Comment and Analysis @ghostgoal
Arsenal’s 3-0 loss to Crystal Palace underlines Arsene Wenger’s decline
Last Updated: 11/04/17 12:18pm
Arsenal are waking up to the fact that their run of top-four finishes is coming to an end.
Arsenal will make the top four because they always do. That's the theory that's done the rounds. But it's bunkum. It requires a logic that relies upon the sort of wilful disregard for recent evidence that would surely find a receptive audience within the club's boardroom.
In short, it's the attitude that has got the Gunners into this mess in the first place.
And a mess this is. Not like Leyton Orient or Blackpool, of course. But this is an Arsenal team limping towards their lowest league finish in more than two decades and, for all the furore among the fans, this is a group of players seemingly resigned to that fate.
Arsenal's 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace was emphatic from the sluggish start to the insipid finish. "A humiliation," said former striker Alan Smith, and a fourth straight reverse away from home, the first time that has happened in Arsene Wenger's 21-year reign.
"To lose four on the bounce at a club the size of Arsenal is not really acceptable," said Jamie Carragher beforehand. He's right, of course, and there will be plenty of frustrated fans who agree. But acceptance is the overwhelming characteristic of this Arsenal team.
"They were sharper in the duels," Wenger told Sky Sports afterwards and, remarkably, his captain Theo Walcott seemed to suggest that the players were instantly aware that they were outmatched. "They just wanted it more," he said. "You could sense that from the kick-off."
Acceptance. It's the trait that sees them sleepwalking their way to the Europa League.
There could be long trips ahead then, but even the short one to Selhurst Park was too much for them on Monday. The team bus was delayed and not for the first time in 2017 the players delivered a performance to match - late to arrive and slow to start.
That too is now familiar. Former Tottenham winger Andros Townsend's 17th-minute goal was the sixth time in eight Premier League games that Arsenal have been behind inside the first 20 minutes of the match.
Palace joined Bournemouth, Watford, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City on the list of teams to do that and became the first side currently in the bottom half to beat Arsenal this season. Their players are finding new ways to make this worse.
"You're not fit to wear the shirt," was the chant.
It was hard to disagree as everywhere on the pitch players were exposed as not being up to the challenge. A third-choice goalkeeper might be expected to struggle and supporters have long since given up on the idea that Gabriel Paulista can be a solution in defence.
But what about the Brazilian's centre-back partner Shkodran Mustafi? The £35m man could not cope with the strength of Christian Benteke or the trickery of Wilfried Zaha. The defence was bullied but more worryingly than that, they appeared cowed by the experience.
And it was so predictable. Look for the big man. "It's been the plan against Arsenal for 10 years," said Carragher. Sam Allardyce certainly knew exactly what to do.
"Tactically, the players were aware what had to happen to beat Arsenal," the Palace boss told Sky Sports afterwards. "They leave Mustafi and Gabriel really exposed. They are just left on their own so if you can get to them quickly … you can get chances."
The tactic was illustrated by his team's pass combinations. The most frequent was Wayne Hennessey looking for Benteke. Fourteen times the goalkeeper linked up with the striker. Arsenal could not stop it. In truth, they barely seemed to have a plan to even think about preventing it.
There was little help around. Hector Bellerin's defensive deficiencies remain and while Mohamed Elneny and Granit Xhaka have added height in midfield, away from the comforts of West Ham at home that has not translated into presence or power let alone mobility.
Walcott has the captaincy but not the leadership skills from the flank, while the key men Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez could not come close to coaxing anything from their colleagues. Ozil losing the ball twice in a matter of seconds in the second half seemed to sum it all up.
"It's been a dismal performance, there's no doubt about it," said Smith on co-commentary. "We've seen the worst of Arsenal tonight. Rarely have I seen an Arsenal team show less spirit, togetherness, determination or bottle, you might say.
"It's the kind of scoreline that can decide a manager's future."
It remains to be seen whether that is the case. Indeed, the feeling persists that Wenger is likely to extend his contract at Arsenal manager. But one aspect of the stasis at the Emirates is surely about to change. The 20-year run of top-four finishes looks set to end.
With all six of their rivals at the top end of the Premier League table winning over the weekend, Arsenal are seven points adrift and now as long as 7/1 shots to make the top four. And from the boardroom to the pitch, a sense of urgency in addressing that issue is not yet apparent.
It really should be. Because the best argument for continuing with Wenger was the risk of losing out on Champions League qualification following the upheaval of his departure. Instead, he is presiding over the very decline that his ongoing presence was said to prevent.