LIVERPOOL, England — At least the Arsenal supporters who had made the journey to Liverpool retained their sense of humour as Arsene Wenger’s team were being trounced at Anfield. Trailing 4-0, with the Gunners players trudging around the pitch, shoulders drooped and heads bowed, the 3,000 travelling fans broke into a chorus of “We’re gonna win the league.”
The problem with Arsenal, though, is that there are some people within the club, maybe including Wenger, who probably believe that to be the true. Indeed, goalkeeper Petr Cech said as much in a post-match interview as he criticised his team’s lack of fight and “unacceptable performance” before insisting they still had the quality to “win the league and, if I didn’t believe that, I would retire.”
Such is the sense of denial running through the hierarchy at the Emirates Stadium that this humiliation — and that is putting it mildly — could yet be seen as nothing more than a bump in the road. After all, we have been here before with Arsenal and nothing changes. Ever.
Monday is the sixth anniversary of the 8-2 defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford and the same issues and problems which contributed to that hammering continue to plague Arsenal to this day. Wenger remains at the helm, overseeing a group of players who lack fight, tactical nous and work rate, but it is probably too late to believe that anything will ever change while the Frenchman is in charge.
“I don’t understand why Wenger signed a new deal when he’s doing the same things and expecting change; it’s insanity” said former Arsenal striker Ian Wright after the game.
It would be going over old ground to revisit the decision to hand Wenger a two-year contract in May — the wrong decision at the time and still the wrong decision — but that move was symptomatic of a club stuck firmly in a rut, from top to bottom.
Majority shareholder Stan Kroenke sanctioned the manager’s extended stay, claiming that Arsenal’s ambition was to win the Premier League and “other major trophies in Europe” and insisting that the 67-year-old is the “best person to help us make that happen. He has a fantastic track record and has our full backing.”
The brutal reality, though, is that Wenger is yesterday’s man and this defeat highlighted that in so many ways. Tactically, for example, he is regularly outdone by younger, smarter coaches and Jurgen Klopp did just that. Perhaps more damagingly, though, the Arsenal manager seems unable to motivate his players.
Gary Neville, commentating on the game on British TV, suggested that those on the pitch for Arsenal players had “no pride in the shirt” and were “an embarrassment to the club,” yet they were all signed by Wenger and at least four in the starting XI — Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin — have done little to dispel claims that they want to move elsewhere.
Wenger had the chance in the summer to make wholesale changes, offload the underperformers and recruit hungry new signings, yet he brought in just two players — Alexandre Lacazette and Saed Kolasinac, neither of whom started at Anfield — and retained the dead wood.
There is no fear of change at Arsenal, just an ever-expanding comfort zone, and this performance against Klopp’s dynamic, determined team reeked of complacency and a lack of passion. Wenger referenced the insipid nature of his players’ performance after the game, but seemed happy to absolve himself of responsibility.
“Everything (went wrong),” Wenger said. “From the first to the last, we were not good enough – physically, tactically or mentally we were not at the level and we were punished. Overall, the performance was not at the requested level. It was very disappointing, it was disastrous. It’s true that we were an easy opponent for Liverpool.”
Last season, Wenger admitted that uncertainty over his future became a distraction for his players, but there is no such excuse any longer, something he conceded after this defeat.
“Last season, it happened after 30 games, this season it is after three games,” he said. “Our first two games, the performances were good, but today it was not acceptable. We need everyone to keep belief and focus. If some people feel as if I am the problem then I am sorry that I am the problem, but we want our fans to be with us even in a losing performance like that. The only thing we can do is come back and give them a better performance.”
It is a recurring story of failure against the big teams, though, and Arsenal showed nothing against Liverpool to suggest it will change anytime soon. Bournemouth visit after the international break, but then comes a trip to Chelsea and Stamford Bridge has become something of a torture chamber for the Gunners in recent years.
Over the last six seasons, Arsenal have won 29 fewer points against their top-six rivals than Chelsea and sit bottom of that particularly mini-league with just 65 points, one fewer than Tottenham.
Arsenal’s saving grace over that period, the one that kept them in the top four until last season, was their ability to beat the lesser teams. But while last week’s defeat at Stoke was a worrying sign of that changing, this loss at Liverpool was simply more of the same.
It is only August and the crisis has already started at Arsenal. It threatens to be a very long season for Wenger and his players.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_