"So, to Stoke we go. Frankly, a failure to claim victory here would be a travesty. Yes, Spurs are bottom of the league, but they were also really fired up as it was the biggest game of their season. Providing we can cope with Delap's long throws I think we should win. And not just win, but convincingly. If we don't it's a travesty, and even I, the eternal optimist will start to doubt our chances."
That's what I wrote yesterday about Arsenal versus Stoke. And it was true. On paper we should have won this match. There is absolutely no doubt about that. What there is doubt about, is what the fuck the manager was playing at today.
I'm studying early-modern history at school. One of the defining factors of that period was the way that princes strived to gain autonomy. And that is the problem with Arsenal football club: Arsene Wenger has been allowed to behave like a 16th century prince. He has such power he can do what he wants. I love Arsene Wenger - he's the best thing which has happened to Arsenal football club. But sometimes he does things which are baffling.
We have two out and out wingers in this side, who run at people and cause problems. Theo Walcott though, is also a liability in that he loses the ball and doesn't play pragmatically. On the other hand, Samir Nasri has a good football brain and understands when to play the ball. He can create space and do things which are just generally good. So, I can countenance not playing Walcott because contrary to popular opinion, I thought he was poor on Wednesday night. But Nasri played well! And he has consistently played well, and scored goals for us. And yet Wenger dropped him, and played Diaby on the left. If Abou Diaby could get some positional discipline he would be a good central midfielder. But, he has never played well on the left. And then, having clearly picked a team which was supposed to deal with the physicality of Stoke, he played Denilson on the right. That's big six foot six, 15 stone Denilson - if he could have played anyone more slight he'd have been giving Liam Brady a call for a talented 14 year old. This, was a shocking example of how not to pick the team.
Wenger has admitted he wants to emulate Arrigo Sacchi's side which won the Champions League in 1993, and the beautiful football they played. But Sacchi realised he needed a big strong central midfielder to break up the play. Marcel Desailly did that job for them, and it was his strength at stopping the opposition, which let them build attacks. It is no coincidence we haven't won anything since Patrick Vieira left Arsenal. The last big game we played in was Bobby Pires' last appearance for the club. Those two players understood how to win matches. In the 2003 FA Cup Final, Pires dribbled the ball into the corner in the last minute and kept it there. We had lost the league that year and he wanted silverware. Those two players, along with Sol Campbell have never been replaced.
We made a great challenge for the league last season through luck more than anything else. We were lucky that Mathieu Flamini suddenly played well for us. He was a fighter, who made sure we won games. Now, who plays in his position? Denilson. A good player, but not somebody who stops the opposition from attacking.
I could sit here and write we're missing Eduardo, and in some ways it's true. On a day like today we could have done with punting long balls up to him, much like we did at Goodison Park last year. But, we're not struggling for goals - we've only failed to scored in one game this season. It's in defence we're struggling, and it's a big problem. I thought we'd turned the corner when we beat West Ham - that could be the result which defined this team. Instead, we are still struggling. And I wouldn't be surprised if we beat Man United next week, because they don't pump long balls into the box, and Cesc Fabregas will have the freedom to play. But it misses the point.
The league comes down to results against the big four if you play well against other teams. But, if you consistently drop points against teams like Stoke and Fulham, they don't matter. We beat Man United twice in season 2006/7 but it didn't matter because we weren't really challengers. We can still win the league, but we need to play pragmatically. There are times, particularly in Europe, where we can play like Arrigo Sacchi's Milan side. But, when it comes to the league, we need to start playing a style which wins games, rather than admirers.
Clearly Wenger tried to do that today with his team selection, but he missed the point. It's good to have two target-men up front when playing away at Stoke. But if you don't have wingers who can cross the ball, they will do nothing all game. Wenger obviously sees Alex Song as his new Gilles Grimandi - a utility man. But whilst he may be a jack of all trades, he's not particularly good at any of them at the moment.
Pat Rice should have told Wenger his team selection was wrong today but because of Wenger's autonomy, he wouldn't dare. This is a good Arsenal side, but to win the league, we have to start winning not just when it suits us, but every game.
November 1st 2008 can go either way: it can either be when we finally saw what we were doing wrong and starting playing to win trophies rather than plaudits. Or, it can be the beginning of the end of the reign of Arsene Wenger if he doesn't heed the lessons from the Britannia stadium. I love Arsene Wenger as Arsenal Manager, but he has to learn lessons today, or we could be in a dogfight to stay in the Champions League for next season.
I love Arsenal and will always follow them but for every fan like me, there are ten who support Arsenal through the good times - just look at the falling attendances at Nottingham Forest. We have a 60,000 seat stadium and the most expensive tickets in the world. To justify that, we have to start winning on days like today.
Maybe I'm starting to get some perspective, but with respect to Stoke, losing games like today is shambolic.
Hopefully I'll be better tempered tomorrow,