In 2008, British sitcom The IT Crowd aired an episode called Are We Not Men? The running joke throughout was that one of the nerdy men would try to sound like he knows something about sports by saying “Did you see that ludicrous display last night?” This would prompt the other man to say “What was Wenger thinking, throwing on Walcott that early?” and then the nerdy man would reply “The thing about Arsenal is that they always try to walk it in.”
It’s funny because the last bit about trying to walk it in is true. Arsenal under Wenger have typically taken the fewest shots from outside the 18 yard box. It’s also funny because even 9 years ago, Arsenal were known for our “ludicrous displays”.
In Amy Lawrence’s most recent column she identified 20 matches in the last 5 years that were the goriest of horror shows. She’s taking us back to the 8-2 loss to Man U on 28 August 2011. Which is technically 6 years but was five full seasons ago. Who am I to quibble.
That season Arsenal had three major implosions: the 8-2, a 4-3 loss to Blackburn, and the 4-0 loss to AC Milan.
The next season, 2012/13 was pretty quiet. Arsenal lost a lot of the games against the top 4 opponents but there were no wholesale ass whuppins like the ones we got the year before. But by 2013/14, Arsenal’s curse came back with a vengeance.
We lost the home opener, 3-1 to Aston Villa. Man City put 6 past us in December and Liverpool won 5-1 in February. Chelsea hung another 6 on Arsenal on the occasion of Wenger’s 1000th game 22 March 2014. It was supposed to be a celebration, but it felt more like a funeral. After the match Wenger said “I take full responsibility” and his usual thing now about turning up for the next match. The next two matches would be draws: 2-2 to Swansea, and 1-1 to Man City.
Those two draws were followed by a 3-0 defeat to Everton. After that match Wenger criticized his team for letting in a soft goal and said “defensively we have to get back to basics. We have to defend much better than we did today.”
We are already up to 7. That’s 7 major, blockbuster, soul crushing, defeats. Arsenal were battered but not completely defeated, however. They won the FA Cup a few weeks later, overcoming a 2-goal lead by Hull, to win on an Aaron Ramsey goal in the final minute.
Maybe winning the FA Cup did the team some good. There were defeats the next year, 2014/15, but nothing like a 6-0. But I’m not as generous as Amy. Some of the lower scored defeats were just as crushing. And they form a pattern that I think a lot of Wenger’s staunchest supporters fail or refuse to see: after most of these defeats, Wenger blames his team.
Borussia Dortmund 2-0 Arsenal – 16 September 2014. Dortmund 22 shots, Arsenal 4. This was the match that convinced me that Arsenal were no where near the level needed to compete for the Champions League. Podolski forgets his shin pads. Graham Souness describes Arsenal as playing without a midfield. Wenger agrees, “They were stronger than us in the midfield.”
Swansea 2-1 Arsenal – 9 November 2014. Calum Chambers eviscerated by Montero. Martin Keown gives his analysis – “The Gunners got the balance of their team wrong in the closing stages at the Liberty Stadium. For them to throw it away after what happened in midweek was quite unbelievable. At 1-0 up, with 15 minutes to go, when they should have been solid, they committed too many players forward. There were seven Arsenal players ahead of the ball in the opposition’s third of the pitch when Swansea broke away to win the free-kick from which Gylfi Sigurdsson scored their equaliser.” and “So, the key was not to run the risk of leaving themselves isolated and exposed at the back. Arsenal did that for Swansea’s first goal, when there was a huge gap between their defence and midfield. Everyone charging forward meant only Gibbs and the two centre-halves were in contact, which was criminal. They paid the price.” Does that sound familiar? It’s 2017 and we just heard that exact criticism from almost every pundit after Arsenal’s 4-0 loss to Liverpool.
Arsenal 1-2 Man U – 22 November 2014 – Gibbs own goal. Gibbs was dropped for the next match but Monreal injury early in the very next game allows him to return. Wenger says “At the moment defensively we are a bit naive.” Gibbs would play a few more matches but as soon as Monreal was healthy again, Gibbs was permanently benched.
