Arsene Wenger’s Jazz ensemble drew 2-2 to Chelsea at the Emirates stadium in a pulsating contest where defense often took a back seat to the more important quality: entertainment.
In February of 2011, Arsenal lost the League Cup final to Birmingham thanks to a moment of madness in defense – a miscommunication between then keeper Wojciech Szczesny and center back Laurent Koscielny over who would claim a simple header. Neither man collected the ball and instead Obafemi Martins scored and sent the Birmingham City fans into backflips.
After the loss, Arsenal went into a tailspin: they lost to Barcelona in the Champions League (which was no shame at the time), Man U in the FA Cup, and three straight draws in the Premier League to Sunderland, West Brom, and Blackburn which saw them drop from 2nd in the League to 3rd. Wenger was assaulted on all sides by criticism that his teams tend to give up soft goals too easily and that they collapse mentally. On April 9th he defended his footballing philosophy with a Gladiator-esque “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” saying;
“My worry is to do as well as I can with the team and to get them to play decent football so that people who come and pay for their tickets are not bored. I have watched a lot of games in my life and I think we can have a clear conscience that we do not try to cheat our people. We don’t always manage to do it but people come to the games and we always try to give them something for the money they spend. There is always that ambition and if we do not manage to do it then we are sorry.”
After his speech, Arsenal won just two of their final eight matches, losing to Stoke, Bolton, and Aston Villa on their way to another 4th place trophy. That Summer, Cesc Fabregas called time on his Arsenal career and demanded a trade back to Barcelona. And the start of the 2011/12 Arsenal concede 16 goals in 7 games, including the infamous 8-2 loss to Man U.
Wenger’s response was to buy a bunch of experienced players: Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, and Yossi Benayoun. Arsenal even had to re-sign Thierry Henry in January to help them finish in the Champions League places.
That was 7 years ago and if Wenger’s goal has been to entertain, the fact that the football hasn’t changed much in 7 years and still relies on super individual effort is actually getting quite boring.
After yesterday’s match, Wenger blamed Maitland-Niles for the second goal saying “on the second goal he was a bit caught” but watch the replays again. Maitland-Niles is a right-footed player, he’s playing in a left back position, which is a madness all by itself. He has just put in 84 minutes of bombing up and down the pitch, marauding forward like the boss demands, and sprinting back on every play to cover the gaps left by the fact that Arsenal have four to six players who can’t or won’t play defense and no midfield cover at any time.
Maitland-Niles recovers well after Zappacosta’s neat little move won the Chelsea man some space but when he tries to block the cross, he has to do so with his left foot, which is always going to be nanoseconds slower for a right-footed player. Zappacosta’s cross gets past Maitland-Niles and finds Marcos Alonso who has gotten ball-side of his defender and who plays a simple touch shot into goal.
Look at this still below – that’s not a dangerous cross position, Maitland-Niles wasn’t beaten to the end line, Zappacosta isn’t driving into the heart of the Arsenal defense, it’s a bog average cross, hit low and hard, well struck but given the five Arsenal defenders and two Chelsea attackers, this should never have been a goal.
This goal is emblematic of Wenger’s time as Arsenal manager; defense is always the individual’s problem to figure out. The idea of a well drilled unit playing together, shouting, and someone telling Mustafi that Morata is going to get in front of him doesn’t exist at Arsenal. Earlier in the match, we saw Chambers and Mustafi yelling at each other over who was supposed to cover Morata when he bombed through on goal. Chambers defended himself by saying he thought Cech had the ball. Different players but the same problem as the League Cup Final 7 years ago.
There are three center backs and two wing backs in this frame. They are guarding a center forward and two more wing backs. And when anything goes wrong, which it always will because they aren’t drilled as a unit, it’s Maitland-Niles’ fault, or Mustafi’s fault, and the solution from the fans is always “sell him, buy someone who can do X better.”
If you’ve read Addicted by Tony Adams, Invincibles by Amy Lawrence, or any of the dozen or so books written about Arsenal’s glorious past under Arsene Wenger, one fact always sticks out: players like Vieira, Adams, and Campbell were the ones organizing the defense. After practice they would call meetings to discuss how they wanted to play together. Vieira was famous for his dinner parties where he would bring various players together to talk shop, specifically telling the midfield how to defend and why it was so important for them to at least pressure their opponents.
