Same old Arsenal, always collapsing

It should have been a celebration, but Arsenal's dissection by Chelsea in Arsene Wenger's 1,000th game exposed familiar and persistent failings.

There has perhaps never been a football club so entirely transformed by one man as Arsenal by Arsene Wenger. Style, culture, tradition, identity, location, badge ... all overhauled, all reconfigured in the image and according to the principles of one man. It has been a remarkable transformation; a feat not just of football management but of consultancy on everything from stadium architecture to the purchasing of gym equipment. And in the process, as you may have heard, he's racked up 1,000 games in charge.

Which means that when his team are on the wrong end of a result like Saturday's cataclysm against Chelsea, it's more his fault than anybody else's. Mertesacker and Koscielny, so highly-praised for so long, shredded. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the next great English central midfielder, risible with the ball and thick without it. Mathieu Flamini, inexplicably benched. Olivier Giroud, Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, translucent. Each and every one of them bought by, taught by, picked by, prepped by and sent out to fight by Wenger. "This is my fault," he said. "We got a good hiding. You don't prepare all week to experience that."

What's been interesting and encouraging about Arsenal this season (and in the last half of the previous season) is that they've managed to more-or-less eliminate the head-thumpingly stupid losses and draws against teams that they really should be beating. Bar Aston Villa at the beginning of the season, and the inevitable Stoke City the other week, they've managed to staunch the drip of silly points. This is what saw them to the top of the league this season, this is what kept them in the title race until recent disappointments. And this, a touch unfortunately, has had the consequence of throwing their ongoing and enduring haplessness against the other big teams into a thoroughly unflattering light.

Against the top teams their recent record has been desperate and miserable. Last season, they didn't win a single game against the other three members of the eventual top four; this season, with a home game against Manchester City to come, their record against the three teams above them reads played five, won one, drawn one, lost three. That win was a 2-0 victory over Liverpool that came before Brendan Rodgers had realised that playing on the counter-attack was something his team might be quite good at. More revealing, perhaps, is that in three of those five games they've managed to concede 17 goals. No team that wants to think of itself as a title winner can be dealing with the wrong end of tennis scores.

Teams don't always need to be the best of the best, so to speak, to win the title; in 2010/11 Arsenal finished first in the top four mini-league and fourth in the table overall. But generally, beating teams is a good way to finish above them. And while beating Manchester United and Chelsea has for the last few years been quite a difficult thing to do for everybody, to have won a mere four games out of the last 20 against each suggests that something is fundamentally wrong.

The quest for reasons has been going on for as long as this now-notorious trophy drought. Arsenal fans and considerate others will point to the construction of the Emirates, a long-term project in a short-term world, the consequences of which sit in awkward juxtaposition with the petrodollars sloshing around the top end of the Premier League. Of such circumstances are competitive imbalances made. But then, there are smaller teams with smaller budgets who have consistently managed to inconvenience United and Chelsea over the same period, as well as Arsenal themselves. It may not just be a footballing problem, but it certainly isn't not one, if that makes sense.

Watching Arsenal lose badly is a disheartening or amusing business, depending on your point of view.

To limply concede possession and then get unstitched on the break once is perhaps unfortunate. Twice is negligent, and three times is embarrassing. Six times, then, is almost dangerously masochistic. As a defeat it was unprecedented in its scale, but perhaps most troublingly for those of an Arsenal inclination it was largely unsurprising in its manner. Some teams, when they collapse, look nothing like themselves; Arsenal looked exactly like Arsenal. A midfield riven with weakness, a defence lacking coherence or commitment, a goalkeeping error thrown into spice things up. Heads that drop collectively and stay dropped. Even the farcical red card was vaguely in keeping with the overall theme of latter-day Wengerian inadequacy: these are teams that, in moments of high pressure or extreme disappointment, makes not only bad decisions but desperately, hilariously silly ones.

Watching Arsenal lose badly is a disheartening or amusing business, depending on your point of view. These bright-eyed fresh-faced ideologues, heads filled with dreams about the right way to play football, being bullied and provoked to the edge of tears by bigger, badder and straight-up better sides. The sense is that you're not just watching a team getting dismantled, but also a set of principles, for while Wenger's football has evolved tactically, there is still a core of unshakeable Wengerness to everything they do. The belief that nuggets of value can still be found in the transfer market. The belief that these young players are the finest young players and should be given their heads wherever possible. The belief that football should be played a certain way.

That last is what sent Arsenal out at Chelsea to, in Per Mertesacker's words, "start very strong and show people we are good enough". Admirable. Noble. Suicidal. And with each season that passes with Arsenal again struggling against the best — with each pasting they receive at the hands of Chelsea or City or Barcelona or Bayern Munich — the sense grows that Wenger, having revolutionised everything around him, has neglected to reinvent himself. That the principles that once elevated him to the pinnacle of English football are now hanging heavily on his shoulders, are undermining his team in the big games, are keeping the prizes at arms length. A revolutionary stays a revolutionary for exactly as long as they haven't changed the world; once they have, they're a conservative at best. At worst, they're a relic.

Principles are dangerous things in a world as pragmatic as football. It changes and it leaves you behind. It's not impossible to envisage Arsenal kicking back against the slow collapse of their title challenge, getting a few breaks, and clambering their way back to the top. But it doesn't seem likely; it doesn't seem like a thing of which this side, this collection of players, would be capable. That fourth place feels familiar and well-grooved, and the week of tributes that preceded the 6-0 takes on a strange and slightly curdled air. The down sides are back in focus: this is the man that invented broccoli, yes, but this is also the man who played Manuel Almunia more than once. The valedictions, the Best XIs, the reminiscences and anecdotes are sounding, ninety horrible minutes later, almost like obituaries.

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