Sport Premier League

Thursday 18 September 2014

Traces of panic in whole Arsenal enterprise leaves fans on the edge

Paul Hayward

Published 14/01/2013 | 05:00

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Arsenal are a club living on the edge of their nerves. With some fans close to open revolt, and the team in danger of missing out on Champions League qualification, this luxury north London theatre is a place of skittishness and angst.

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What would the club need least in these trying circumstances? A good answer would be for an experienced international centre-back to wrap both arms round an opposition striker in plain sight of the referee with only 10 minutes on the clock.

No manager can legislate for this kind of aberration, unless he threatens to lock any player guilty of such a reckless act in a dungeon for the rest of his life. And Arsene Wenger, we know, is not that sort of manager.

So Laurent Koscielny is dismissed before backsides have had time to warm on seats and Arsenal spend the next 80 minutes battling against insuperable odds. But here is the encouraging part.

At no point in the inquest did Wenger try to hide from the deeper failings of his side.

He had no issue with the penalty awarded against his defender (Edin Dzeko, the victim, missed) and no real objection to the red card that forced him to take off Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and send on another centre-half, Per Mertesacker.

Instead Arsenal's manager of nearly 17 years deferred to undeniable evidence. He said: "We didn't start with enough confidence or authority."

As Wenger diagnosed, the Gunners were hesitant at the start, unconvincing in their efforts to answer James Milner's opening goal for the English champions and a long way short in most departments of a top-four side.

Arsenal (sixth) are only six points behind Spurs in fourth and have a game in hand, but no serious punter would bet big on them seeing prime-time European action next autumn. A team that whacked Reading 5-2 and Newcastle 7-3 in December might look pretty enough in the right kind of light. But Arsenal have fewer points after 21 games (34) than at any time in Wenger's Premier League career.

In the crowd's mind is a link between the astronomical price of tickets and the diminishing quality of the entertainment this season.

At first Koscielny's sending-off provided a grievance to hide behind. It was all referee Mike Dean's fault. By the time Dean balanced things up by ejecting City's Vincent Kompany 15 minutes before the end, it was already plain Arsenal were beset by other problems.

A match official correctly applying the laws of the game could not be used as a crutch all afternoon. Where we pick up traces of panic in the whole Arsenal enterprise is the use of Theo Walcott as a lone centre-forward.

Walcott struggled to make the starting XI until his contract negotiations entered a critical phase. At that point his wish to play as a central striker was suddenly granted.

Meanwhile Olivier Giroud, the latest in a long line of new Arsenal strikers, started against City on the bench. At 2-0 down, Walcott and Giroud played together, but a long way from a three-man Arsenal midfield who were asked to service two strikers. Wednesday's FA Cup third-round replay against Swansea and Sunday's Premier League visit to Chelsea now assume ominous weight for Arsenal. Bayern Munich are next month's formidable Champions League second-round opponents.

A good start would be for the centre-backs to acknowledge that bear-hugging an opponent in the penalty box with the referee a few yards away is likely to end in calamity. The smattering of fans who applauded Koscielny might also give it some more thought.

The players are in no position to blame the crowd, though. The "authority" Wenger says they lacked in this game has to be found from somewhere. Preferably, within. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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