It may have been an Arsenal side with an unfamiliar look in action at Newcastle on Sunday but the mistakes, the stupidity, and the result had an all-too-familiar feel to them as the Gunners lost out at St James’ Park.
The match followed a pattern that we have all seen countless times before in 2017/18 – the Gunners moved ahead relatively early on, the opposition didn’t panic, bided their time, and Arsenal duly gift-wrapped them the chances they knew would come. And how.
It’s a dish we’ve been served before as Arsenal fans and it was every bit as rank today as it has been over the last nine or so months. It was as feeble as it was inevitable and it has resulted – incredibly – in Arsenal becoming the only side in the Premier League not to collect a point away from home in 2018. That is truly remarkable and embarrassing in equal measure.
It should be embarrassing enough to force the squad into re-doubling their efforts in every away match in order to rid themselves of that particular tag but, of course, it doesn’t. They simply rinse and repeat. They watch the videos of their most recent humiliation, shrug their shoulders, and hope doing the same again will yield a different result. It doesn’t.
Rafa Benitez is an astute manager with a reputation for getting his tactics right. He knew, as so many others have shown this season, that squeezing Arsenal high and denying them space was the best way to get a result. In all honesty, there isn’t a man, woman, or child left on planet earth who doesn’t know that.
And yet Arsenal have no response to it. No way of coping with it, mitigating it, combating it, or out-manoeuvring it. They simply succumb to it.
Shkodran Mustafi is the epitome of this team’s defensive decline and its tendency to fold under pressure. Time and again in recent months he has shown himself error prone, simply switching-off to everything around him, and so it proved again for Newcastle’s equaliser today.
While Petr Cech hardly covered himself in glory, it was the German who, once again, allowed his man to waltz ahead of him to meet the ball at the near post.
And it didn’t stop there for the Gunners. As if gifting the opposition a single goal wasn’t enough, they contrived to hand them the winner, too. The normally-reliable Nacho Monreal committed a comedy of errors while Mustafi watched on and flung his arms around a bit.
It’s so frustrating as to be maddening and shows that, despite winning six and drawing one of our last seven matches, we really haven’t learned a thing defensively. Improvements at the back are short-lived and come in cycles of three or four games before the manager decides he has had enough and allows the team to revert to type.
In old school Football Manger terms, he sets the team to ‘gung ho’ and cares little for the consequence. Another game, another relegation-threatened side putting goals past our defence.
While much of my ire is (rightly) saved for the defence, it would be remiss not to save some for our forward players, too. Alex Iwobi, while technically gifted and capable in possession, simply cannot finish. Whether it be a shot or a final ball, he spurns one or two excellent chances in almost every match in which he plays and it was true again at Newcastle.
Credit to the man for getting in good positions and fashioning good chances but it is almost pointless given his tendency to panic, rush and, invariably, make a hash of things in front of goal.
Alexandre Lacazette, Joe Willock and Callum Chambers were all also culpable for missing some excellent opportunities against a poor Newcastle side.
Given how abject our defending has proved to be this season, it was crucial that we scored goals to offset that and we simply didn’t. We allowed another winning position to slip through our fingers by succumbing to the same old flaws.
While there is nothing Arsene Wenger can do about bad decisions the players make on the pitch, there is plenty he can do to minimise the risk of them getting into those sorts of situations and yet, despite overwhelming evidence, he has failed to do anything material to address the many and obvious flaws this side has.
Set in its proper perspective, this defeat means little to our league season. Our race was run a long time ago in terms of a top four finish. That doesn’t excuse the level of performance, however, and nor does it excuse the same old mistakes we have seen far too many times already in 2017/18. All it does serve to show is that change is so badly needed at the top.
This defeat is the reason our attendances are so poor at the Emirates at the moment and it is, ultimately, the reason why we are a club in decline.