Arsenal: Masters of their Own Demise
One step forward, two steps back.
Three points up, one Per Mertesacker red card down.
This, unfortunately, has been the norm for Arsenal in recent seasons, with criticisms ranging from subpar marks all the way up to mentally weak or, a personal favorite of the football-writing community, bottlers. Of course, never mind that Chelsea felt the need to fire Jose Mourinho after finding themselves in 16th place and Manchester United have only scored 7 goals in all competitions since December started — but that’s not why we’re here.
Are Arsenal bottlers? Are they, capital M, Masters of their Own Demise?
Are they, with their annual build-up of massive injuries, missed opportunities, and poor results, choke artists? Well, yes and no is likely the answer as there is no surefire formula to the untimely errors. But, since when has football ever been easy to to deconstruct?
First and foremost, it’s important to realize that it is simply impossible for Arsenal to lose these games simply because “they weren’t ready for moment.” In lieu of thoughtful reasoning and analysis, breaking it down as such is disingenuous to the sport, your writing, and, most of all, the athletes on Arsenal. Yes, Mertesacker, who has over 350 senior caps and a World Cup with Germany, made an unfortunate tackle on Diego Costa last weekend because he was mentally incapable of handling the pressure.
OK, now that we’re all on the same page here, let’s get to the good stuff.
We often hurl vitriol at the aforementioned Mourinho & Company for parking the bus against Arsenal time and time again — but, if it didn’t work, they wouldn’t do it. It is, truly, that simple. Once teams realize that they can sit back against Arsenal, cede possession, and absorb pressure, it’s an easy and deliberate strategy to suffocate the attack. In the case of Sunday’s monstrosity, it’s certainly true that Arsenal looked better than Chelsea for the majority of the 70+ minutes following Mertesacker’s ejection, but that’s nearly by design.
Arsenal like building through the middle, particularly though Mesut Ozil or Santi Cazorla, before slotting passes out wide to the enigmatic winger squad where Alexis Sanchez, Joel Campbell, or Theo Walcott will cut inside or take it to the touch-line in order to pepper Olivier Giroud with crosses. Simplified? Yes. Stoppable? Yes, even more so when you’re up a man too!
Avoiding the Ugly Goals
Ask any Arsenal supporter and while they’ll gush about the timeless team goals that will show up on YouTube mixes from now until the Earth caves in on itself, they’ll likely still need need to vent the endless frustrations behind any of the frequent o-0 draws or 1-0 losses. On the flip side of that, how many times have Spurs, United, or Chelsea stolen away a game in stoppage time via a garbage goal or tap-in?
Arsenal love settling into possession as they pass it back and forth around the 18, probing for their next chance to walk it into the net. And frankly, it leads to Arsenal’s demise for no good reason — between Sanchez, Cazorla, Walcott, Ramsey, and, to an extent, even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, can kick the stitches off the ball. Instead of jostling to re-create that infamous Norwich City goal, they’d be better suited taking a few more opportunities, working the goalkeeper, and pouncing on rebounds.
Those are three points anyway you slice it.
This article was destined to meander here at some point, wasn’t it? Whether we’re talking about Giroud’s silly red card against Dinamo Zagreb or his even sillier head-butt versus QPR last season, some of the decision-making on the Arsenal end of things can be defined as questionable at best. In Mertesacker’s ill-fated foul on Costa, there were a few interesting moments in the fleeting seconds before destruction.
As he’s scrambling back towards Costa, Mertesacker takes a peek towards Laurent Koscielny and, in a sub-second, decides that the French defender will not be able to make a play on the striker in time. In that moment, however, that turns the tackle into a denial of a goal-scoring opportunity and his professional yellow flashes red in the blink of an eye. Yes, he almost gets the ball and, yes, Costa sells the foul, but it’s a bonafide red card through and through.
In the 85th minute, down a goal, this would likely be a defendable action — but in a 0-0 game, just 18 minutes in, against one of the most porous Premier League sides, and with Petr Cech in goal, the decision becomes abhorrent. And thus, dooming them again to English headlines and more Internet crucifixions of Arsene Wenger.
The Strength of the Premier League
For years and years, fans of English football have hung their hats on the overall strength of the league — but now, more than ever, it’s finally true. Arsenal lost 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this past weekend and despite the Blues’ low position in the table, does it even rank in the Top 15 weirdest results of the season? Leicester have earned points against everybody except Arsenal, who gave them their 5-2 thrashing in September; United lost 2-1 to newly promoted Bournemouth; City took just one point from West Ham this season; and those Hammers have beaten Liverpool (twice), Chelsea, Southampton, and, of course, Arsenal.
Truthfully, the resolve of all 20 teams has never been better — no longer are games simple exercises or an opportunity to rest your Starting XI. In that, it’s not outrageous to say that if we’ve to use the term bottling so liberally that nearly everybody else has done it more than Arsenal. Supporters can forget that these are professional athletes, just because you play for Arsenal or Chelsea doesn’t mean losing against certain teams means that sky is falling down.
OK, sure, losing to West Brom was pretty bad.
At the end of the day, Arsenal are no better or no worse for falling to rival Chelsea this past weekend. Their inability to force their way through a parked bus while also being a man down was disappointing, but it was a concentrated, deliberate effort that just didn’t pan out. The Mertesacker tackle changed everything and forced Wenger’s hand in substituting Giroud — had that not happened, even if Arsenal had gone down 1-0, there was still time for plenty to change.
Supporters and analysts use the word bottlers far too frequently now, as if it’s a buzzword they desperately need to fit into their pieces to earn positive feedback. And yet, I would call Arsenal, indeed, Masters of the Own Demise — but bottlers? Absolutely not. With their glut of talented, creative players on the verge of returning, Arsenal can re-manufacture their attack, become less predictable, and, hopefully, for the love of God, stop getting ridiculous red cards.
But bottlers? Let’s save that term for the team in 13th place.