Monday, April 4, 2011

Told Ya So

This blog has consistently questioned the character of the Arsenal team over the last couple of years and it has equally consistently been proven sadly right.

Saturday summed up the problem, and the painful contrast with Manchester United, pretty neatly.

On the face of it, the pressure was all on United. They had to visit West Ham, a team playing well, fighting for their lives. Upton Park is a ground that has seen some failures from United in the past, most recently a 4-0 League Cup drubbing a couple of months back. And Ferguson had to try to balance the need to win with the need to keep players fresh, with Champions League and FA Cup action still on the horizon.

Arsenal no longer have such distractions. It was up to the players to decide whether this was a blessing or a curse, and they seem to have settled on the latter. They are wallowing again and the season is fizzling out into familiar failure.

A home game against Blackburn was about as generous as the fixture list could be. Although Rovers are, like West Ham, struggling to avoid relegation, their away form of late had been wretched, and Arsenal would surely look to exploit their travel sickness. A performance of tempo and drive was called for. As has often been said, if Arsenal played the way they ought to, they would have too much for Blackburn.

So what was the problem then? I would suggest the same old answer- a lack of character. One can accept a team not playing to the limit of their potential every week. But too often, when it really matters, Arsenal turn in listless, lethargic displays. Either too many of the players don't really have the needed desire to turn skill into success, or they are so paralysed by the desire that they become ineffective on the big occasion. Either way, some of the players clearly need to go, and better ones brought in. And by better I don't necessarily mean people of greater skill. I mean people of greater character.

Man Utd were again 2-0 down at half time on Saturday. But they had been attacking with menace and few would have doubted that once they got one goal back with a chunk of time to go, they would win the game. Sure enough, once Rooney curled in a brilliant free kick with about 25 minutes remaining, there was a sense of inevitability about the rest. Rooney scored another fine goal to level matters, and even though the penalty decision that allowed the same man to complete his hat trick was quite farcical, it was only a matter of time either way until United took the lead. Hernandez' goal underlined United's superiority.

Contrast that tale with Arsenal's game later the same day. At half time, the game was goalless, the crowd frustrated, the players off-colour. But it was a comparatively shallow hole next to the one United found themselves in. All the Gunners needed to do, with Blackburn offering little attacking threat, was find one goal. Even after the helping hand of Nzonzi's red card, the home side failed. Worse still, this was the second home game in a row in which Arsenal had failed to break down a team enduring a woeful run of form away from home.

If the game happened in August, there's no chance it would have finished nil nil. Once these players get the idea that there's something on the line, they freeze. Maybe now that the title seems to be slipping away, they will play with some kind of freedom again. Something similar happened last season after those chastening consecutive defeats to United and Chelsea. But I won't be fooled. No matter how often Arsenal impress between now and the end of the season, to me, they'll be doing the usual- turning on the style when it doesn't matter. Changes need to be made this summer, and that's the bottom line.

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