Arsenal F.C. - Look In the Mirror

by - September 09, 2017


Whenever Arsenal lose a match, there is inevitably a reaction, and in some cases these reactions may be emotional and over the top, the subsequent response is generally accusatory towards fans of the club, accusing them of being reactionary and basing their disappointment, anger, dejection, resentment, etc. over 2 or 3 games, like Stoke and Liverpool (and the subsequent, but justified meltdown from fans after the Liverpool game). However, it is clear to anyone who has followed Arsenal or is merely aware of the club's results over the past few seasons, particularly in high profile matches, that these reactions, often exemplified by Arsenal Fan TV, another irrelevant civilian in the big book of excuses of those who continue to back Arsene Wenger, are not based on 2 or 3 games. They are based on similar results in the same fixtures against the same opponents in the same manner season in, season out. I am not going to pretend that Arsenal have the home support of Borussia Dortmund or Celtic, however, the lack of atmosphere at The Emirates Stadium (a stadium not exactly designed for a brilliant atmosphere, may I add) is a completely separate conversation to fans' increasing apathy, anger, indifference, resentment, and whatever else they feel after being consistently let down in big away games. The poor stadium atmosphere at The Emirates is symptomatic of English football in general, and many of the most vocal criticisms of Arsene Wenger and all things Arsenal have been by fans (often on Arsenal Fan TV) who are part of Arsenal's brilliant away support, who consistently sell out, turn up in their thousands and are a very vocal bunch, unlike the more bourgeois crowd at The Emirates. Yes, there may be issues with the atmosphere and this dosen't always help, but it is largely irrelevant in a conversation where Arsene Wenger continues to make the same tactical errors every season and a top 5/6 club who with reasonable regularity get blitzed, outplayed or outright hammered by other "top" sides, or in recent months even West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace, this is all before factoring in that Arsenal have recorded 2 wins away from home vs top half opponents in the last two seasons combined (a convincing 2-5 win at Leicester in 15/16 and a 0-2 win at Southampton away in 16/17).

Arsenal have consistently made the same mistakes against the same opponents in the same manner, often at the same time of year and at the same stadiums/grounds, season in, season out. Annoying how often I mentioned the word "same"? Imagine how annoying it is to watch a club repeat these mistakes every season, have no hope of any accountability and then have excuses made for the man making these tactical errors, which often result in humiliating results against direct rivals. And if you dare criticise it or have a voice, you will be labelled "entitled". The plight of clubs such as Portsmouth, Leyton Orient, Leeds United, Coventry City, Blackburn Rovers and others is leveled at rightfully critical and annoyed Arsenal fans, a disingenuous argument with seemingly no awareness of the concept of different standards at different football clubs. Pep Guardiola was sacked and many Bayern Munich fans were unhappy because he did not win the UEFA Champions League, despite the fact that he reached 3 semi finals and this would be progress at a club like Arsenal. However, I as an Arsenal fan understand that Bayern are a bigger club with higher expectations, and Guardiola was rightfully criticised for the manner of his semi final exits, the fact that Arsenal or Tottenham fans would be happy with a Champions League semi final is irrelevant. The plight of these clubs is far worse and not comparable to Arsenal, obviously, but it is an irrelevant point as it can be used in any context to deflect from criticism, it is used cynically to avoid criticising Arsene Wenger and Arsenal for those with an inability to remove emotion from the equation when analysing Arsenal, or by fans of those clubs who are frustrated that Arsenal fans moan and express discontent. This is absurd, as Arsenal fans expect to at the very least challenge for the title, now and again, or go further than the round of 16 in Europe every now and again, not to win everything in sight, and Arsenal is a more than big enough club to justify the former expectations. Different football clubs have different expectations, and when a club fails to meet them, or fails to even challenge in any way, combined with a lack of accountability and repeated errors, fans should moan, whine, protest or even boycott the football club.

