Sunday’s 2-1 defeat to Brighton has inevitably been painted as yet another Arsenal failing Arsene Wenger must answer for. No matter what perspective you view the Gunners’ current malaise from, all roads – transfer policy, tactics, team selection, youth development – eventually stem back to the Frenchman after two decades at the helm.
Yet, particularly during the last 18 months which have been the most testing, turbulent and disappointing of his tenure, the constant criticism Wenger’s received has become a smokescreen for underperforming players to hide behind, knowing it will be the manager who bears the brunt of bitter condemnation regardless of how pathetic individual performances are.
Sunday’s game provides a classic example. After two humbling 3-0 defeats to Manchester City, the Amex Stadium should have hosted a collective reaction from the players, an act of defiance against beatable opposition to remind fans and Premier League rivals of the undoubted quality this Gunners side possesses – a World Cup winning playmaker, one of the most prolific strikers in Europe and a centre-half pairing that has been capped 70 times at international level – but there was no response and once again, Arsenal’s biggest talents and dressing room leaders were nowhere to be found.
Of course, away form has been a constant problem for Arsenal this season; they’re now tenth in the Premier League’s away table, picking up the same amount of points as relegation-threatened Newcastle, and their most humiliating result of the season came at the City Ground against the Championship’s Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup.
Once again, all roads trace back to Wenger and his strategy on the road, but there wasn’t even time for tactics to come into play against Brighton – seven minutes in and the home side were already a goal up through Lewis Dunk as both Seagulls centre-backs were allowed precious space at a corner.
When you’re talking about early goals from poor marking at set pieces despite the chasm of investment between both sides, there’s only so much the manager can really be held responsible for.
Key defensive players should be organising the team better, and leaders within the squad are as culpable as Wenger for ensuring the side starts games in the right way with the right mindset.
Regardless of the formations used or the personnel involved, that just hasn’t happened enough on the road this season – and when Arsenal have gone behind away from home, positive and immediate reactions have been few and far between. In most instances, the players have wilted in front of partisan crowds.
But when Arsenal fans turned on the players rather than Wenger towards the end of last season following a 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, Hector Bellerin particularly enduring a barrage of abuse, the individual and collective performances vastly improved – winning seven of the last eight in the Premier League and signing off the season with the FA Cup.
That shows how motivated and determined Arsenal’s players become when the focus is on them rather than the manager, but also highlights the lack of professional pride in their own performances when the situation is reversed.
It’s a problem that stems from notoriously mercurial talisman Mesut Ozil, who often evaporates just when Arsenal need him most, all the way through to the likes of Laurent Koscielny and Petr Cech who should be the unrelenting, dominant voices challenging this side from the back.
Throughout the entire team, Arsenal’s players just aren’t standing up to be counted – they’re playing below their own proven standards, safe in the knowledge it will be Wenger rather than them who ends up in the firing line.
No doubt, Wenger must accept his share of the blame for that. The idea of Arsenal lacking ruthless is nothing new and at this point it appears to have ingrained itself in the club’s psyche. Wenger himself is symbolic of that, kept in job despite a decade of essentially non-participation in the title race, and he’s guilty of it too.
At no other top Premier League club would Mesut Ozil survive so long while consistently failing to produce in big games, and at no other club would players like Mohamed Elneny, Mathieu Debuchy and Carl Jenkinson be allowed to stick around to simply make up the numbers.
Even including the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, Wenger’s shown too much faith in too many players that haven’t consistently produced for him and at this point, the lack of ruthlessness in performances is only symptomatic of the whole culture at the club.
But a significant portion of the blame belongs to the media as well, because they’ve allowed Arsenal’s players to get away with it for far too long, especially over the last 18 months. Blaming every problem on the manager has become a disturbingly superficial increasing obsession with English football, and particularly in the case of Arsenal it has made analyses of their flaws far too simplistic.
Sure, Ozil is often put in the spotlight and sometimes Ramsey and Wilshere are too. But more often than not, whenever Arsenal fail to meet expectations, the vast majority of the prevailing narrative is dominated by criticisms targeted at Wenger.
Perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence of clinging onto a job despite increasingly poor results and a growing share of the fan base turning against you. It’s clear Wenger’s lost his mandate to rule at Arsenal and the Frenchman has admitted himself that the uncertainty over his own future, some of which was self-created by non-committal and vague public remarks, brought added negative attention to the club last season.
It’s created a situation where every Arsenal discussion is inevitably reduced to whether he should still be at the club, how long he should still be there for and why the board are so reluctant to act.
Nonetheless, that doesn’t change the fact it’s become an object for Arsenal’s players to hide behind, an excuse to continue playing below their means, a scapegoat to pin their own failings onto.
There is no doubt Wenger has been the driving force behind Arsenal’s decline from undefeated champions to mere Europa League qualifiers, yet there is equally no doubt that the players have continually shied away from chances to respond to disappointing performances this season – including on Sunday.
Even if they have become unresponsive to Wenger, they’ve shown little pride their own performances and no Arsenal player at any point this season – perhaps excepting Wilshere – has shown any real willingness to try and truly affect the state of affairs.
They’ve passively ambled around, as if circumstances are beyond their control, seemingly waiting for the change to come from elsewhere. For players paid so healthy, employed by such a prestigious club, that simply isn’t acceptable.
It’s become almost too easy to blame the manager alone in English football and that rings painfully true with Arsenal right now. For that, Wenger, the Arsenal players and the media must all accept some responsibility.
But it would be interesting to see how quickly those hiding behind Wenger’s shadow suddenly up their games once again should the Arsenal fans put the spot light back on them instead.