Newcastle United came from behind to beat Arsenal 2-1 on Sunday. The result surely secured the hosts’ Premier League status for another season but also means that the Gunners are still searching for their first away point of 2018.
In mid-April, that record for a top-six team is nothing short of a scandal. It has long since been a cliche that Arsene Wenger’s side lack backbone, leadership and a willingness to stand-up and be counted.
Despite some high-profile arrivals, those issues persist and Wenger’s prolonged employment – and this does not justify in any way some of the vitriol aimed his way, which often crosses the line – is at the root of the problems.
That contrasts with Newcastle, where the manager, Rafa Benitez, is really the only aspect of the club that is right.
But, where Benitez is an organiser, someone who has a plan for every game, tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, Wenger does not.
His ‘play our game and we’ll win’ mantra does not work, for two reasons. The first is simply that Arsenal are no longer the best team in the league, capable of outclassing any opponent on any given day.
The second is that the modern Premier League, for all its faults, tends to suss systems out. The attention to scouting, planning and preparing a gameplan to counteract each side’s style has never been higher. A major aspect of Chelsea’s drop-off this season is due to scrutiny on how to deal with a three-man backline.
On top of that, Arsenal players know that their individual performances will never be scrutinised to the same degree as their manager’s failings. They are by no means the only club where this is the case – Chelsea is another – but it removes a degree of accountability.
After an Arsenal failure, it is always Wenger who takes the stick. That, either consciously (if we’re being cynical) or unconsciously (to be generous) must affect the players’ performances.
Wenger’s removal would ramp up the scrutiny on the Gunners players and force them to prove themselves again. Otherwise, the cycle will continue, with many players underperforming but getting a relatively easy ride while the ire is directed at the manager.
Of course further summer investment is needed. Petr Cech is winding down. Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi were brought in at great expense to fill two problem positions and the jury is still out on both to say the least.
But the issues run deeper than that. Wenger have to tailor their game to their opposition, especially on the road. Arsenal now have to shake off the psychological problem that comes with having an away day hoodoo.
Their players also have to stop hiding behind their manager and perform at a good enough level to finally get a win on the road.
Having such a poor away record is nothing short of a disgrace for Arsenal.