Arsenal fans may well be a spoiled, entitled bunch. However, many were more tolerant of the manager and board during a nine year trophy drought, compared to the recent period where Arsenal have won 3 trophies in 4 seasons. The anger is evidently tied to the fact that even in 15/16, where every single one of Arsenal's percieved rivals and clubs on an equal or better financial footing performed unbelievably poorly or were in transition, coupled with Leicester winning the league, Arsenal could still not even challenge for the league title, required a complete collapse from Tottenham Hotspur to finish 2nd on 71 points, and once again finished 10 or more points behind the champions, something Arsenal have achieved on all but two occasions since their last title winning season in 2003/2004 (in 2007/2008 and 2013/2014). The 13/14 season is another example of this, where Arsenal won the FA Cup, and fans rejoiced. However, there was discontent over the course of the season. Even when Arsenal were top of the league during the early exchanges, they had taken less points from the same fixtures played in 2012/13, Arsenal's season of course unraveled, losing 6-3 at Manchester City, 5-1 at Anfield, 6-0 at Stamford Bridge, 3-0 at Goodison Park and perhaps worst of all, taking just 1 point and failing to score a goal against David Moyes' Manchester United team. I fail to see how fans are to blame for the tactical set up or personnel in these matches, especially as fans often outsung the home support during this humiliating encounters. Outlets like Arsenal Fan TV do not set the team up, take training, dictate the tactics or ridiculously open style of play in big away games, pick the team or make substitutions. If anything, Arsenal Fan TV's first video was in the 2012/2013 season, Arsenal had won nothing for 7 years at that time, soon to be 8. Since 2013/2014, Arsenal have won 3 FA Cups in 4 seasons, with Arsenal Fan TV becoming a high profile channel for fans and trolls alike in 2014. Correlation does not equal causation, and this is a prime example, however, I point this out as I fail to see the role AFTV has played in making the same mistakes over and over again tactically at home and in Europe, this is merely a cynical excuse used by those who cannot remove sentiment and emotion from the equation. 10+ points off of the league champion consistently, without any prospect of improving in this regard despite signing Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech is unacceptable.

European Failures - In the same manner, at the same stage.

The FA Cup was brilliant to win, especially against Chelsea last season. However, this is one, 6 game competition in a long season. If anyone expects this to take away from frustrations regarding failures in terms of league progression and seeing no title challenge, as well as being knocked out of the Champions League in the round of 16 for 7 consecutive seasons, and in 6 of those being 2 or more goals down from the first leg, they need a reality check. It has been virtually the only competition Arsenal have been competitive in for years, and fair play, we've won it on 3 occasions, but it should not in any way allow Wenger, the board or the players off the hook. In recent seasons, Anderlecht, Monaco, Olympiacos and Bayern have all scored 3 or more goals at The Emirates in the Champions League. Many point to Arsenal's "tough draws" as the reason for Arsenal not contesting a UCL quarter final since the 2009/2010 season, and on the surface of it, especially when The Gunners have consistently drawn Bayern Munich or Barcelona, this seems like a decent excuse, dosen't it? That is until you remember that Arsenal drew these clubs often as a result of failing to top the group stage, at times in comical fashion. In 2010/2011, Arsenal failed to top a group with Shakhtar Donetsk, Braga and Partizan Belgrade, despite winning their opening three games 5-1, 6-0 and 1-3 against the opposition listen above respectively, Arsenal also took a 0-1 lead through Theo Walcott in the away game against Shakhtar in Ukraine, however, unlike managers who many Wenger apologists love to mock, for example Mourinho, Arsene Wenger failed to set up his team in a disciplined manner, ensure they stay compact and at the very least avoid defeat, The Gunners crushed through a 2-1 loss,with former Arsenal striker Eduardo Da Silva netting the winner, an uninspiring performance in Braga then saw Arsenal crash to a 2-0 defeat, before an uninspiring 3-1 win against Partizan Belgrade at home, which was ultimately not enough for top spot. Shakhtar, the group winners drew Roma and advanced through the quarter finals, and despite an enthralling win in an open game at The Emirates and a disciplined performance at The Nou Camp, The Gunners lost 4-3 on aggregate after a dubious red card for Robin Van Persie. This was the only occasion that Arsenal gave themselves a fighting chance and did not go into the second leg losing by 2 or more goals, and Wenger deserves credit for really testing and for large parts of the second leg stifling arguably the greatest team of all time. However, the sympathy is limited given the fact that Arsenal would have drawn Roma had they been less tactically naive and more defensively astute in the group stages, they threw away a fantastic position and a chance to face a far less daunting opponent. In 2011/2012, Arsenal topped a group with Olympique Marseille, Olympiacos and Borussia Dortmund. They drew AC Milan in the round of 16, who bitter rivals Tottenham Hotspur had eliminated the previous season, they lost the first leg 4-0, and despite a rally in the second leg which saw The Gunners win 3-0 (a lead they amassed before half time), a mixture of poor finishing and fatigue proved fatal as they had left themselves with too much to do. In 2012/2013, Arsenal failed to top a group consisting of Schalke 04 (the group winners, who beat Arsenal 0-2 at The Emirates and whom Arsenal threw away a 0-2 advantage against in Gelsenkirchen to draw 2-2), Olympiacos and Montepellier. Schalke 04 drew Galatasaray, Arsenal drew Bayern, and despite a heroic 0-2 win at The Allianz, the 1-3 reverse at The Emirates Stadium proved critical, with Wenger once again setting up a team to play Bayern, seemingly the same way as if he was playing Norwich City or Sheffield United at home. Many of these issues stemming from his persistence with small, technical players in midfield without a complimentary partner, such as a Nemanja Matic, Victor Wanyama, Yaya Toure, more defensive minded players, such as Casemiro or even more technical defensive midfielders, the likes of Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso. In 2013/2014, Arsenal faced a tricky group stage, with Borussia Dortmund, Napoli and Marseille their opponents. Marseille finished on 0 points, however the other three sides all finished on 12, with Borussia Dortmund topping the group, Arsenal finished second and Napoli third. These of course were 3 teams of similar ability and is a more understandable scenario, however, Arsenal going into matchday 6 needed just a point to guarantee top spot in the group away to Napoli. This is no easy task, however, given how many Wenger apologists slate managers like Jose Mourinho or Diego Simeone, they could have used a manager of their mould on a night like this. The Gunners failed to hang on and ended up scraping second place, with Napoli registering a 2-0 win. The Gunners underperformed, rarely threatened and failed to stifle Napoli. Dortmund drew Zenit St. Petersburg as a result of topping the group, Arsenal drew Bayern again, and despite a decent performance for the first half an hour against the Bavarians, they lost 3-1 on aggregate, once again going into the second leg losing by 2 goals (0-2). 2014/2015 is perhaps the most infuriating tale of them all, however. Arsenal finished second in a group containing Borussia Dortmund, Anderlecht and Galatasaray. A woeful performance away in Dortmund, culminating in a 2-0 loss and blowing a 3-0 lead at home to Anderlecht to draw 3-3 the killer blow for Arsenal, especially in a season where Dortmund, who topped the group, finished 7th in the Bundesliga and all of their worst form by and large came in the first half of the season (during the group stages), where they were not only in the relegation zone in their domestic league, but rock bottom at one point.

