Premier League Hangover: Wenger Woe as Pressure Mounts Already

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistAugust 15, 2016

There are few lonelier places for a manager than the touchline when 4-1 down on the opening day of the season.
There are few lonelier places for a manager than the touchline when 4-1 down on the opening day of the season.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

"You always get a special kick on opening day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen."

The speaker of that quote, baseball great Joe DiMaggio, isn't likely to have been an Arsenal supporter. The Gunners have won an opening Premier League fixture once in the past seven seasons, against Crystal Palace in 2014.

Just 56 minutes into Sunday's party, large swathes of people inside the Emirates Stadium knew nothing wonderful was going to happen. Even the kids felt old. Arsenal's special kick was to the nether regions. This was the kind of party at which the clown turns out to be a drunk and makes inappropriate remarks about the birthday boy's mother.

Being booed by your own supporters on the opening day of a football season is akin to being told you'll never become an astronaut because you don't own a rocket and you're too fat for the suit in any case. Statistically it's probably a fair assumption to make, but it's hard to hear from your own parents.

For the party host, a swift drink is administered at the end of the evening and a pact agreed never to speak of the mortifying event again. For everyone else, including the invited guests—in this case, Liverpool and their travelling contingent—this type of uproariously out-of-control shindig always tends to be a glorious affair.

After Saturday's top-flight fare conjured an average of just two goals per game from seven matches, from a neutral perspective, it was a relief to see the ghost of Euro 2016 exorcised in the capital. Neither Arsenal nor Liverpool showed any inclination or capacity for defending. A 4-3 victory for Jurgen Klopp's men in some respect held a mirror up to his own side—but even more so to Arsene Wenger's.

Every time-honored Arsenal failing was illuminated in great big neon flashing lights. Gilt-edged opportunities missed to cement control of a match: check. Defensive frailties exposed: check. Acute spinelessness demonstrated throughout: check. An antiquated transfer policy exposed yet again to the numbed chagrin of the home supporters: check. Those playing Arsenal bingo shouted "House!" at the sight of both Aaron Ramsey (hamstring) and Alex Iwobi (thigh) being forced off with muscle injuries.  

Wenger looked aghast on the touchline as Arsenal went from leading Liverpool, through a strike from Theo Walcott, who also had a penalty saved at 0-0, to being 4-1 down in the space of 18 melancholic minutes either side of half-time.

Philippe Coutinho's equaliser just before the interval was as perfect a free-kick as will be executed all season. Arsenal never recovered. Whatever Klopp did at the break worked wonders. Liverpool will have to hope kryptonite doesn't show up in urine samples like slimming pills do. 

Wenger was so deflated in his post-match interview with Sky Sports that the club's coach driver offered to administer a foot pump to the Frenchman off camera. It was hard to reconcile losing the first game of the season to a demeanor quite so downbeat. He wore the haunted looked of a manager on a winless run of nine. A combination of Liverpool and his own supporters appeared to have broken the eternal optimist after just 90 minutes.

A late rally saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Calum Chambers reduce the deficit, quelling the rancour of Arsenal supporters to a level assistant manager Steve Bould may just be able to turn to Wenger in a couple of days and say, "I really don't think it was as bad as you think it was, boss. I certainly didn't hear anything."

Perhaps even without either laughing or sobbing gently.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, though, Wenger is operating in the ninth circle of hell. When he has to pay over the odds for a centre-half on transfer deadline day, he may well burst into flames.

On Saturday, amid criticism of a staleness to his squad because of a lack of signings, Wenger had said, per Rob Draper of the Mail on Sunday, "Vibrancy doesn't make you win games."

Vibrancy didn't look to do Liverpool any harm a day later. Hand on heart, when I absent-mindedly first saw Arsenal's starting XI, my mistaken response was, "Bloody hell. Decent bench, that."

With seven first-team players out with fitness issues and Wenger forced to field a makeshift central-defensive pairing of Chambers (two Premier League starts last season) and Rob Holding (making his debut after joining from Bolton Wanderers in the summer), Arsenal could be forgiven for having a soft centre exposed by a Liverpool side with more false nines than someone addicted to making bogus calls to the emergency services.

