Say what you like about Jamie Carragher and his tactical analysis work on Sky Sports but no one could deny that the former Liverpool captain: a) knows a thing or two about defending, or b) played every single game in his career with unquestionable commitment and passion; so when someone like that questions the character, spirit and mental strength of your team, you should probably pay attention.
After Arsenal’s latest capitulation, this one a gutless 3-0 defeat to Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace, with a performance that was quite possibly the feeblest yet of this recent miserable run of form; ‘captain’ Theo Walcott claimed in his post-match interview that the performance was ‘not Arsenal’ and that ‘[Palace] were more up for it’. His words sparked Carragher into action, the former Liverpool player ranting: ‘That’s not Arsenal? ‘That is Arsenal. That’s four on the bounce. He’s speaking like that’s a one-off. This has been a performance that we see year in, year out from Arsenal. Exactly the same, nothing changes.’
Carragher continued, brutal in his assessment of the team: ‘The best description of the players was two years ago, from Graeme Souness. He said they’re a team of son-in-laws. But what father would want his daughter to bring one of them home? I’m serious. Bottling it, cowards, ducking out of challenges. What type of man would you want to bring your daughter home? One of them? The most depressing part of it all was that he is unquestionably right. One can only wonder what former captains Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira (to name but two) would have made of Walcott’s comments, or whether they would have even accepted the possibility that a team under their charge would allow the opposition to ‘want it more’?
What is clear is that there is something very rotten in the state of Arsenal, defeat at Selhurst Park signalled the first time in Wenger’s Arsenal reign that they have lost four successive away games and left them 7 points behind Manchester City in fourth, albeit with a game in hand. With games to come against teams that Arsenal have traditionally struggled against, to all but Wenger his self-avowed saving grace of Champions League qualification is well and truly out of reach, and in reality the Gunners will have a battle on to hold off Everton for sixth place.
Deep into the second half, for the first time that I can remember, the away fans turned on the team chanting ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’, painfully they are not only right but totally justified as they are the ones that lay out their hard-earned cash to follow the team all over the country. The least one can expect of a professional sports team, in fact any team at any level, is effort and commitment; Arsenal’s display was once again embarrassing and pathetic.
The draw against a defensively wide-open Manchester City and victory over a poor West Ham hinted at some form of recovery, but in truth it was merely false hope; based on events on Monday evening it seems that this team is beyond recovery, the problems that exist can’t be fixed by the manager and until the changes that all can see are needed are made, things will only get worse. There have been low points in Arsène’s time at the club, but never this feeling of hopelessness, this sense not just that Le Boss has taken us a far as he can, but that we are actually regressing and have been since the start of the season.
Sam Allardyce identified the vulnerability in the team and ruthlessly exploited it; in truth anyone who has watched Arsenal over the last 5 years or so could have told him that our full-backs play like wingers, our midfield offers no defensive cover whatsoever and our centre-backs are left exposed all too often. That in itself tells us all we need to know about Arsenal and their manager’s outdated tactical approach.
Ivan Gazidis went on record back in June 2011 professing: ‘Arsène is ultimately accountable to the fans – they ultimately make judgment. If you are seeing the relationship between the fans and the manager break down over time that is unsustainable’. Even with his incredible panache for PR-based propaganda, it would seem impossible for the Chief Executive to convince anyone that the manager’s position is not simply untenable.
At the top of the table, Chelsea’s win at Bournemouth not only showed their class but also took them a step closer to the title, despite yet another win for Spurs. Even as an Arsenal fan I have to profess some kind of sympathy for Pochettino’s exciting side, whose win against Watford gave them seven more points than at this stage last season, but still the gap to the leaders remains at seven points with Antonio Conte’s men needing just five more victories to secure the title. Chelsea’s relentlessness looks set to mean that Tottenham will miss out on the title for the second year in succession, although this year it may well be through no fault of their own.
At the bottom, Crystal Palace’s win over Arsenal was their fifth out of six matches and although they still face a very tough run in with games against Leicester, Liverpool, Tottenham and both Manchester clubs still to come; it may just be that Big Sam once again succeeds in preserving his proud record of never being relegated.
Meanwhile over in Holland….
Feyenoord looked to be succumbing to the pressure of the pursuit of their first title in 18 years, finding themselves 2-0 down at PEC Zwolle after just 13 minutes and looking uncharacteristically all over the place at the back. However once again they showed the grit and determination that characterises them as a side and fought back through two goals from Watford loanee Steven Berghuis. The draw, combined with Ajax’s win cuts the Rotterdammers’ lead over their bitter rivals to just one point, although they do have a +11 advantage in terms of goal difference; with just four games to go it very much looks like being a bloedstollende eindstrijd (literally a bloodcurdling run-in: the closest my Dutch mate Erik could come to an equivalent for ‘squeaky bum time’ as a famous Scottish manager once described these situations). This weekend Mrs. Football Nerd, my father and I are all heading off to Rotterdam and a highly anticipated trip to De Kuip on Sunday for what will be an absolutely critical match against FC Utrecht.
The return of the Champions League
As the complete football obsessive that I am, I still love it when we get to the Quarter Finals of the Champions League; invariably Arsenal have already bade farewell to the competition and taken with them the frustrations and ennui associated with their usual performances, (although I suspect this won’t be an issue next season!), leaving me to concentrate on simply enjoying the games for what they are. I have a nominal leaning towards Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, but am more concerned with seeing some top level games.
Shocking news greeted us on Tuesday evening when it emerged that three explosions had gone off next to the coach carrying Borussia Dortmund to their home game against Monaco, injuring Marc Bartra. Increasingly football, like other sports and all other facets of everyday life, is becoming a target for activists with a political motive; however once again the heartening images of Dortmunders hosting Monaco fans overnight ahead of the rearranged match under the hashtag #BedsForAwayFans simply reaffirmed the true nature of football supporters and, as seems to always happen after events like this, restored some of our faith in humanity.
In terms of the actual matches, I opted to watch Barcelona’s visit to Juventus and Atletico Madrid hosting Leicester. In Turin, Juve put on a strong display to seize the initiative in their tie, taking a 2-0 first half lead through impressive Argentine forward Dybala; then, after Chiellini had made it 3 early in the second half, standing firm at the back to repel wave after wave of Barcelona pressure and to deny the Catalans an away goal that would have given them a foothold in the tie. Despite Barca’s astonishing comeback in the last round against PSG, you just can’t see a team as defensively disciplined and organised as Juventus letting their lead slip. Equally it would hardly be surprising if they exploited Barcelona’s defensive frailty and killed the tie off with an away goal.
On Wednesday night Leicester City kept some form of hope alive losing by only a single goal to Atletico Madrid; however seasoned watchers of Simeone’s side know that their usual modus operandi is to take the lead and then protect it. While Leicester remain in with a chance, a team that has appeared in two of the last three Champions League Finals and is used to visiting and getting results at the Bernabeu and Camp Nou is unlikely to be too daunted by its visit to the King Power next week.
In the other two matches Monaco triumphed in a five goal game in which the hosts fought back after an apparently out of sorts first half performance. I made a mental promise to myself to find some time to watch the French side as they seem to guarantee goals. While two away goals from who else but Cristiano Ronaldo gave Real Madrid the upper hand in their tussle with Bayern Munich and former manager Carlo Ancelotti.