After Chelsea humiliation, where do Arsenal go from here?
12:15 24 March 2014
With Arsenal ordering a predictable media blackout in the wake of their Stamford Bridge capitulation, it was left to an opposing player to assess their title prospects.
Asked if the 6-0 mauling inflicted by his side had ended the Gunners’ chances, Chelsea defender Gary Cahill replied: “Mathematically this hasn’t knocked Arsenal out [of the race], of course not.
“But it is going to be tough, with a seven-point gap now. Arsenal have still got big teams to play and I think there’s going to be a lot of juggling at the top between now and the end of the season.”
Cahill’s analysis was spot on. While Arsenal are still capable of garnering sufficient points to put pressure on their rivals for the Premier League crown, psychologically they can no longer be regarded as title candidates.
Former Gunners star Alan Smith referred last week in these very pages to a “mental block” that Arsene Wenger’s team seem to find insurmountable whenever they face another of the championship front-runners.
Unfortunately, Saturday’s walloping in west London justified his fears – and it was déjà vu for Gunners fans who travelled to Anfield last month, the Etihad Stadium in December, or Old Trafford in 2011.
So how and why did it all go so horribly wrong?
By common consent, Arsenal’s back four have tightened up significantly this season, with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny forging a strong understanding that has been the basis for numerous clean sheets.
Yet the same pairing have been all at sea when put under pressure in the early stages of a match, whether by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge or Eden Hazard and Andre Schurrle.
In fact, how many times this season have the Gunners seized a game by the scruff of the neck in its infancy? The Champions League group match at home to Napoli, perhaps.
Maybe there are a handful of others – all of them at home. On the road, it is hard to think of any, and generally Wenger’s side have prospered by blunting the opposition and moving up a gear as the game progresses.
All of which suggests that, when faced with better quality opponents who take the initiative, Arsenal are overly predictable, they cannot cope – and they don’t just fall a goal behind, but very easily slide into a state of total collapse.
One way of countering this would be for Wenger to field players in front of his back four who specialise in tackling hard, breaking up attacks and weathering the storm.
Yes, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere are unavailable due to injury – in which case Mathieu Flamini should surely have been the first name on Wenger’s team-sheet.
Flamini’s absence at Anfield was enforced by suspension, but it is hard to fathom why the Frenchman was perched behind the dugout while swathes of space were exploited by the Chelsea midfield on Saturday.
Further forward, Wenger blundered by selecting both Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski in the starting line-up – neither player is much use when it comes to tracking back and helping to relieve the defence.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is capable of doing exactly that, would have been better deployed there instead, with Flamini operating in a deeper role alongside Mikel Arteta.
Wenger has also attracted plenty of criticism for his failure to sign a back-up striker to Olivier Giroud during January. However, the greater problem was the loss of the injured Theo Walcott.
Walcott brings qualities to the table that no other current Arsenal forward can – darting pace and the ability to nip in behind opposing defenders in the latter stages of a game, when fatigue sets in.
Once Walcott’s prognosis became clear, Wenger needed to move heaven and earth to find a similar player – and he had the best part of a month in which to achieve that.
Instead, the Gunners boss made one of the most bizarre deadline signings of all time by borrowing an injured midfield player, Kim Kallstrom, to act as cover in case other midfielders suffered injuries.
It would be easy to resort to the simplistic suggestion that a summer spending spree would solve all Arsenal’s problems, but the immediate question is how can Wenger now salvage the season?
Firstly, he must focus all his energies on securing the FA Cup – a trophy that has looked attainable for some time and would end Arsenal’s nine-year drought.
Second, he may need to think outside the box by experimenting a little on the field, when appropriate. How about reshaping the midfield during the course of a game or even (whisper it quietly) playing two up front?
And finally, the manager needs to jettison one of his favourite mantras – the idea that finishing fourth again is equivalent to getting his hands on some silverware. It isn’t and it never will be.