Aaron Ramsey’s admission that the Arsenal squad had ‘at times’ let Arsene Wenger down this season is something of an understatement, but a welcome moment of recognition nonetheless.
Though it is difficult to deny that Arsene has been tactically outsmarted in key games this season, the performances of the team in the crunch clashes has lacked the sort of fortitude and strength of character that may have prevented defeats turning into humiliations.
The 26-year-old Welshman said: “We have let him down at times. It is unfair some of the things that have been said. People are entitled to their opinion but he has been great for me personally.”
Aaron’s sentiments echo those of fellow midfielder and former Gunner Samir Nasri, who also suggested recently that much of the criticism levelled at Arsene was unfair and that it was the players who must take an equal share of the blame.
These two are by no means the first players, either current or former, to have spoken out in support of the manager and so, the question is, are they right? Has the manager been let down by his players this season?
I’m certain he has.
The defeat at Bayern Munich a few weeks ago is the perfect case-in-point. At 1-1, and 10 minutes into the second half, Arsenal were performing OK at the Allianz Arena and were very much in the tie.
An injury to Laurent Koscielny and a Robert Lewandowski header later, however, and the team was plunged into a crippling panic from which it never recovered, going on to lose 5-1 in pathetic fashion.
As many have said, capitulations of that scale used to be freak occurrences, once in a season results at worst. In the last three or four years, they have started to come with the sort of regularity that makes every trip to a top-six side a potential thrashing.
A good deal of that fragility will be to do with the way the game is changing and how Arsenal have lagged behind a lot of their rivals in their approach to matches. But even tactical naivety doesn’t fully account for the nature of some of the hidings we have taken. That’s where the team comes in.
For the most part, the team as a collective is shielded from criticism by the manager, who takes the overwhelming share of the criticism, scorn and outright abuse in defeat.
But is that fair?
Arsene sets his teams up to win, and prepares them rigorously to play in a way that he believes will achieve that aim. When they cross the white line, though, the responsibility for delivering that falls to them, he can’t hold their hands any more.
When they get it right, and deliver on the game plan, Arsenal are as good as 90 per cent of teams in Europe, but those types of performances have been woefully lacking when it has really mattered, in the key games where big performances have been essential.
It has been in those games where a lot of players have simply wilted and game plans have gone entirely to pot. Undeniably talented players have resembled school boys, wandering aimlessly around the pitch, without motivation or direction.
For performances like that, and for the results they have yielded, Arsene has taken a lot of stick – and rightly so. It is he who assembles his squad, picks the starting XI, and decides the tactics for the matches. Any shortcomings in the players’ mentality or ability to cope under pressure reflects on his judgement.
However, there comes a time when the players must accept their share of the blame. In the face of adversity, when the best players rise to the occasion and change games, Arsenal’s leading lights have simply gone out, given up, and rolled over.
They have done their manager – a man to whom they all owe so much – a great disservice. When the chips have been down, they have not given their all for him, for the club, or for the fans.
So while it is refreshingly honest of Aaron to concede that the team could and should have done more, it comes when irreversible damage has already been done. The team should have regrouped after the defeat at Everton, or Manchester City, and truly resolved to triple the collective effort, to really give everything for the cause.
Instead, they have stumbled on, putting in a good performance on some days, taking a hammering on others, and never really showing the sort of character and fight to which Arsene was entitled to expect.
So while Arsene’s reluctance to change his style has hacked away at the foundations of his legacy, it has been the players who have ultimately ensured its downfall.