Sunday 3 April 2011

The end of an era is never pretty

Arsenal 0 Blackburn Rovers 0
Words: 584. Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 5 seconds

For a team purporting to be still fighting for the title race, Arsenal never looked seriously competitive in a game that just reinforced the growing sense that we are witnessing the end of the Wenger era.

In fairness to Blackburn Rovers, they put in a committed performance and defended stoutly. But they were never pushed to breaking point by a home side which appears to have convinced itself it isn’t worthy of being champions.

The mental fragility of Wenger’s men has been evident for years but remains acute. This season, since the defeat in the Carling Cup final we’ve won one game, against Leyton Orient, slipped out of the FA Cup and Champions League without much of a fight and taken three points from a possible nine against teams that champions should brush aside during a run-in.

The inability to arrest a crisis is a familiar example of the lack of mental strength within the squad. Last year a last-minute equaliser against Birmingham was followed by two wins in eight games in Europe and the league that ended hopes of silverware; three years ago the infamous ‘Eduardo game’ and another last minute Birmingham equaliser led to one league win in seven that cost us the title.

Theoretically we are still in the race for the title but realistically we should be more concerned about losing second place than finishing first. We have trips to Spurs and Stoke to come, as well as hosting Man Utd, and show no signs of being able to turn the slide around before it is too late.

Yesterday was the ideal chance to draw a line under recent painful losses and show we were set to push Man U all the way. Instead the team was lacking in inspiration, vigour and creativity. It came as no real surprise that, following a busy international period and shorter than usual preparation time, the team would be under par but the extent of the drop in performance was still a shock.

What is more frustrating is that the lack of energy and creativity was obvious by the end of the first half when Blackburn began to look the more likely scorers. But nothing changed after half-time: no tactical adjustments, no difference in the pace of the game – just the same Plan A having no impact.

This was a must-win game where taking all three points allowed us to keep the destiny of the title in our own hands, however unlikely that may be. The desire for victory and passion for a goal should have been burning through every player as they entered the pitch for the second half following a team talk that made it clear anything less than a win was unacceptable. But we came out and looked even more timid than before half time. There wasn’t even a barnstorming last five minutes, or last fifteen minutes considering we had a man advantage, with four strikers and a centre back camped in the opponents’ penalty area. We just ran out of ideas and inspiration and, effectively, gave up.

The criticism of the team and Wenger continues to increase and more and more of even his most steadfast advocates are beginning to believe things will never improve until he is replaced. It might be different if our problems and faults were not so familiar, bordering on pathological. The end of an era is rarely pretty but we can only hope the atmosphere surrounding this one is not allowed to get so bitter that it spoils the joy of what came earlier.

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