It’s not that the European champions were better than us bothers me, or that they’re currently at their peak while we rebuild, or even that we lack the financial clout they have…it’s the lack of fight that hurts the most.
For too much of the first 45 minutes against Thomas Tuchel’s men, Arsenal were timid, insipid and afraid of making mistakes. At the first home game of the season, under the glare of 60,000 fans, with the chance to reinvigorate our league campaign – that was unforgivable.
Remember Brentford? They weren’t intimidated, they weren’t bullied or cowed, they saw no reason to respect our reputation, and they got the win. They may not have been able to call on anything like the array of talent we have our disposal but they showed that a good plan and unquestionable commitment can carry the day.
Arsenal, meanwhile, simply rolled over.
Everyone understands that missing so many starters (Gabriel, Partey, Aubameyang, Lacazette, White, and Odegaard) will have an impact on the team so adjustments have to be made and the team must galvanise in order to get through. There was simply no sign of that on Sunday.
The thing about Mikel Arteta’s team is that it almost never surprises you. In our heart-of-hearts we all knew we’d struggle against this full-strength Chelsea side and we did, badly. To make matters worse, it almost seemed as if we made no attempt to mitigate for the strengths we knew the visitors were likely to exhibit or to shape these guys into a system that might allow us to be competitive for 90 minutes.
Last season we adjusted superbly to deliver an unexpected but vital win over Frank Lampard’s side, this season we simply did more of the things that we tried at Brentford. On Sunday, as with the previous Friday, they failed.
It wasn’t until the team emerged for the second half, the game already beyond them, that we saw some intensity, the closing of space, some tenacity and stomach to fight. If you can remember precious little from the match, I can guarantee you remember Kieran Tierney’s 50-yard dash to put pressure on the Chelsea back four.
When Arteta took over, we could still expect to be competitive against these top sides, especially at home. There was still enough about the side to give us a fighting chance of a result. Now, I fear we are approaching the point where defeat is inevitable and anything less is a bonus. That is a hell of a decline.
Things won’t always be this bad. In a few weeks, we may be able to welcome back half a dozen starting squad members, plus any other signings we may make, the fixture list will look kinder, and the squad may have something like a shape and direction to work with. Make no mistake, though, this current torpor in which we are trapped is wretched – it’s as bad as it has been for 25 years and we may be bumping along the bottom for a while yet.
It is worth pointing out a few positives from yesterday because, despite the maelstrom of misery, there are still a few things to enjoy. Sambi Lokonga continues to impress thrust into the heart of midfield. He has good vision and is well capable of playing a telling pass. He also looks to move forward in possession and, as yet, doesn’t possess the annoying habit of killing momentum. Long may that continue.
His continued inclusion in the side is probably not what the manager planned so early in the Belgian’s Arsenal career but he has performed manfully and, in truth, will be in contention to retain his place at Granit Xhaka’s expense, when Thomas Partey returns. To think he is only 21-years-old too. The amount of room he has to grow and mature is encouraging.
He hardly needs it by now but Emile Smith Rowe already looks a markedly better player this season than he did even six months ago. His touch, his positioning, his vision – he really is a special talent and a credit to the Hale End system which has delivered a true gem. That a 21-year-old is so central to the team already is, frankly, a sign of where we are but over the next few years this guy is going to become a star and a fulcrum of this side. Like Lokonga, there’s still so much time for him to grow and that bodes well for this Arsenal midfield in the years to come.