performance, the players will post disappointed tweets with sad emojis and our majority owner will continue to stay well away.
At one point I said no PL club is afraid of us anymore when we come to town, and we got another confirmation of that yesterday. Bournemouth didn’t panic after conceding, didn’t retreat into their shells. They kept pecking away, creating chances and, in the end, were good value for the three points.
We just aren’t as good at football anymore, and this seems to come from the manager. But of course it does. Sides change when their managers change, they reflect their manager’s philosophy. Look at City, Liverpool or Chelsea. Even United. However much I dislike their manager, at least he has some sort of workable plan.
And Arsenal? Does it look like we have a plan? Our manager looks done. Simple as that. Not as in “his days are numbered”, because our Board clearly doesn’t have the backbone to sack him. He looks done tactically. His goose is cooked, he can no longer make this cat jump.
The individual brilliance of the much-maligned Alexis Sanchez, coupled with Mesut Ozil’s inventiveness kept us afloat more often than not this season. Without either player in the side we looked impotent, no clear idea of how we can go about winning. Jack Wilshere, with a long injury record and out of contract this summer, has been carrying us almost single-handedly.
You don’t need to have a hugely talented or expensively-assembled squad to implement a working plan. Look at how much West Ham, Crystal Palace or Leicester have improved after the respective arrivals of David Moyes, Roy Hodgson and Claude Puel. They look like a unit in the games I have seen and they will more than likely reach their goals for the season.
Wenger has some very expensive and very talented players demonstrating some bang average football, relying on individual skill to bail us out much too often. He is not doing his job properly, and what grinds my gears the most is lack of progression in young players like Iwobi and Holding. Both are clearly talented, yet both have just as clearly stagnated under the tutelage of a manager once renowned for his exceptional nurturing nous.
The last bit I wanted to talk about is today’s squad. It was very noticeable for the absence of a certain Chilean, who will most likely leave within the next couple of days, but it wasn’t his omission in itself that caused me pain. Rather it made me rue a lost opportunity.
When we signed Ozil and Alexis in consecutive summers it looked like we might be onto something. That we finally kick on, build on those acquisitions as well as tailor the squad around them. Arguably, we failed spectacularly to make those transfers count.
What we now have is a (mostly) ageing squad falling apart due to contractual limbo, a busted manager and a paralysed Board. It will be a miracle if we somehow scrap for top 4 this season, but an even bigger miracle if we manage to revitalise the squad and make it competitive for 18-19. I expect neither to happen.