It never rains but it pours – surely that phrase needs to be rewritten in the wake of Arsenal's disastrous start to the new season.
It never rains but it hails down with grenades would perhaps be a more apt metaphor for the beginning of the season for the North Londoners.
Before the game at Old Trafford, Arsenal were already being written off as a former force in the Premier League, with the lust for the head of Arsene Wenger growing among both media and fans. Even an 8-2 defeat was incomprehensible, though the suspicion was that it could be a humbling day for Arsenal.
Whilst Arsenal have a series of problems, context often gets lost when the media come to talk about such matters. Arsenal do have mitigating circumstances. For a start, they went to Old Trafford without a defensive midfielder and with a host of injury problems. And then both Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna failed fitness tests. With Kieran Gibbs, Alex Song, Emmanuel Frimpong, Jack Wilshere, Gervinho and Abou Diaby all out as well, Arsenal’s squad is depleted significantly.
The second caveat must be the start Arsenal have faced. A trip to Newcastle isn’t the easiest start to any season, but then to play Liverpool at home and Manchester United away is pretty atrocious luck. Facts are that against top sides such as these, weaknesses will be exposed more than usual, and it would be silly to judge a team depleted of half of their squad against a side as strong as United, even if 8-2 is a pretty astonishing defeat. Throw in a two legged Champions League qualifier, and there can’t be a doubt Arsenal have had the toughest start to the new season. Tottenham are close to that, having played United and Manchester City, and they are bottom of the league. It would be ridiculous though to start judging Tottenham on these two games, as it would Arsenal.
Yet if this is all bad luck, then a question is begged. Why are Arsenal so unlucky? Put simply, they have done nothing to make any luck. Wenger has been infuriatingly slow to strengthen a squad he knew would be short of three first team players from his first XI last season. And he knew the fixture list at the start of June, so the fact that they had such a tough start is no excuse for the Frenchman. And the Champions League qualifier would have been avoided had he signed some players last season, thus preventing Arsenal finishing fourth. In fact, if Arsenal had signed some experienced players 12 months, they could have been going to Old Trafford as champions this weekend.
And though faced with a daunting task at Old Trafford today, Wenger’s tactics were horrific. Some pundits wonder how an Arsenal side who were so impressive beating Udinese in the week could be so abject against United. And it isn’t a hard question to figure out. Put simply, against Udinese Arsenal had a defensive midfielder. This meant they were able to win the ball and build attacks the way Arsenal traditionally do. Without a player in the middle of the pitch able to win the ball, Arsenal’s whole system breaks down. It means they are reliant on getting the ball in defensive areas, making it harder to build an attack than if starting from closer to the middle of the pitch. Against United, Arsenal had just Coquelin; plainly incapable of performing such a job against vastly superior opposition. For Wenger to have persisted with his usual tactics was typical of his idealism; but hopelessly unrealistic. Particularly after last week against Liverpool, when Arsenal were as good as their opponents until Frimpong was sent off and they were left without a defensive midfielder. In that match, Arsenal were then on unable to win the ball back anywhere but in defence, and were impotent. Without vastly different tactics, the same was going to happen against United.
That Wenger failed to realise this, raises significant questions about his tactical acumen. Yet now, Arsenal seem to need a host of players; certainly a solid centre back as well as cover in defensive midfield as well as an attacking midfielder. Another striker and goalkeeper as backup to Robin van Persie and Wojciech Szczesny seems a minimum.
But to buy half a team and expect the side to perform at it’s best is also unrealistic. Teams need time to settle and be built. Wenger now is in a difficult position. He must buy carefully, not recklessly, but buy he must. All because he has left his rebuilding so late. But amid the gloom, there is a glimmer of optimism. Arsenal did lose 6-1 to United 10 years ago, and won the league the following season. But between those two events came five signings for close to £50 million. It will take that now for Arsenal to compete with United again.