Incredulous. This is the emotion Arsene Wenger must be feeling after seeing his team go from being two goals up to a Wigan side battling for survival at the bottom of the Premier League, to losing the game three goals to two. I don’t believe that Wigan pulled off this comeback because they are the stronger side, because they aren’t. I don’t believe Wigan was able to upset the odds today because of their manager Roberto Martinez, and I don’t believe Wigan’s win had anything to do with a lucky break. I believe Arsenal’s loss can be saddled on the shoulders of Arsenal’s own deficiencies, rather than the positive attributes of the Wigan team who beat them.
First, it must be said, kudos to Wigan for being able to pull that off. They kept determined and focused even though to anyone else that game was out of their reach after Silvestre hit the back of the net after some poor marking from a corner kick. Congratulations to Roberto Martinez, for almost certainly keeping Wigan afloat this term. And good on Victor Moses, who was an inspiring substitution.
Now, onto Arsenal. After their midweek loss to Tottenham, it might have been expected that some feeling of disappointment and frustration would be felt by the Arsenal squad, because that loss to their rivals looked to almost certainly extinguish their title challenge for this season, and keep their trophy-less run going. But for them not to want to bounce back, for their fans, and for their own pride, shows a real issue of poor leadership within the squad. The only player in the Tottenham game who seemed to really want it, who seemed more than any other Arsenal player on the pitch to really want to win, was the veteran Sol Campbell. Who, on his performance at the Lane, will probably earn himself another year at the club. It’s been seen before from Arsenal that they have lacked a real leader since the departure of Patrick Vieira. It was most obvious when Gallas, now ex-captain, broke down a couple of seasons back at Birmingham, and then spoke to the press about a disruptive character in the dressing room. For that, he was stripped of the armband, and it was handed to the young, but exceptionally talented, Cesc Fabregas.
When one looks back on Arsenal captains and Arsenal players of past generations, we see real fighters, real hard men who were always willing to go the extra mile for their team. Arsenal’s squad was full of players like this. There was Tony Adams, who was also given the armband at a young age, but he had a never-say-never attitude and a real fighting spirit. The players who surrounded him were similar. Martin Keown, Emmanuel Petit, Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, and not to mention Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn. These players really played for Arsenal, week in, week out. Best exemplified in the unbeaten run they displayed, a 49-game unbeaten run that is a feat that most probably will never be bested. These were players that refused to lose.
But I digress. In today’s lineup, changes were made to maybe freshen the squad up and rotate a few players after poor performances at the Lane. Not to mention, obviously, the injury crisis, that has claimed Thomas Vermaelen, William Gallas, Cesc Fabregas, Andrey Arshavin, Alex Song, and so on. But what was really missing was the will to succeed. Even with some of those players, Arsenal showed complacency quite like this at West Ham this season, and at Sunderland where they lost a goal to nil. There are too few players in the Arsenal squad who would fight to the end for their club. It seems strange, since most of Arsenal’s squad have come through the ranks there; players like Nicklas Bendtner, Abou Diaby, Gael Clichy, Theo Walcott, and so on. None of them showed the attitude that was needed to hold that game, or to kill it off. Complacency crept in and a hard-working Wigan side were able to triumph over an Arsenal team that should not be allowing things like this to happen.
Arsene Wenger always comes out after victories in the press and speaks about Arsenal’s attitude, Arsenal’s determination, and Arsenal’s spirit. After coming back from two goals down against Barcelona, one could understand where he was coming from. But as soon as there are a few key players missing, most notably Alex Song, who has improved leaps and bounds, and Cesc Fabregas, the cover for those two players is completely inadequate. While players like Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky may have all the tricks and pace and technique to beat their man and score goals, they lack the mental attributes of players like Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas, not to mention Robin van Persie, who always performs admirably. It’s the lack of players like those that broke Arsenal today. And it’s a shame, because with all the talent they have, with all the potential they show every year, they never quite get there. Leadership must be a trait spread throughout the squad, and maybe the squad itself must be changed before Arsenal can reach silverware. There are too many players who look like they just don’t deserve their wages. A goalkeeper, a center-half, a midfielder or two, and a striker. All places where Arsenal need reinforcement. That’s every position on the pitch. That’s a bad sign. Arsene Wenger must go for experience, because while it is admirable that he brings players through, players more recently like Craig Eastmond and Fran Merida, these, and quite a few others, aren’t players who are mentally capable – though very likely technically capable – of taking a competition by force and running it to the finish line.
Congratulations to Wigan, but Arsenal have to look at themselves and return the faith Arsene Wenger has invested in them, or changes must be made.