Thursday 27 April 2017

Wenger fails yet again to fix a list of familiar faults

Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal playing the blame game at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Steven Paston/PA
Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal playing the blame game at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Steven Paston/PA

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Arsenal's title challenge ended on Saturday afternoon, although only their most optimistic supporters had much confidence before the trip to Stamford Bridge that this season would be any different from the last 12.

Arsenal are 12 points behind Chelsea and, even in the extremely unlikely circumstances that Chelsea collapse, Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester City are much more likely to benefit.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA

Every season there comes a moment when Arsenal realise that their priority has to be securing fourth place rather than looking up and they have certainly reached that point now. This Arsenal team will not be turning over any tables this season. There was absolutely no conviction about their performance at Stamford Bridge.

It was telling how, in his very brief post-match comments, Arsene Wenger said that "the defeat against Watford maybe had bigger consequences than expected".

That was their most-damaging no-show for years - a shocking defeat, which prompted Wenger to lambaste his players for not being mentally ready afterwards. But clearly he feels that the after-effects of that defeat were still with his players.

The challenge now for Wenger is to make sure that that bad feeling is exorcised when Arsenal host a resurgent Hull City next Saturday. Finishing fourth is still vitally important.

Arsenal have two very different trips this month in the cup competitions - first to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, then to Sutton in the FA Cup.

But the chances of Arsenal winning the Champions League are remote. And, even if they win the FA Cup, that will not end questions about the direction of the club.

So, as they battle to prevent their season from imploding, Arsenal have to ask themselves why they can still not mount a serious challenge to win the Premier League.

They have world-class talent, young players, experience, money, everything that a title-chasing side would need. But they are less than a sum of their parts.

Antonio Conte is about to win his fourth league title, which is impressive given he has only been coaching for 10 years. Wenger has four league titles himself, the most recent of them in 2004 when Conte was still a player.

When asked why Arsenal cannot make a serious push for the title, Conte said: "I think Arsenal has all the potential to win the title.

"If you look at their squad, you can see a lot of young players but with great quality, physically very strong, and also a good manager. But now, and in future, to win the title in this league will be very tough, very, very tough, for all the teams."

It was as the two teams lined up before kick-off that the first clear inkling of how Saturday's game might unfold sank in.

Chelsea's very visible advantage in physical stature was immediately striking as the teams took to the pitch.

Grim

Add to that their added know-how, intent and organisation, and it frequently felt like one of those school games when a lower age group is asked to have a trial against an older team.

It all left a grim inevitability about Arsenal's fate and, while this match did admittedly arrive at a moment when their central midfield had become frighteningly hollow, wider patterns cannot be ignored.

It is now 13 seasons since any Arsenal team did the double over Chelsea. Previous teams allowed themselves to be bullied by their London rivals for so much of that time by the likes of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry, and there was a similar story here.

Blame for allowing history to repeat itself can be placed at the door only of Wenger, whose maddening over-reliance on technically gifted, but relatively diminutive and brittle talent, was again exposed.

With a Premier League record against Chelsea of just five wins and 14 defeats since that 'Invincible' season of 2003-'04, it was no great surprise to hear the home fans chanting: "Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay."

The statistics might have confirmed a player-by-player average height advantage of three centimetres for Chelsea but the more telling chasm was in confidence and mentality. There should be particular alarm at how Mesut Ozil - and to a lesser extent Alexis Sanchez - were so unable to influence a season-defining occasion.

And, then, there is Theo Walcott, whose failure to track Marcos Alonso in the build-up to Chelsea's first goal was criminal.

That was not just an individual error but a failing of culture. Wenger, after all, has noted previously Walcott's defensive limitations without seeming also to acknowledge how he is the manager who has had 11 years to teach him.

Watching Conte almost self-combust in the technical area over Chelsea's marking at one corner was to be reminded of what might happen if a player in his team defended like Walcott.

Chelsea are on course for a second title in three seasons and, without the physical or mental drain of Europe, are comfortably the best team in England.

This was an 11th straight home win and, remarkably, also Conte's 61st victory in his last 73 club games with Chelsea and Juventus.

Eden Hazard's artistry was the ideal complement for their wider resilience but some of Arsenal's tackling for Chelsea's second goal really was feeble. Francis Coquelin was simply swatted aside and, with Granit Xhaka developing more into a box-to-box midfielder, Arsenal look woefully short in the holding midfield position.

Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante against Coquelin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain never looked like a fair fight and so it proved.

It all feeds into the wider and seemingly perennial debate about Wenger's future.

At least one "Time to go" banner was evident here and even the more quiet majority of supporters who did not back a protest last season will feel far more open to change if this last year of Wenger's contract fizzles out.

Removing Wenger mid-contract would have felt hasty but a more considered debate will be had at some point this season and he himself has indicated that he will move on if feels that he has underperformed.

This was a statement by Chelsea but in its own worrying way the statement from Arsenal was equally emphatic.

© Independent News Service.

Irish Independent

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport