Arsenal news: If only defeat hurt Arsene Wenger's players as much as it hurts him

After wilting once again to dent their faltering title hopes, the Arsenal squad could do with taking on some of their manager's cussedness

Ian Herbert
Chief Sports Writer
Monday 19 December 2016 13:18
Wenger's team are incapable of holding their own when a storm hits
Wenger's team are incapable of holding their own when a storm hits

It was unclear exactly what Arsene Wenger was asking for in one of his more memorable attacks on officials on Sunday night. “They are protected very well… like the lions in the zoo,” he said. He gave us caveats – “I want them to be protected and be very safe” – but the strong inference was that he wished no such thing for refs. He'd like them to get it right in the neck, just like him.

Though Wenger was right to say that Manchester City scored both their goals with borderline offside infringements, the instintive reaction to Wenger’s stream of consciousness is to say that the man is deluded - much as Everton manager Ronald Koeman did so memorably, in the Goodison Park press room last week, when Wenger had raged against officialdom following another defeat.

“I'm not surprised about Wenger and his comments,' Koeman said. “It's a third time in a row I've beaten Arsenal at home as a manager and three times it's been the referee's fault.”

But there’s actually something appealing about his one-eyed outlook on football – and that’s not just because he wrote us a headline. When Wenger sat down to talk in the Manchester City press conference room, we’d just been in receipt of one of Pep Guardiola’s clinical dissections of his own team’s performance which, though erudite and so rapid that no shorthand note could cope, was football with human emotion taken out. In Wenger, we saw what we always used to see in Sir Alex Ferguson – the sheer, visceral grumpiness that come with defeat, in all its one-eyed glory. “I think we have had a horrible week,” Wenger said, offering a fleeting glimpse into the core of it all, before he left the room.

What’s maddening about Wenger and his team is that now age-old problem about them lacking the cussedness that their 67-year-old manager possesses. The most revealing aspect of Guardiola’s post-match discussion was his revelation that they had committed two and a half hours of training to winning second balls, during the last three days, though his suggestion that a little extra physicality was what it took to win the game was disingenuous. More than anything, it was Arsenal’s capitulation that turned the tide. The game fell from their grip and, frankly, they vanished.

There was no better illustration of that fact than the team’s last opportunity to drive for goal in second half stoppage time, when a free kick was awarded. Mesut Ozil messed around with the ball, taking forever to place it in the allocated position to deliver it. Then Petr Cech rushed ahead and took it for him, playing it short rather than driving a high ball under City’s vulnerable defence. Martin Atkinson promptly blew for full-time even before the ball had entered the home team’s penalty area.

This is the Arsenal we witness when the wind starts to blow in their faces; a side seemingly incapable of holding onto a lead in a storm. They held an advantage against Tottenham Hotspur for nine minutes, a lead against Paris Saint-Germain in north London for 18 minutes. In the credit column are the late goals in Paris (77 minutes) and at Old Trafford (89 minutes) but as we head towards the half way stage, those three goals conceded in 11 minutes at home to Liverpool at the start of the season looks like a symptom of a more fundamental failing - not the crazy knockings of another Premier League season.

There are reasons to surmise that the perennial Arsenal optimism will re-flower now, watered by a sequence of winnable fixtures (West Bromwich, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Swansea, Burnley and Watford). Then, from early February they will be tested again at Chelsea, Southampton and Liverpool and you have to expect that we will discover the underlying, briefly forgotten, brittleness still there.

“What is worse,” Wenger raged, “[is that] out of two good performances we get zero points and out of two leading positions we lose two games….” He needs his players to feel his anger and live it in the raw.

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