Stoke 3-2 Arsenal – 6 December 2014 – Wenger confronted on the platform in Stoke train station. Joel Campbell told to get out while he still can. He didn’t. Wenger says “We were not decisive enough in the defensive challenges. They started strong, you have to give them credit for that. We were a bit inexperienced at the back. We couldn’t play Koscielny or Monreal and altogether we were a bit soft to cope with what they offered us.” Chambers gets a red card. He is used for the remainder of the season sparingly. The next year he is dropped. Then loaned.
Southampton 2-0 Arsenal – 1 January 2015 – The Szczesny Match – Wenger says “They defended better than us in the final third and we made two big mistakes on the goals. That’s the difference for us.” Szczesny is dropped and a story circulated that he was smoking in the showers. Szczesny becomes Arsenal’s cup keeper. Then is loaned. Then sold. He now plays for Juventus.
Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal – 7 February 2015 – Arsenal battered 23 shots to 7 – Wenger says, “The only regret I have today is that we gave two cheap goals away.” This was my first indication that Tottenham were better than Arsenal and that they might win the League. Leicester won the League but the underlying stats actually favored Tottenham.
Arsenal 1-3 AS Monaco – 25 February 2015 – Wenger says “It is just not right to give goals away the way we did. We missed chances and were suicidal defensively.”
Bayern Munich 5-1 Arsenal – 4 November 2015. The 2015/16 Champions League season opener.
Southampton 4-0 Arsenal – 26 December 2015. The Premier League is a shambles and Arsenal have a chance to go top of the table. Arsenal were pushed around in midfield, Ronald Koeman deploys Victor Wanyama and he wins all of the midfield duels with 6 tackles and 10 interceptions. After the match, Wenger blamed the referees. “We lost too many challenges and that explains why we lost the game. But that’s one aspect, so well done to them.The second aspect is that on the first three goals we were really unlucky with the decision of the referee. The first goal was offside, the second goal was a foul and the third goal was a goal kick, so if you’re a bit below par and on top of that you have the first three goals against you in the decision-making then it’s even more difficult.”
Arsenal 0-1 Chelsea – 24 January 2016 – Yet another chance to overtake Leicester at the top of the table. Per Mertesacker is given a red card for a foul on Costa in the 18th minute. Arsenal lose just 1-0 with a Costa goal. But after the match, in a now familiar pattern with Arsene, Mertesacker is dropped for the next two matches (after his suspension) and played in a few cup games, benched again after a 2-0 loss to Barcelona, played, then benched. He is Arsenal’s captain and hasn’t played in any of the last 105 Premier League matches. I once called dropping the captain the “nuclear” option, meaning that you only get to do it once before you lose credibility. Mertesacker was the third captain Arsene dropped, the first was Gallas. The second was Vermaelen.
Barcelona 5-1 Arsenal – 16 March 2016. Aggregate score 5-1 over two legs. Arsenal once beat Barcelona. When they were Barcelona in the pomp. Now Arsenal routinely beaten by top teams in the Champions League.
Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal – 4 February 2017. An emphatic beating by the eventual champions. Wenger given an excuse when Chelsea’s first goal looked to be a horrible foul on Bellerin by Alonso. Though Wenger does accept some responsibility, I mean, he assigns some responsibility to the players “On the second goal we were really naive. We were not clinical enough in our defending.”
Bayern Munich 5-1 Arsenal – 15 February 2017. Wenger is clearly rattled after the match. Arsenal’s naivety doesn’t seem to be disappearing. And not only that but Arsenal now seem to have a habit of conceding goals when they have taken a corner. He says “I think we were unlucky on the second goal – the referee gives a corner for us, the ball is on the pitch and we concede the second goal. I think the most important thing in the second half is we lost Koscielny very early and it looked like we collapsed. We mentally collapsed.”
Liverpool 3-1 Arsenal – 4 March 2017. Yeah. This was the match where Wenger dropped Sanchez after some reports of unrest among the players. Then after a horrible performance in the first half, Wenger brought him on in the second half. “Our performance was not at the level we expect in the first half but that is down to a lack of rhythm, we have not played for a while. The collective response was very strong in the second half.” Arsenal would never recover and finished the season in 5th place.
