I had, by accident, scheduled to have my cable replaced during the game yesterday. This meant I missed about a third of the game, for which I should probably be grateful. This was another season-defining moment, in a season that has largely been defined in terms of absolutely dreadful results. Thoughts as follows:
* The team selection was fine, other than Coquelin starting at right-back. He's not a right-back, and clearly doesn't want to play there. Indeed, I'd go one further and ask what Coquelin brings to the squad. I'd genuinely rather have Denilson in his place at the moment. As Arse2mouse put it, Coquelin's main ability seems to be running around a lot - i.e., the minimum of what you should expect in a game that is fundamentally based around, yes, running around a lot.
* So, I missed most of the first half, but that's not really a problem with Arsenal nowadays. Our first-half performances have become the equivalent of an extended warm-up. We saunter around a bit, stretch our legs, hit some range-finders. The days in which we put three goals past an opposing team in the first-half are long, long gone.
* Still, we certainly should have gone in at half-time at least one goal ahead, with Gervinho scuffing the ball wide when put through one-on-one with the keeper. He may well have lit up the ACN, but he still looks rubbish in the Premier League. I fear that he is soon going to be added to the lengthy list of recent signings at Arsenal who we can't get rid of once it's become apparent that they are not good enough for top-level football. Yes, he probably was really good at Lille. And I'm sure he has stood out while playing for the Ivory Coast. But the standard of much of Ligue Un, and, to be frank, international football, is not anywhere near the level of the Premier League or the Champions League. He looks out of his depth, and we need to ship him out in May.
* There was no marked increase in urgency after half-time, which was strange. You might have thought that the team would feel somewhat embarrassed at not being able to dispatch a very mediocre Championship side, but no. Rosicky, who I still feel should be no more than a squad player, did at least try to make things happen, and was unlucky not to score with a thunderous strike from outside the area which smacked against the bar.
* So, naturally, Arsene took Rosicky off when he finally decided (20 minutes too late) that we needed to make some substitutes. Abou "lovechild" Diaby was naturally left on, for reasons unknown. So far this year, Abou has played about two good games of football, both at the start of the season. Then he, predictably, had a "3-4 week" injury, that saw him miss three months of a 9 month season. Since he's returned, he's gone back to default Diaby mode. Tacking 50 touches of the ball where two will do, and generally strolling around the midfield, slowing down play. For some reason, I've always thought of Diaby as a young player - but he's now 26. Considering the position he plays, he should be dictating matches, and dominating in the midfield. He doesn't really. Our baffling, continued reliance on Diaby has meant that we haven't gone out and done the business in the market that we really need to do. Another one that needs to leave in the summer.
* The goal, when it came, was a predictable comedy of errors. Where to start? Coquelin being all over the place? Walcott not bothering to track his runner? Or Szczesny palming the ball straight back into the danger zone? It was that classic mixture of incompetence and laziness that has seen us concede so many goals in the last few years. It's one thing to be beaten by moments of brilliance by the opposition; it's quite another to consistently self-destruct in the manner that we do all so often. It's pathetic and embarrassing.
* We have to sign a goalkeeper in the summer. Szczesny needs more than Mannone and Martinez as competition. Szcz may well grow into a brilliant keeper, but at the moment he costs us more points and more games than he wins. Yes, he was amazing at Sunderland last week. But how many times has that happened this season? And how many times could the opposite be said? Too many.
* But, in fairness to the defence, their errors are always going to be magnified if we can't score at the other end of the field. And when Theo Walcott is your leading goalscorer, you know you have problems. Giroud, well, I just don't think he's good enough to be our starting striker. A willing back-up, yes. But nothing more than that. I think we've again got a player who looked fantastic in Ligue Un, but who has struggled when introduced to a higher level of competition. It drives me mad that we have one of the most clinical strikers in Europe, Podolski, but we refuse to play him centrally, and instead seem to have given this season over to developing Giroud.
* There was a bit of a scramble towards the end, but for once I just didn't see a comeback occurring and it didn't. The boos were loud at the end, and expected. Another trophyless season beckons, and this time it's happened with an extra layer of humiliation. Knocked out of the League Cup by a League Two side, and out of the FA Cup by a Championship side. And, in both cases, we put out teams that should have had enough to win the game. We may well get a draw or even a win on Tuesday, but anyone who thinks we will win the tie over two legs has a level of optimism with which I have no empathy.
* And so, here we are again. Arsenal's most successful manager is now presiding over an era that will go down as one of the most barren in the club's history. The quest for fourth place has now become more bizarre than ever. If we, supposedly, don't have the resources to compete on more than one front, then what's the point of qualifying for the Champions League. The pay day that the group stages bring? Because that's all we've really been getting over the last few years. A few good performances against group stage teams, then a swift exit in the knockout phase.
At this stage, any other manager at any other top-level club would have been sacked. No other club has given their manager as much power or as much leeway as Arsenal and Arsene. Yes, Chelsea and City are committing the equivalent of financial doping. But are United? No. They just have a vastly superior manager who refuses to accept mediocrity in the way that Arsene has at Arsenal for so long now. Would Ferguson allow players like Squillaci and Almunia to hang around the club, picking up paychecks for doing F*ck all for years? Would other top managers play the same tactics week-in, week-out regardless of opposition? Would other top managers continue to see defensive organization as a mere afterthought in comparison to pretty, possession football? No.
I have wanted Arsene to turn this around because he clearly loves Arsenal, and he has taken this club to a level that few could have dreamed of in 1996. But he is now stuck in a rut. The flaws have piled up and multiplied, and I don't know if he is capable of performing the sytematic overhaul of the playing and coaching staff that is required to make the club successful again. Because, as much as we can argue over the finances available to him (and really there is no argument - just look at the annual report), if players aren't "focused" or motivated, or continually play "with the handbrake on" that is largely due to his coaching and his management of the squad.
The final nail in my belief that Arsene is the man to take the club forward was the January transfer window. Yes, we signed Monreal, of whom the jury is still firmly out. But that was it. We still haven't replaced Song. We are still, essentially, gambling on Giroud gaining the consistency that has eluded him thus far. Wenger essentially said that left-back was the only position in the squad that needed strengthening. That, I'm afraid, is mental. We are 21 points behind Manchester United - everyone's position in the team should be under examination.
Ultimately, the question is simple: Is Wenger still the best man for the job? I think it is very hard to answer that question positively at the moment. And, for the first time, I think a majority of Arsenal fans feel that way too.