Roberto Firmino was nominally the most advanced, with Coutinho, Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum fluid and interchangeable just behind. Operating in a narrow forward line, the quartet—often joined by Adam Lallana, whose goal was just deserts for a pugnacious performance—overloaded and overwhelmed Arsenal centrally. The home side's full-backs seemed unsure when to move inside to help their inexperienced centre-halves, which in turn opened up space down the flanks for Liverpool.

At £25 million, the signing of Wijnaldum had seen more than the odd eyebrow raised, but the Dutchman was involved in two of Liverpool's goals and proved a steadying counterbalance to his more extravagantly gifted team-mates.

Klopp's men were as bad as Arsenal defensively, but going forward, it was as viscerally thrilling a performance as there has been in the Premier League for quite some time. It was that good.

It was Coutinho's cushioned volley from Nathaniel Clyne's drilled delivery, concluding a 19-pass move to put Liverpool 3-1 ahead on 56 minutes, that proved too much for Arsenal supporters. Given a Premier League season lasts 3,420 minutes, it seems a little churlish to take umbrage after 56. In mitigation, Arsenal fans would argue the previous 10 seasons have essentially been those 3,420 minutes played on a loop.

Coutinho's finish was so stunningly simple in its execution the Brazilian should insist any replay of it be accompanied by a specially commissioned trumpet fanfare. Instead, in north London, it was greeted by approximately the same number of sighs let out earlier in the afternoon when news filtered through of the Sky Sports-reported long-term Arsenal target Alexandre Lacazette scoring an opening day hat-trick for Olympique Lyonnais.

Such criticism will cut to the quick for Wenger, however much he obfuscates on the subject of supporter unrest and a dwindling faith in his regime. In the words of the bard of miserablism, Morrissey, "Losing in front of your home crowd—you wish the ground would open and take you down."

Liverpool's fourth goal, from Mane's searing run down the right flank before a violent flashed finish across Petr Cech, was as majestic an individual effort as Countinho's was a sublime team goal. Liverpool now have both types in the locker. Mane's goal was so good, it was the type of strike that elicits laughter from an unsuspecting viewer. Klopp certainly found it amusing as he offered a piggyback to his £34 million summer acquisition, a state of affairs he later regretted in his post-match interviews.

"You don't know what you're doing" was the verdict from the home crowd.

It's fair to say Jurgen Klopp has developed quite the bond with his Liverpool players.
It's fair to say Jurgen Klopp has developed quite the bond with his Liverpool players.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

All of which looked unlikely in the first half, when Liverpool left-back Alberto Moreno put in a shift so bad Gary Neville, on co-commentary duty for Sky Sports (h/t the Telegraph), was moved to opine, "You might as well start the game a goal down with Moreno at left-back."

First, the Spaniard needlessly tripped Walcott over for the penalty the Arsenal man subsequently saw repelled by Simon Mignolet, who has now saved five of the 11 spot-kicks he's faced in the Premier League at Liverpool. Then, just 68 seconds later, Moreno was caught hopelessly out of position as Walcott atoned for his miss by drilling low past Mignolet to kick into life the mother of all false dawns.

When Liverpool supporters are praising Neville for his punditry prowess, for hammering one of their own, it's safe to say the game is up for the subject of his acidic tongue.

Moreno's game is seemingly based on the lads at school who preferred rugby and only played football under duress. Fit and physically robust but absolutely clueless, they'd leave you in a crumpled heap courtesy of a two-footed lunge before picking the ball up and booting it for touch. Rugby is a game in which kicking the ball out for a throw-in is a much-vaunted skill. Moreno has missed his vocation.

The same might be said of Arsenal debutant Granit Xhaka, whose 28-minute cameo saw him attempt five tackles. Four of which were deemed fouls. He picked up a booking and conceded more free-kicks than any other player on the pitch.

Given the personnel available on the day, Arsenal's abject defending is one thing. Less forgivable is the fact they found themselves in such a godforsaken mess in the first place.

Wenger has known for some time he would be without first-choice pairing Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny for the start of the season, with Gabriel Paulista also unavailable because of injury. Unfortunate perhaps, but it was hardly surprising.

Pitching Chambers and Holding against a £100 million forward line was the result of fecklessness, plain and simple. The readiness of managers to accept rank performances and dropped points as being par for the course at the start of the season always amazes. It's as if matches won in the second half of the campaign are worth double the points.