Arsenal, however, got a stroke of luck. They drew Monaco, and not the Monaco of 2016/2017, they drew a Monaco side who just a few months later would fail to progress from a UEFA Europa League group containing Tottenham, Anderlecht and Qarabag. Dortmund, meanwhile, drew Juventus. The Gunners dodged a bullet, seemingly, except a 1-3 defeat to home to Monaco, despite the use of a natural defensive midfielder in Coquelin and a decent run of form in the run up to the first leg, the same issues were there, Arsenal could not break down a well organised Monaco defence and were horribly exposed by some vary basic counter attacking football, as well as giving their opponents far too much space in dangerous areas. A 0-2 win in Monaco (once again, "heroic" failure) proved not to be enough, and the Gunners crashed out once again. The 2016/2017 group stage draw saw a slight change, with only Champion clubs (of the top leagues) being in Pot 1, Arsenal drew Bayern Munich, Olympiacos and Dyanmo Zagreb. Arsenal took 0 points from their opening two games, after defeats in Zagreb and at home to Olympiacos, leaving Wenger's men in an unenviable position. However, after a tactical masterclass vs Bayern, where The Gunners gave up possession, played on the break and scored once they introduced a target man from a set piece, having threatened from the break all night, recorded a 2-0 win after a very rare tactical masterclass from Wenger. It was a magnificent performance, and reinforced my theory that Arsenal are better without the ball when they look to attack with pace on the counterattack in big games, supported by the fact that Arsenal had less of the ball in recent wins over Chelsea at home, Man United at home, Man City away, Liverpool at home, the aforementioned Bayern game and a couple of others. Arsenal set up with a natural defensive midfielder, recognised their opponents' technical superiority, set up accordingly and recorded a deserved win, relying on Petr Cech to be in fine form, but that is to be expected. However, that was followed by a typical 5-1 defeat at The Allianz, Arsenal however beat Dynamo Zagreb 3-0 in a routine home win and a Giroud masterclass saw them trounce Olympiacos 0-3 in Greece, to pull off a "great escape" and pip Olympiacos for second. What happened next? Bayern drew Juventus, a side that Arsenal would have likely lost to comfortably under Wenger, so topping the group (much like in 2016/2017) was not as essential. Arsenal drew Barcelona, with the first leg at Emirates Stadium and after holding their own, with some luck but also some decent chances of their own for an hour or so, they were naive, started to throw bodies forward including pushing the full backs high, as if they were aching for a winner against Wolverhampton Wanderers, not playing Barcelona in the Champions League, they were caught on the break, Messi scored against Cech for the first time (in his first appearance vs him while at Arsenal, after facing him in 05/06, 06/07, 08/09 and in 11/12 vs Chelsea). Arsene Wenger then made a like for like substitution, bringing on a finished Mathieu Flamini for Francis Coquelin, at a time when a risk was required, not a substitution where you bring on an inferior player in the same position and role. Flamini gave away a silly penalty, Messi converted, 0-2. Arsenal once again went into the second leg trailing by 2 or more goals, Barcelona were professional and also won the second leg by a 2 goal margin, winning 3-1 with some ease, 5-1 on aggregate, Arsenal eliminated at the round of 16 stage, again. In 2016/2017, Arsenal drew PSG, Basel and Ludogorets in their UEFA Champions League group. A fantastic goalkeeping performance and well taken goal from Alexis Sanchez earned Arsene Wenger's men a somewhat undeserved, but important 1-1 draw in Paris, before convincing wins against Basel (2-0, could have been 7 or 8, in truth) and Ludogorets (6-0), things were looking up, Arsenal came back from a woeful start in Bulgaria, where they conceded 2 early goals (troubling signs, in a month where Arsenal won two games in all competitions) to win 2-3, with Mesut Ozil scoring arguably the goal of the tournament. Defensive issues proved their downfall again in matchday 5, as despite coming back from a cheap Edinson Cavani strike to win 2-1, Arsenal conceded a goal due to amateurish defending from set pieces. The match finished 2-2, and by virtue of PSG scoring 2 away goals in the head to head table, The Gunners seemed destined to miss out on top spot in the group stage once again. However, PSG could only salvage a draw against Ludogorets on matchday 6, this combined with Arsenal's emphatic 1-4 victory against Basel ensured Arsene Wenger's men topped their group by two points and unbeaten. Seemingly nothing to complain about? However, performances against Liverpool, PSG home and away, Tottenham, Man United, Everton and Man City (and with just one win vs top 7 opponents at that stage, a 3-0 victory against a Chelsea team deploying a 4-1-4-1 formation), the alarm bells were ringing for many of the realists in the Arsenal fanbase. Arsenal were somewhat unlucky in the draw, as they drew Bayern. However, Atletico Madrid, a club historically smaller than Arsenal, with far less success in "modern" (post 1992) football and less resources, managed to contain Bayern and knock them out during the semi finals of the 2015/2016 season. Arsenal were doing well for a period in the game, with the scores tied at 1-1 at half time, seemingly we would have a contest. However, once Laurent Koscielny went off injured, it all changed. Arsenal conceded 3 goals in the space of 10 minutes, many will point to Koscielny's injury as the catalyst for this, but how can any big club justify the manner of goals Arsenal conceded, the lack of basic organisation and an immediate and complete capitulation. Bayern added a hilarious/shambolic 5th, and Arsenal were 5-1 down from the first leg. An early Theo Walcott strike in the first leg was cancelled out by Robert Lewandowski's penalty, Koscielny was controversially sent off and Arsenal capitulated, as the tie was already over this was slightly more understandable due to Arsenal flooding bodies forward, but the manner and ease of the goals was once again deeply concerning, as was the aggregate scoreline, 10-2. It was the seventh round of 16 knockout in a row and the sixth consecutive round of 16 tie in which Arsenal were a minimum of 2 goals behind going into the second leg. Shambles.

