It's been a good while since an Arsenal team has been boo-ed off after a home performance. Though the chorus of dissent that greeted the final whistle of Saturday’s goalless draw against Blackburn wasn’t a unanimous outpouring of disgust, it was loud enough to let both the manager and the players know that what they had produced during the match fell well short of what is expected from a team who, up until that point, still had the title in their own hands.
Things started well enough. In the opening exchanges, the Gunners looked lively and had their visitors up against the wall. However, the longer the game went on, the slower the tempo became and the less likely any sort of break-through seemed. By the middle of the second half, the match resembled something more akin to an end-of-season stroll rather than a game which had a bearing on Arsenal chances to win the Premier League.
Arsene Wenger - In Danger of Losing the Faith of the Fans©Getty Images
The introduction of Cesc Fabregas with half and hour to go did little to jolt the team out of their malaise. They did manage to raise the pace slightly in the closing stages but it was too little too late. The simple truth was that the Gunners were playing against a team with one of the worst away records in the league and they did not create nearly enough clear-cut chances. As the match wore on, the more clueless they seemed. Worse still, too many players showed a lack of urgency and passion. Considering what was at stake, not many of them looked prepared to die for the cause.
Three draws in a row in the Premier League, including two nil-nils in the last two home encounters, have probably cost Arsenal their chance of the title. With eight games to play it is highly likely that Manchester United will drop points but, the way the Gunners are playing at the moment, the notion of them taking full advantage and winning eight straight matches is surely beyond the belief of even the most optimistic supporter.
And belief really is a big problem right now. There was a palpable feeling in the stadium on Saturday that significant numbers of the home support have lost faith in this squad of players and in Arsene Wenger himself. It is creating a very fraught atmosphere inside the ground during games. There are those who think it is the supporters’ job to get behind the team come what may and others who will start picking holes at the first mistake. What is very noticeable is the amount of slack that the majority in the middle are prepared to cut the team when things are not going right is seriously diminishing.
At half-time and after the game, you couldn’t miss the discontent on the concourses and outside the ground. Every supporter has their opinions on which players are not up to the job but, more critically, there seems be a building groundswell of opinion that it is time for a change at the top and that Arsene Wenger must go - or, at the very least, drastically change his approach.
It’s hard to imagine him being sacked - after all, second in the league is not the total disaster some would have you believe. However, the days when the manager gets a free rein from the Board and blind faith from the fans are at an end. With a price hike in tickets planned for next season at a time when money is tight for everyone (except Premier League footballers), expectation is going to need to be met and the promise of “jam tomorrow” is no longer going to be enough.
Still, there is very little point in discussing the future of the manager or any of the players until the end of the season. With eight matches to go, however forlorn Arsenal’s prospects are looking focus has to be maintained on trying to win the next game.
As average as Manchester United have been this season, they seem still seem to be able to do “just enough” – a quality that has deserted the Gunners in recent months. The current difference between the two sides is perfectly compared by United’s victory on Saturday at West Ham and Arsenal’s draw at West Brom two weeks ago. Both sides were away from home and 2-0 down with an hour gone. United blast back to win 2-4 but the Gunners can only scrape a 2-2 draw.
Wenger praised the team’s fighting spirit after the West Brom match. That praise would have been more deserved had they actually won the game and not presented their hosts with a two-goal advantage courtesy of schoolboy defending. The Gunners now have absolutely no margin for error - and even that might not be enough. However, if they had any shred of dignity and pride in their profession, they won’t give up just yet.
So, it’s all doom and gloom at the moment but everyone needs to pick themselves up before next Saturday’s trip to Blackpool. Though the title is looking beyond reach, football can be a strange game and hope shouldn’t be given up until the maths make it impossible. It really is a great shame though that “hope”, rather than expectation, is now all we have got.
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