In this match against Chelsea Arsenal didn’t do any of those things, leading to what many have called a “pulsating” or “wide open” contest. After the match, Wenger reaches for the obvious, it was the penalty, a ridiculous decision he says, and he doesn’t care who hears him say it, he will defend himself against the onslaughts of the FA and all others.
But the penalty is a convenient excuse. It’s a penalty all day. I remember the mental contortions almost every Arsenal supporter went through to justify Eduardo’s dive as a legitimate penalty call – sure, there was no contact but Eduardo was trying to escape contact by Artur Boruc, thus it’s a penalty, they said – I said. And now today my twit-line is filled with people admitting that Bellerin kicked Hazard but then saying “not enough contact for me”, as if they have some pounds-per-square-inch measuring tool and that there is some actual standard for how referees should call a kick a penalty. All I know is that Hazard was kicked while trying to control the ball in the box, he reacted with a dive, and if Hazard was an Arsenal player I would want that called for Arsenal every time. I probably wouldn’t even complain about the fact that he grabbed his shin and I would laugh when an opposition fan called him a diver.
Arsenal’s levels dropped dramatically after the penalty, which is where the convenient excuse comes in. It’s ok if the team gives up for 10 minutes, they, after all, just got “robbed”. Except they didn’t get robbed. They gave up a stupid penalty which was entirely their own fault. Then they gave up a second goal, which Wenger pins on Maitland-Niles, his standout player of the night.
Arsenal supporters don’t want to acknowledge that prior to the penalty Chelsea seemed to have a free run on Arsenal’s goal. They were able to get almost any shot they wanted in the Arsenal 18 yard box. This was Arsenal, at home, against a Chelsea side that is not exactly a Liverpool or Man City style attack. Chelsea play with one forward, they have one free attacker, and a couple of wingbacks. None of the three center mids is expected to get forward in this model. This is not the attack of Firmino, Coutinho, Salah and Mane and certainly not at the level of de Bruyne, Jesus, Sane, Silva, Aguero, and Sterling – the attack which has scored a record 64 goals. Yet they carved Arsenal open time and again.
You won’t see Chelsea do this to City at the Etihad because the massive difference between Man City and Arsenal isn’t just that they spent a lot of money on their players – Arsenal have the third highest net spend over the last four years but it’s half of what City have spent – it’s that Guardiola has City playing organized football both in attack and defense. The City defense is almost never spoken about but it is the best defense in England and it’s not just “keep ball”. They move the ball in specific patterns in order to maximize their ability to win the ball back high up the pitch. This isn’t “gegenpressing” and it’s not the same as the Barcelona press – Guardiola is aware that the more his team has of the ball, the more he is vulnerable to swift counters, so he developed this specific pressing and passing style while he was at Bayern Munich, in order to limit the opposition’s chances on counters. And it works. Man City haven’t allowed an opponent to take double digit shots all season. Arsenal allowed Chelsea 10 shots in their 18 yard box before the penalty.
But what was truly incredible in this match yesterday was the fact that Arsenal couldn’t seem to make simple passes come off. Alexis was back to his worst, standing stock still on the left and spraying the ball around off his right foot aimlessly like one of the Emirates great sprinklers. Add to the dreadful basic passing, Arsenal’s midfielders couldn’t tackle, the forwards don’t finish well, the defense looks disorganized, and Petr Cech can’t even remotely seem to save penalties and I have to wonder what does Arsenal actually practice these days? Just 90 minute sessions of through balls and improvisation? Does Wenger offer lectures on “physics for poets”?
The penalty provides a convenient excuse and the emotional Arsenal comeback through Bellerin’s magnificent strike – which seemed to scream “DIVE ON THIS” – provides a sense that Arsenal are “real fighters” and “have mental strength”. But this team will not make top four in its current configuration. It’s not about personnel. It’s not about buying and selling. The problem with Arsenal is and has been structural.
The film “89” released recently – which recounts Arsenal’s glory win over Liverpool in 1989 – is a huge hit among fans and former players alike. And Arsenal supporters are on the edge of their seats hoping that Man City lose a match this season so that the Invincibles record Arsenal set in 2004 will be preserved. But if you look at this team and this manager today, all that’s left is memories. Wenger’s Arsenal no longer play beautiful football, they are no longer the envy of the world in their recruitment, they aren’t well organized in defense, they don’t pass the ball around until their opponents legs buckle from exhaustion, they are a mediocre team assembled on a big budget. Arsenal are a club and manager living on the past and they are nothing more than a palimpsest of the great jazz songs Wenger once wrote.