So much for those who considered Arsenal title challengers.
So much for those who thought they could threaten their ruthless rivals and come away with the Premier League title.
Who ever heard of a side that couldn’t win the big games managing to win the big trophies? And if Arsenal have proven one thing this season, it is that they are incapable of winning the big games.
Make no mistake, this is a crisis.
Today’s 3-1 defeat against Manchester United was nothing short of a massacre; one only made worse by the fact it was in front of their home support. But only the most optimistic of fans at the Emirates would not have at least feared what was, in many ways, an almost predictable outcome.
United nearly became the second top side to win 3-0 at the home of their rivals, after Chelsea’s demolition job in North London last November. Only a late surge, culminating in Thomas Vermaelen’s deflected volley, prevented such embarrassment.
In both games Arsenal were abject, yet even when they play well they have contrived to find a way to lose this season—against United at Old Trafford they threw away a lead to succumb 2-1, and at Eastlands they saw their former star Emmanuel Adebayor inspire Manchester City to a 3-1 win that, on many levels, was barely warranted.
Even in defeat the players have often shown their undoubted ability with the ball at their feet. But the overriding theme always seems to be the same—in every big game the Gunners appear to be out-thought and out-fought. Their opponents invariably just seem to want it more.
That is always going to make a significant difference, especially at the top level.
"We were poor defensively, and (when) that happens you cannot win the big game," manager Arsene Wenger admitted after the game.
"We gave them too much room and on top of that I think we made massive individual errors and of course that is a massive disappointment for us.
"We know we can do much better than that. We are conscious we didn’t deliver the game today that was expected of us."
Part of the problem—indeed, perhaps all of it—is the development process players undergo at the club. You cannot question the technical training they receive, which is arguably the best in the England. But progression to the first team these days is invariably through the League Cup—a competition where Arsene Wenger has increasingly fielded his youngest talents.
But that is arguably the worst way for a winning mentality to develop. Players get used to playing under little pressure to succeed, and against lower league opposition they become accustomed to hearing crowds appreciate flowing moves and trickery over simply getting the job done.
Lauded in the press when they win, while the manager takes the criticism when they don’t, they get used to an environment where the consequences for their actions are limited.
Then they graduate to the first team, and suddenly the pressure is intense and the criticism in failure fierce. Either that or they find it difficult to inspire themselves to perform under such conditions on a consistent basis. Arguably, then, it is no wonder that on the big occasion so many of them freeze.
That is what happened today.
It’s no coincidence that Arsenal’s star player these days, Cesc Fabregas, barely served any apprenticeship in the glorified nursery that the League Cup has become under Arsene Wenger. Partly this was due to his obvious quality, partly due to necessity, but either way it helped him develop into the world-class star he is, even it at barely 22 years of age.
That is how Manchester United—winners of the last three Premier League titles—operate. Even today that was in evidence, as 19-year-old Rafael played at right-back, just as he did in the same game last season (where he scored).
As a general rule of thumb, Sir Alex Ferguson is more than prepared to play young players in big games if he thinks they are up to the challenge. That’s been the way he’s always operated—ever since the "golden generation" of Paul Scholes, David Beckham, et al. came through the ranks more than a decade ago.
Those who aren’t good enough to play in the first team are invariably farmed out on loan to gain experience in the lower leagues. That’s what has happened to Danny Welbeck, who scored a wonderful lob on his debut for Preston North End this weekend.
At least he is now learning in an environment with real consequences, where the pressure is on to get results, and the wrong attitude will not be tolerated. It’s a tried-and-tested approach that has long worked for his Scottish manager.
Arsene Wenger, on the other hand, has rarely opted for such a route with players he has high hopes of developing into first team stalwarts.. The only notable example in his past is Ashley Cole, who came of age as a rampaging left-back at Crystal Palace over a decade ago. Now 29 years old, Cole has blossomed into a world-class player with an unquestionable winning mentality—but one that, for various reasons, he felt was best expressed with rivals Chelsea.
Jack Wilshere is belatedly following in Cole’s footsteps, as he looks for more regular first-team appearances with Owen Coyle’s Bolton Wanderers. It will be very interesting to see how the young tyro develops in the coming years.
When the Frenchman arrived at the club in 1996, in the likes of Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Steve Bould, and Ian Wright, he inherited a team of winners. It was on their bedrock he built a double-winning side, and from their legacy that the likes of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira would go on to drive the unbeaten "Invincibles" of 2004.
But now the links to the past are all but gone, and with no recycling of that will to win, success on the big occasion has unsurprisingly become limited. Only after they went 3-0 down today did Arsenal begin to really play; and to their surprise found they could course their opponents a number of problems. But by then it was too late.
No wonder the 60-year-old was happy to bring Sol Campbell back to the club this month. In his approach, if not necessarily talent, he has a lot to teach.
Other aspects of Arsenal’s approach are not beyond reproach. When Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner are injured they are worryingly one-dimensional, with their slick play on the deck generally easy for a well-organised and skilled defence to deal with—especially if they know that they will face no threat in the air (something that helped Aston Villa last week).
With money supposedly available to spend, it is hard to believe the side couldn’t do with another aerial presence up field, even if it would take time for such a signing to adapt to the intricate flowing football that is the Plan A.
And in defence, especially with a collection of players so mentally fragile, it boggles the mind that Wenger continues to rely on a keeper, Manuel Almunia, who always looks like he'll make a critical mistake at a critical time (as he did today, tipping in Nani’s lobbed cross for a pivotal opening goal).
But disrupting team unity for less significant competitions will always have an effect. A winning mentality doesn't come with an on/off switch. In victory, United admitted as much:
“Everyone had their confidence for this game,” man-of-the-match Nani revealed.
“The manager said we had to have the same attitude for this game, we have to have the same attitude every game if you want to win.”
Arsenal are still to learn that, and still to teach it to the next generation they are so keen to groom.
For a club that puts such store in its development of youth players, it’s almost unforgivable how they fail to complete the job with their academy graduates. They spend all those years developing their technical skills but undo almost all of it as they overlook the importance and installation of the right mental approach.
Their results against fellow big sides give the game away.
The lack of any trophies in the last five years tells the story.
Manchester United and Chelsea believe they can win every game they play in. Arsenal’s players aren’t so sure—and don’t even know if it is worth it.
A shake-up is badly needed.