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Trophyless Arsenal face same old questions, but still have no answers

Sunderland 2 Arsenal 0

Richardson 40, Oxlade-Chamberlain og 78

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Last season, Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League last-16 by Barcelona, and four days later exited the FA Cup at the hands of Manchester United. This evening, Arsenal were knocked out of the FA Cup by Sunderland just three days after effectively surrendering their place in the Champions League in Wednesday’s 4-0 drubbing by Milan.

Arsene Wenger made five changes from the defeat at the San Siro, including a return for Gervinho after missing a penalty in the shootout at the end of the Africa Cup of Nations final last weekend.

Fabianksi

Sagna – Djourou – Vermaelen – Coquelin

Song – Arteta

Ramsey

Oxlade-Chamberlain – van Persie – Gervinho

No full match report tonight, as I have no desire to relive one of the most depressing games it has ever been my misfortune to watch in gruesome detail. Not the most depressing, though – indeed it doesn’t even make my top five. In no particular order, the 1988 Littlewoods Cup final (all hail Gus Caesar), 1995 Cup Winners’ Cup final, 2000 UEFA Cup final, the 1991 FA Cup semi-final against Spurs and that 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford take pride – that’s not the righ word, is it? – of place in my personal chamber of Arsenal horrors.

Instead, here’s the story of the game as told by a series of increasingly traumatic tweets over the course of the 90 minutes.

With Kieran Gibbs rested as a precaution, the versatile Francis Coquelin stepped in out of position at left-back, only to pull up with a hamstring injury after just seven minutes as the Arsenal’s full-back injury curse struck yet again. Both Bacary Sagna and Aaron Ramsey also hobbled gingerly away after early tackles – Ramsey would be withdrawn shortly after half-time – and Coquelin’s replacement Sebastien Squillaci would also go off injured.

Chances were few and far between in a first half high on industry but low on goal-bound action. Arsenal had started well, but after Coquelin’s injury they were knocked out of their stride by Sunderland’s constant harrying. Robin van Persie might have earned a penalty after he was felled by John O’Shea, but replays suggested the defender might just have got a foot on the ball first.

Sunderland nearly broke through several times against the hesitant pairing of Squillaci and Johan Djourou, with the former struggling to deal with long high balls and the latter too often passive, hesitant and choosing to mark space rather than red-and-white shirts.

Inevitably, the Swiss defender played a major role in the opening goal. He dithered in possession, was caught out by Craig Gardner and conceded an unnecessary free-kick, for which he was booked. The set-piece was headed out by Thomas Vermaelen but fell to Kieran Richardson just inside the area. His angled drive flew through the crowd and took a deflection off the hapless Squillaci and past the stranded Lukasz Fabianski.

Djourou’s night nearly got worse early in the second half when he somehow got away with a dangerous two-footed tackle. It looked worthy of a straight red, but referee Howard Webb decided to not even show him a second yellow. It was a lucky escape for a defender who had an absolute stinker of a game and looks a million miles away from justifying his recent three-year contract extension.

With Arsenal pressing hard – but without ever troubling Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet – they fell victim to a classic sucker-punch. For the umpteenth time an Arsenal attack petered out in the final third as they tried in vain to thread their way through the middle. Sunderland sprang forward, with the irrepressible Stephane Sessegnon running at the heart of Arsenal’s defence before releasing former Gunner Sebastian Larsson down the right. Larsson’s shot hit the near post, rolled across goal and deflected in off the unlucky Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who to his credit had sprinted back in an attempt to help out.

Understandably, Arsenal’s shoulders dropped. Unforgivably, none of the Arsenal players close to Chamberlain made any move to comfort the youngster on his misfortune.

It says something when your best centre-back on the night is a stand-in midfielder, with both Djourou and Squillaci looking anything but experienced international defenders. But it is also a reflection of Arsenal’s defensive injury woes, with their three best centre-backs unable to play in the middle: Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker were injured, and Vermaelen was forced to play most of the game at left-back (again). Most other teams would also have struggled had they had to play most of the game with their fourth and fifth/sixth-choice central defenders.

The result will inevitably lead to much blood-letting among Arsenal fans and sensationalist headlines in the media, some of it justified. The usual questions about owner Stan Kroenke‘s hands-off approach, a lack of direction from the board, the club’s transfer policy and Wenger’s ability to arrest the team’s decline will all be raised. Many armchair managers will suggest simplistic solutions. However, the reality is that pragmatic answers will be difficult to find, and the time required to make the necessary changes happen may be far longer than large sections of the club’s impatient support will tolerate.

After the game, Arsene Wenger said:

We have to take the critics on board, stay together and face them. There is only one response in our job: stay united, fight and focus on the next game.

At the moment it is best to let people talk, criticise, analyse and destroy and on our side it is important to show internal strength and resilience and come out with a strong performance in our next game.

It’s a rhetorical question. Enough said.

I’m not convinced Wenger himself got much wrong tactically here, but his decision to put the out-of-form Theo Walcott on up front against a massed Sunderland defence did seem odd. Walcott is at his best when he has space to run at defenders, but he lacks the strength or guile to unlock teams who are determined to sit back and deny space. The fact that Marouane Chamakh remained rooted to the bench – and Park Ju Young was conspicuous by his complete absence from the 18-man squad – said everything about the dearth of options available to Wenger to supplement the over-worked van Persie.

For all Milan’s dominance in mid-week, their four goals came from a total of only five shots on target. Arsenal have a habit of conceding to an opponent’s first shot on target – as happened here – and having matches where their opponents somehow convert every chance into a goal. It no longer comes as a surprise to see that Arsenal managed to concede more goals than shots on target, as they did here. Familiarity makes it no less infuriating, though.

While I openly accept that Wenger has made mistakes in both this and recent seasons, the fact remains he has done a remarkable job over the last several years while ensuring that Arsenal remain a financially secure club. Yes, he has been overly conservative on several occasions when a more aggressive approach in the transfer market was warranted, but I firmly believe he remains one of the game’s great managers.

It may well be that Wenger has taken the club as far as he can and that change may be the only way to revitalise the team’s fortunes. But who out there could do a better job of rebuilding the squad for the long-term while still meeting fans’ expectations in the short-term? As Chelsea and Liverpool are currently discovering, it is a tall order to bounce back overnight.

The reality is that whoever eventually succeeds Wenger faces a major rebuilding challenge. Several players are either surplus to requirements or are determined to leave: Squillaci, Nicklas Bendtner, Carlos Vela, Denilson, Chamakh, Park, and arguably also Andrey Arshavin, Tomas Rosicky and the always-injured Abou Diaby. The departure of all or most of these would leave an already thin squad utterly threadbare.

There is also the likelihood that the club will be forced to sell van Persie this summer, which increases with every passing week. Chamakh and Park look likely to leave in the summer, which could potentially leave Arsenal with no recognised strikers. Add to that the underperforming Walcott who, like van Persie, also sees his contract enter its final year this summer.

Can any club realistically expect to challenge for honours in a season in which they have had to retool their entire strike force and half their squad? And how much more difficult will it be to attract top talent if Arsenal fail to finish in the Champions League places?

I’m not normally one to get too down after even a heavy defeat. Tonight, however, I am feeling utterly deflated and dispirited. Unlike some would-be experts, I don’t have any answers. We can only hope that Wenger – and, just as importantly, the players – can find some themselves.

Arsenal man of the match: None. Really, how could there be one?

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

One Response to Trophyless Arsenal face same old questions, but still have no answers

  1. Pingback: “Arsene knows best. Arsenal fans should realise the season isn’t over yet” |

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