Arsenal 1-5 Bayern Munich – 7 March 2017. 10-2 on aggregate. Arturo Vidal is man of the match. Koscielny red card. Wenger contract turmoil. Alexis unrest. Fans fighting in the stands. Wenger blames the referee, “The referee was very very powerful for Bayern tonight.”
West Bromwich Albion 3-1 Arsenal – 18 March 2017. Arsenal’s 4th defeat in 5 League games. Arsenal concede two goals off corners to the team who have scored more goals off corners than any other team. WBA were playing under Tony Pulis who has, throughout his entire time as a manager, played for set piece goals. After the match, Wenger said that they were naive… “It was a tough performance. They caught us on set-pieces and one break and that made the difference. Overall our record against set-pieces is quite good. We were a bit naive, maybe, on the corners. Then we were punished. It’s a shame.”
Crystal Palace 3-0 Arsenal – 10 April 2017. Michael Butler, working for the Guardian, summarizes the match thus: “For Arsenal, that should all but confirm their first season outside the Champions League places in 21 seasons. But it is not just the defeat that is so damning here, it is the manner in which they folded. Sanchez and Ozil were as bad as I’ve seen them all season, and without Koscielny, they look so poor at the back, bereft of leadership. You can’t see Arsenal announcing a Wenger contract extension any time soon. They lost 3-0, and the biggest disappointment is that nobody is particularly shocked.” Wenger promises a response. Arsenal get a response: Wenger invents the back three.
Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 Arsenal – 30 April 2017. Arsenal’s new look back three has given some stability to the team but once again Arsenal’s midfield is overrun. Wanyama owns Xhaka. Spurs took 20 shots to Arsenal’s 12. They created 5 big chances to Arsenal’s 0. Wenger blames the offense. “We couldn’t afford to lose the game. We didn’t score, we didn’t score at Palace or West Brom. We have to play more and create more than we did.” The final score is flattering. Arsenal are out of the Champions League places. Fans are nearly united in calling for Wenger to resign.
Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal – 27 August 2017. Wenger doesn’t resign, he re-signs for two more years at Arsenal. Ivan Gazidis calls for a “catalyst for change”. Alexis wants out of the club. Ox wants out of the club. Ozil’s PR firm keep fans on his side but he too looks like he wants out of the club. Mustafi wants out of the club. Wenger sells Gabriel. Wenger plays a back three to start, then switches to a back four. Arsenal are overrun in midfield. Arsenal are overrun in defense. Arsenal concede a goal from their own corner. Daniel Taylor in the Guardian says,
Where to start? As tragicomedies go, it doesn’t get much better than Granit Xhaka trying to back-heel the ball to his own goalkeeper and putting it out for a corner. There was the attack when Georginio Wijnaldum took the ball past Aaron Ramsey, then went back to do it again. Or how about the moment Rob Holding aimed a simple pass out to Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right and could not even get that right? Holding missed his team-mate by several yards and gave away a throw-in. It might be harsh to pick out one player after a performance of this nature but Holding looks out of his depth and opponents have worked that out. He looked shot before an hour had been played and, for his own sake, he could probably do with a spell out of the team now.
Wenger says “I think overall the performance from back to forward was not at the level requested and it raises many questions. I still believe you have to think these players are good enough but it is sure that today we were not at the level.”
It’s not the players. There have been dozens of players at Arsenal who have been dropped, called naive, and blamed for Arsenal’s losses. It’s the manager. The manager is to blame if the players he buys aren’t “at the level”. The manager is to blame if his players are “naive” – it’s his job to teach them not to be naive. The manager is even to blame for the players not performing to the level requested. If the players are refusing to play for him, then he needs to go. But more than just Wenger, this is a top down problem. Ivan Gazidis, Josh Kroenke, and Stan Kroenke all let this situation get to this point.
Ivan Gazidis and looked back at the last five years, at all these defeats, these humiliating losses, and the repetitive nature of those defeats and came up with this quote:
If you look across the world of football, you don’t find better candidates than Arsene Wenger.
All I would ask him is “Did you see that ludicrous display last night?”