A harsh lesson
After Arsenal lost another crucial game, Matt Stanger wonders whether change is needed at the Emirates, and why won't Arsene Wenger assess the opposition's strengths?
Last Updated: 07/04/14 10:06am
Another heavy defeat in a crucial match and this time to a team who weren't even on Arsenal's radar until two weeks ago.
That Everton now stand just a point behind the Gunners with a game in hand is testament to their remarkable form in recent weeks, but also emphasises another inevitable Arsenal collapse. Arsene Wenger insisted his players were still fighting for the title on Friday, but they showed none of the qualities required to reinforce that opinion at Goodison.
In truth, it was a woefully weak performance from a side who were top of the Premier League as recently as February 7. Arsenal have lost three and drawn three of eight matches since that juncture, scoring nine goals and conceding 16 to possess a goal difference that is now five worse than Everton's. But the Gunners' fall has not been met with surprise or even the vitriol of previous seasons. Instead, there have been knowing looks amid an air of resignation. Yes, it really was that predictable.
While Everton taught Arsenal a lesson on the pitch on Sunday, their impressive 3-0 victory also sends a compelling message to the Emirates boardroom. Look what can happen when positive change occurs. The Toffees were always a solid and consistent outfit under David Moyes, but last summer's enforced managerial change has seen them climb to another level under Roberto Martinez. Only once in Moyes' 11 years in charge did Everton finish with more points than they have amassed this season - and they still have six games to play.
Despite suffering relegation with Wigan last year, Martinez has proven himself to be one of the most exciting managers in Premier League and the contrast between his decisions and Wenger's was telling. This was a match that Everton had to win and Arsenal didn't dare lose, but rarely does Wenger change his approach to account for the specific strengths of the opposition. This view was underlined by his starting line-up in the 6-0 defeat to Chelsea, and it was the same old story on Sunday as the Gunners were left floundering at Goodison.
With Nacho Monreal and Thomas Vermaelen starting on the left side of Arsenal's defence, Martinez moved Romelu Lukaku to the right flank from where he surged inside to great effect, highlighted by his superb run and finish for Everton's second goal. Wenger, meanwhile, failed to address the hosts' quality down the flanks, with neither Santi Cazorla on the right, or Lukas Podolski on the left, offering the protection Arsenal's full-backs required.
This allowed Leighton Baines the freedom of the pitch in the first half, and he roamed forward unchallenged to set up Steven Naismith's opening strike. It was a typical counter-attack from the Toffees as Martinez instructed Everton to sit deep and remain compact, drawing Arsenal forward and then exploiting the space behind them. The system worked perfectly. Without the injured Theo Walcott or the benched Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to offer pace to get around the Toffees' back four, Arsenal's play was ponderous and aimless.
That Arsenal have conceded 12 first-half goals in four matches away to the rest of the top five points to Wenger's failure to assess the challenges facing his team. One such implosion could be seen as a freak performance, but the pattern in the Premier League this season has been conclusive. Wenger is both guilty of misplaced faith in his own players - especially when so many key individuals were missing against Chelsea and Everton - and also appears to frequently underestimate his opponents.
It is difficult to see how he can change at this stage of his tenure. Perhaps if certain players had remained fit Arsenal would have lasted the pace, perhaps Wenger will address the weaknesses in the squad in the summer and sign the striker he so desperately requires. Perhaps, perhaps. He was aware of those problems 12 months ago and did nothing. It all points to stagnation - a failure to move with the times that is honourable in some ways, but still reeks of a lack of competitive edge.
An FA Cup win would be the perfect way to bow out with dignity and, should Wenger decided to leave, Martinez must surely be among the candidates to replace him. The Spaniard deserves enormous praise for his achievements with Everton and his attacking style would breathe new life into a club that is growing cobwebs. This isn't to say that Martinez is a better manager than Wenger, but there is an argument that he would better for Arsenal right now. Familiarity is breeding contempt; perhaps now is the perfect time to change.
This article first appeared on football365.com