I don’t know how to write this article today.
I guess I just hit the keys and words come out. If they don’t make sense, I apologize.
Arsenal lost to Atletico Madrid. Arsenal lost the Europa League. Arsenal lost in the most predictably frustrating Arsenal way.
First, Arsenal lost Laurent Koscielny to a ruptured Achilles. Here was Arsene Wenger’s most loyal and beloved defender, the one guy who has put up with Wenger’s insane defensive demands, the guy who had the pace to recover in Arsene’s high-line-two-men-against-sixty-yards-of-space-defense, the guy who had the footballing brain to read the danger in the Arsenal system, the guy whose recovery tackles and strength saved Arsenal dozens and dozens of goals, the guy who could start Arsenal’s attack from the back. Here was that guy, dying on the pitch for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal. He’s had this injury all season long and if you’ve ever had an Achilles problem you know: the first thing the doctors tell you is that it’s not if but when that thing will snap.
The second thing that doctors will tell you about Achilles problems is that when it does snap, it’s the worst pain you’ve ever felt. I’m not bitter or angry with Arsene or Koscielny over the decision to play him this season. They both knew that surgery would end his career – it’s six months, minimum, to recover and you never fully recover. Knowing that, I am sure Koscielny choose to play this final season until the tendon snapped. He consciously chose this path, he chose the inevitable pain.
More than any player, I think Koscielny symbolically represents Arsene’s Arsenal since 2008. So, of course it had to happen last night. Of course that had to be the end of Koscielny’s career. As he lay crumpled on the pitch, writhing in agony, so too did Wenger’s final days at Arsenal.
And of course once Koscielny went off, Arsenal had to be beaten with a counter attack goal. Arsenal had to fail to clear a long punt up the pitch from the keeper. Arsenal’s midfield had to be pulled apart and leave 60 yards of space on the right for one player to cover. Arsenal had to leave that space to Diego Costa, the Brazilian Didier Drogba. And Bellerin had to switch off. It wouldn’t have been the perfect example of Arsene’s final decade of Arsenal if those things hadn’t happened.
There’s a joke from the television show The IT Crowd, where they say “the thing about Arsenal is that they always try to walk the ball in.” That joke was written in 2008. Ten years ago. And last night, Arsenal tried to walk the ball in.
Arsenal could have gone to Madrid and given them possession. Arsenal could have kicked the ball out of play constantly and tried to hit them on the counter. Arsenal could have gone there with a second plan. But that wouldn’t be the Arsenal as we know it. That Arsenal didn’t even exist in the first leg, when Arsenal were up 1-0 against a team that doesn’t score many goals, against 10 men, and kept attacking like they needed to win the game 5-0. It wouldn’t have been Arsenal if they had a second plan.
It wouldn’t have been Arsenal is the big money players stepped up, either. It was Vieira’s penalty miss which lost the 1999 Europa League final to Galatasaray. It was Henry’s glaring miss that lost the 2006 Champions League final to Barcelona. It was Ozil passing twice instead of shooting which lost the Europa League cup in 2018. It had to be that way, and Ozil had to be the focus of Martin Keown’s ire after the match.
And we couldn’t be late Arsene Arsenal if we didn’t argue amongst ourselves over whether or not every player on the team sucks. There’s an argument out there right now which goes “we can’t judge the players until we see them with a new manager.” I get the logic of that, and there have been a few players who have moved on, especially in the last two years with Gnabry, Ox, and Debuchy looking pretty good, though the number of players who have gone on to be pretty poor after leaving Arsenal in that same time is just as enlightening. Perhaps Xhaka will turn out to be a Pirlo-type, if we can only play him alongside a Pogba (Ramsey) and a Vidal (Maitland-Niles?) in a system which takes advantage of those player’s attributes, then we will know for sure.
But Xhaka in particular, and go ahead and tune out right now if you’re prone to getting angry about people’s differing opinions, has shown the exact same defect for his entire career. Before we were even linked to Xhaka I was a fan of his stats. I wrote several articles describing him as the perfect replacement for Arteta. It was the long passing, see, that’s what got me. It’s one of the stats I look for in a player to tell if they are truly a talented midfielder, if you can consistently nail the long passes, you’re good.
But there were dissenting voices even back then about Xhaka’s work rate on defense. Naveen warned me, showing me clips of Xhaka sauntering back on defense time and again while at Borussia Monchengladbach. Naveen also warned us that his red cards were born out of a singular inability to read defensive plays, get into position, and make good tackles. He has been a lazy defender his entire career, he is out of position all the time, he has always dived in to tackles like a complete fool. But when he came to Arsenal, I didn’t listen, touting instead Xhaka’s “line-breaking” passes and his ability to spray crosses 40 yards to any corner like a sprinkler.
And last night, he did a weird thing again in defense. Yes, he was the only player to get a shot on target for Arsenal, yes he’s a fantastic passer who rarely turns the ball over, but after the ball was punted up field, Xhaka failed to read the danger and instead of covering the space, ran over to Griezmann and did some kind of weird “juke” defense. Remember how Szczesny used to try to “trick” people on penalties by juking around in the net? Xhaka did that. He faked going the right way (toward his own goal) to try to get Griezmann to go the wrong way. Griezmann just wrinkled his brow and made the simple pass to Costa.
In the book, Pep Confidential, Guardiola describes how you break down opponents:
“The secret is to overload one side of the pitch so the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope,” Guardiola said. “When you’ve done that, we attack and score from the other side. That’s why you have to pass the ball with a clear intention. Draw in the opponent, then hit them with the sucker punch.”*
That’s how you beat Arsenal with Xhaka in midfield. You just play the ball around until he gets out of shape, then you pass it around him to the open man 50 yards away. Atletico was doing that to Arsenal all night. So much so that Monreal was reduced to running around grabbing people well out of his area on the right. Monreal covered for Xhaka, not the other way around.
Maybe a new manager will suddenly give Xhaka a brain. Maybe. I think, however, that this line about not being able to judge players until we get a new manager sounds a lot like what people used to say about Wenger. That we can’t judge Wenger properly until the financial shackles come off. That didn’t turn out so well.
Even if Xhaka is given cover (imagine having to play a guy behind the deep-lying playmaker) teams will know that he’s a liability in midfield and they will intentionally pull Arsenal apart to create one-v-ones with Xhaka. He will be exposed. He will be Denilsoned. Probably in a big game, like he was last night.
And then there were the post match interviews. In this one thing Arsenal weren’t perfectly Arsenal. Wenger rarely lets his emotions show but in interview after interview he was clearly shaken. His eyes were red. His voice cracked. And he was asked the same question seven times and gave the same answer. It was heartbreaking to see him say that this was sad sad sad over and over again.
What makes it so difficult to watch is that this all could have been avoided. This decline of the last two seasons could have been a triumph instead. He could have left last summer instead of being pushed out this Spring. I’m not one of those tiresome people who say he’s ruined his legacy, nothing will tarnish Wenger’s legacy.
In a sense we are all Arsene Wenger. We all stay past our prime. We all hang on to things that we should let go of. We all think we are better than we are. And we are all flawed.
Do we all end the way Wenger has ended for Arsenal?
*I intentionally copied this quote from this ESPN piece which says that Xhaka will come good one day.