Chelsea started well, and were two-nil up before their fans remembered to sing for Roberto di Matteo. At the game’s end, though, it was Arsenal who looked the better side and, for a while in the middle of the second half, even the more likely winners. Arsene Wenger’s frustration, as he bemoaned Arsenal’s second slow start in a week against big name opposition, as he delivered his measured assessment of a damaging 2-1 defeat was palpable.
Wenger used to be famed for spouting utter nonsense in the wake of a defeat, blaming referees, ball-boys, opposition managers, Lee Cattermole, rugby, the weather, the FA, zip-manufacturers and bad pitches for any and every defeat. Like Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, Wenger’s default mode was to externalise causes and, in so doing, protect his players. Not anymore.
The Wenger of today is the opposite of this. Recent defeats have seen him looking inside, deep inside, his squad for reasons.
"The team has fantastic quality and spirit but we only come into the game when we're 2-0 down … that’s worrying. There’s a psychological part of it, for sure, because we didn't really go for it at the start again".
The irony of this is that under his new approach, Wenger’s words have become even harder to match to the reality of his players’ performances: "fantastic quality and spirit", really? At least when he used to say that Stoke were a rugby team we could see what he meant.
Of course, it may well be that there is a "psychological" aspect to Arsenal’s recent poor performances – poor starts in particular – but the real reasons why Arsenal find themselves in sixth place and 22 points off the top of the table are much more superficial: their players, though good, are not quite good enough.
Take Olivier Giroud – we could think of the French international, for a few reasons, as the poster boy for Arsenal’s not-quite-good-enoughness. Giroud is a good player, no doubt, and he is making a good fist of his first season in English football (especially when you consider who he’s replacing and the complete lack of an alternative to rotate/combine with). He wins a lot of headers – thereby offering Arsenal a Plan B (although given the aforementioned lack of an alternative this renders the idea of Arsenal’s Plan A somewhat moot) – can shoot really hard with his left foot, scores some goals and does a nice line in one touch lay-offs. However, and this is the big and representative problem, he is NOT quite good enough. Think back to yesterday’s game and you’ll see what I mean; if he had been good enough, Arsenal would have been 1-0 up when Ramires stood on Francis Coquelin. He isn’t, so they weren’t. And this is Arsenal’s difficulty.
You might object that I’m generalising. I would counter, nay I will counter, that I am. That is exactly my point, Giroud’s not-quite-good-enoughness is, in fact, Arsenal’s general level (pretend to have read the obligatory excusing of "lionhearted" Jack Wilshere here). Look at their midfield yesterday. Coquelin, Wilshere and Abou Diaby are all good players, but they have played less than twenty Premier League games between them in the last season and a half. That is not good enough: Arsenal’s midfield yesterday was not quite good enough.
Wojech Szczesny is an excellent shot stopper, deals well with crosses and shouts at his defence. But he routinely over-commits himself – see the first game of the Euros, last season’s 5-2, Ba’s chance yesterday and the penalty – which means that he's just not quite good enough. Theo Walcott is fast and a good finisher; he can’t pass. Thomas Vermaelen is strong in the tackle and decent in the air; but he never knows where his defensive partner is. Per Mertesacker is very tall; he can’t run. Gervinho.
Pick any Arsenal player (except Santi Carzola, for he is a dreamboat) and the same is true. They will be good; but not quite good enough: even Arsenal's best players are not quite good enough to compensate for the weaknesses of their colleagues.
But, you might object again, "no player is perfect (except Santi Carzola); you could do the same with any Premier League team". And you’d be right, you could. Every team – by the nature of teams in general – is a compound of different parts. Ideally, though, a team is greater than the sum of its parts. As such, we can infer that most good teams must work on mutually compensating for individual weaknesses (either tactically, acquisitively or technically) and that Arsenal don’t. That Wenger confuses his team’s obvious not-quite-good-enoughness (which has been especially blatant in recent first halfves) for opaque psychological deficiencies is worrying and is not going to make things better any time soon.