After the Monaco debacle in 2014/2015, I was curious to see what clubs had reached the quarter finals in the period that Arsenal had failed to. Of course clubs such as Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, as well as sides such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and PSG. However, I found that many clubs, poorer in resources or history when compared to Arsenal, most of the time both, had managed this feat, often on multiple occasions. I remembered a list of clubs and often used it in arguments against those who defended Wenger or downplayed Arsenal's prospects. However, in 2016/2017, I did not need to remember it, as it was now well documented, several media outlets, journalists and generic Twitter accounts had complied a list, which had of course grown since 2015. Clubs such as Tottenham, Benfica, Monaco, Porto, Malaga, Galatasaray, Shakhtar Donetsk, Schalke 04, Marseille, Apoel Nicosia, Wolfsburg and Liecester City had all reached a Champions League quarter final (or further, in some cases on multiple occasions) in the time that Arsenal have failed to do so. Clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid have also managed to reach 3 finals between them, knockout Europe's elite such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern and take those clubs to within the final minute, extra time or penalties in the final. This is why Arsenal fans are right to be angry and protest.

Arsenal consistently do not get anywhere near challenging for the league or in Europe, they are consistently 10 or more points away from the league champion and it has not improved since they have come out of their frugal period after the stadium move and the Champions League performances speak for themselves, consistently out in the round of 16 and generally without any real hope or prospects before the second leg. 3 FA cup wins in 4 years is fantastic, but it does not make up for the woeful form in the two main competitions, especially considering how far away Arsenal are from even competing, and how other clubs have managed to perform despite also being financially limited compared to the "big boys".

Slate Arsenal fans, Arsenal Fan TV, bloggers and pundits all you want, but if you want Arsenal to optimise their chances of success, that anger and frustration should be vented at Stan Kroenke, the Arsenal board and Arsene Wenger. 

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