It wasn’t a surprise. Losing 3-0 to Manchester City in the Premier League, just days after losing 3-0 to Manchester City in the League Cup Final. Neither the defeat nor the manner of the defeat was a surprise.
In the cup final four days earlier Arsenal played like a snail that had one of its feelers touched. Arsenal hid inside its shell as Man City just scooped it up and ate it. But yesterday, Arsenal played like a snail that had not had its feelers touched, putting in its “most physical performance of the season” as Arsene Wenger said in his post-match presser. And still Man City just scooped it up and ate it.
It didn’t seem to matter what Arsenal did, City were going to beat them. Whether they played timid or bold, City were the better team. City are a well drilled, expensively assembled with careful attention paid to each of the parts, and tactically brilliant team in peak physical condition. Arsenal are a team that often looks ragged. Ragged in the construction, in execution, and physically.
A few seconds later Wenger was asked about the confidence of his team after the back to back big losses and he said “you go up by stairs and come down by lift, that is confidence.” It takes a long time to build confidence but only a few moments for it to crumble.
A football career often follows the same path; building for a decade or more, reaching the highest level they are capable of, only to fall rapidly.
Wenger’s own decline as a manager has been a rapid fall. Some will argue that his career has been a slow set of stairs down since the 2004 title winning glory. But it’s not his footballing acumen that I’m talking about.
Wenger remained remarkably consistent throughout the first, second, and third phases of his career at Arsenal. Securing places in the top four, playing attacking football, building, rebuilding, and winning trophies regardless of pressures. But in this fourth phase, the “everyone has money now” Premier League, where everyone can afford £50m players, Wenger has rapidly declined.
Last season Arsenal finished out of the top four and below Tottenham though Arsenal did win the FA Cup and beat champions Chelsea to do it. And this season, Arsenal are a mid-table club. Closer to Burnley in the League than any of the top clubs, and seemingly miles behind Tottenham.
But it’s not been Wenger alone who has taken the lift down. It’s been confidence in Wenger that has dropped precipitously. Whereas a few years ago there were debates among supporters about AKBs v. WOBs fans are now nearly unanimous that he has to go.
It’s not just the fans. The players also seem to have lost confidence in Wenger. In the League Cup final Arsenal looked timid from the start – Mustafi took a bump, claimed a foul, and conceded the first goal – and from there the result was all but assured. And four days later, Arsenal came out and played hard; they conceded a goal but didn’t collapse this time instead, they pressed and harassed Man City, trying to trap them into bad passes, following the orders of their manager and putting in the workrate that they lacked in the cup final.
Even up to the very moments before City’s third goal Arsenal played like a team who wanted to win the tie. That third goal was conceded off Arsenal pressing, pressing hard to win the ball back. That was a team executing the orders of the manager and it looked for a moment like Arsenal might get back into the game. But one pass from Silva to Aguero, one flick of the ball around Koscielny, and City opened Arsenal up for the third goal. Walker’s square ball for Sane, who just bundled the ball over the line off Bellerin’s tackle, killed what confidence was left in this team.
Arsenal came out in the second half, tried to get back into the game, but even given a penalty, Arsenal couldn’t score. Heads dropped. Ozil did a thinker’s pose on the pitch. The lift dinged. Ground floor.