The 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford against Manchester United was another watershed moment for Arséne Wenger and his current team as it left a serious dent in their title hopes with just 11 games to go. It was a languid performance from the Gunners who faced a very under-strength United side and lacked any urgency as their most recent title bid went up in smoke. Yet again, the label of 'chokers' is bestowed on a team where so many people are expecting better.
Lack of versatility and adaptability
Versatility used to be one of Arséne Wenger's strengths, his ability to transform players to new positions like Thierry Henry as a forward, Lauren as a fullback and Freddie Ljungberg as a winger amongst others, however, his lack of versatility in his tactics is one of his biggest weaknesses. Only on rare occasions, usually reserved for big European nights against the very top echelon of opponents do Arsenal change their possession-based tactic to compete with the opposition.
Usually domestically, Arsenal reverts to type; try to build from the back with swashbuckling attacks that usually leaves them weak and exposed at the back. Two years ago in key clashes with Liverpool at Anfield and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge they started far too open and exposed and by the end of the first-half were 4-0 down and out of the game.
Coupled with a sheer lack of game management from the players, evident again against Barcelona where they were sucked into leaving themselves exposed to a counter-attack late into the game which was ultimately their undoing and will probably see them out of the UEFA Champions League at the last-16 stage for the sixth consecutive year. Ultimately though, Arsenal don't set themselves up any differently in most games, they’re too predictable, even though Manchester United's team was under-strength, the teenagers on the field were all too well versed on how Arsenal would play and how to play against it.
Barcelona are the team Arsenal aspire to be with their heavy-passing game, when the Catalan side couldn’t break through Arsenal’s heavy defence they pulled a bait and switch, they allowed a bit of pressure on themselves and sucked Arsenal into pushing men forward knowing it would leave Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny exposed for an unstoppable counter-attack from their front three.
However, that’s a trick Arsenal never do, Manchester United’s defence is one of the best this season despite some woes, instead of trying to draw it out like Barcelona did to Arsenal, the Gunners continued to play into its hands even with two goals.
Lack of character
However, Arséne Wenger’s always played with one style or another, even in his successful teams they would tell you they didn’t focus on the opposition’s weaknesses, only on playing their own game which means this lack of success comes down to another fundamental flaw, lack of character.
How many times have the Gunners had a golden opportunity to achieve something - yet mess it up?
The 2011 Carling Cup final, AS Monaco in the Champions League last season, José Mourinho’s Chelsea this season, all chances to break hoodoos, this under-strength Manchester United has been Arsenal’s best chance at a league win at Old Trafford in a decade and they blew it in Arsenal style again.
Yesterday, when Arsenal needed a goal, really two goals to stay in this title race, incidentally the most open title race in years that might be decided between Leicester City - a team who last season almost got relegated, and Tottenham Hotspur - a team who somehow have a worse record than Arsenal when it comes to choking, there was no urgency. There was no-one standing up to Manchester United, no-one willing to get on the ball and drive at a team that was full of under-performers and youth team players led by a manager who’s been clinging onto his job since December.
At Old Trafford, too many senior players were passengers, there’s an old saying from New England Patriots Head coach Bill Bellichick who has won four Super Bowls in the 21st Century: "Do your job." – at Arsenal now, not enough players are putting a shift in when they’re faced with adversity.
Marcus Rashford might be a great striker in the making; however, he was given an easy ride for United by two senior centre-backs, something that the old guard of Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Steve Bould or Sol Campbell would never have allowed.
His goals weren’t unstoppable, flying 30-yard strikes like Wayne Rooney’s for Everton against the Gunners in 2002, they were two simple finishes in the 18-yard box, the second a free header in behind the two centre-halves. Experienced defenders would have ensured Rashford left with a few battle scars for daring to enter the opposition penalty box, not grown his confidence and stature by allowing him free-reign. Arsenal used to be an intimidating force that the opposition hated facing in the tunnel, now they’re too nice, too quiet, too shy to speak up, instead of being prepared to knockout an adversary, they’d more likely to tidy their shirt and buy them a drink for their troubles.