Arsenal have needed a centre-half for so long it's thought legendary manager Herbert Chapman started the negotiations Wenger has failed to get over the line. That's the problem with Wenger: He belongs to another age, a gentler one perhaps, and he's been left behind. An ostrich operating in a pool of sharks, he stays true to his principles over value—or less generously, buries his head in the sand—while the rest of his managerial brethren spend other people's money like it is, well, other people's money.

Being the last bastion of economic sustainability in a market clearly out of touch with reality is, in some respects, commendable. But Arsenal are in real danger of being overtaken by the loadsamoney nouveau (TV deal) riche if they desist getting involved for much longer.

It's almost as if American majority shareholder Stan Kroenke isn't that bothered about winning titles, what with having once said at a sports analytics conference he's not that bothered about winning titles (h/t James Benge of the Evening Standard).

He continued: "If you want to win championships then you would never get involved. I think the best owners in sports are the guys that sort of watch both sides a bit."

At least it won't have been a wasted Sunday afternoon entirely if he enjoyed Liverpool's performance. See, Gunners—it's not all bad.

Manchester United, in securing all four of Jose Mourinho's first-choice transfer targets over the summer, have spent more in this transfer window than Arsenal have in the previous five. A homemade Blue Peter banner in the Arsenal end, on obligatory modern protest A4, asked an admittedly fair question: "Where's our money?"

It's not gone on a centre-forward. That's for sure. Arsenal need a presence up top as badly as they need one at the back. Wenger is still making puppy eyes at Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez, which seems another indulgence in his obsession with dainty midfielders. For a man capable of peeling an orange in his pocket, he doesn't half love a luxury signing on the sly.

For all the criticism, when the excitement subsides, it is largely impossible to draw any proper salient conclusions from an opening salvo of Premier League matches—especially on the back of a summer in which the European Championship has surely left a raft of players in possession of legs that must feel like concrete pillars after 11 months of continuous football.

Ring rust, absent players, players still to settle, players still to be signed and differing levels of fitness will all be factors in the first month or so of the new campaign.

As the writer, journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink: "We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We're a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don't really have an explanation for."

At the same time, even with Chelsea and West Ham United still to play on Monday evening, to look at what transpired over the Premier League's opening weekend and not highlight a number of close-season preconceptions that may prove to have early weight would be equally remiss.

It was anticipated Liverpool would be exhilarating going forward and exasperating at the back; a 4-3 victory away from home seems a fair vindication of such a theory. Arsenal are expected to be Arsenal, with Sunday's game encapsulating one of their regular seasons in the space of 90 minutes.

Manchester City could have played in red against Sunderland and anyone with a smattering of knowledge about how Pep Guardiola sets his teams up to play would have recognised it as being a side in the image of its manager. Even though the players looked badly disjointed at times, it is to be expected at this fledgling stage of reinvention.

To be a fly on the wall when Guardiola told Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy all he was expecting from them was to fulfil the same roles Philipp Lahm and David Alaba did for him at Bayern Munich, moving into central midfield whenever City had possession. Good luck with that one, Pep. 

We also thought Joe Hart might be in trouble, and so it proved.

Being dispatched to the substitutes' bench in favour of Willy Caballero amid reports Guardiola has reservations over his ability with his feet is like being dropped from a film for being too short to be replaced by Danny DeVito.

Widespread murmurs in Spain (h/t the Mirror) continue to link City with Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Sporting Lisbon's Rui Patricio. It seems Hart has been unable to convince his new manager he is head and shoulders above his rivals.

Across the city, Mourinho is similarly making his mark. Manchester United's workmanlike, job-done, 3-1 win at Bournemouth on Sunday was the quintessential Mourinho performance away from home. As for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, anything other than a goal on his Premier League bow would have been a surprise. The Swede's daisy-cutter means he has scored on his Premier League, Serie A, Primera Division, Ligue 1 and Champions League debuts.

Everton already look better organized under Ronald Koeman than his predecessor, Roberto Martinez, while Alvaro Negredo, tipped by many to score the goals required to keep Middlesbrough up, needed just 11 minutes to get off the mark this campaign. New boys Burnley, who have invested in new floodlights but scant new players, were expected to be goal-shy. Lo and behold, Sean Dyche's team drew a blank in a home defeat to Swansea City.

And we haven't even mentioned how all-conquering champions Leicester City got on at crisis club Hull City, who have no permanent manager, no new signings, a mutinous crowd and only 13 fit players.

Maybe Gladwell has a point.

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