Arsenal’s League Cup Final defeat brought a familiar reaction. They were semi-humiliated at Wembley and a very distant second best, but that seemed indicative of the technical gulf between the two sides. Prior to that game beginning, a 3-0 Manchester City win felt like an entirely predictable result; Pep Guardiola’s team are, on any given day, three goals better than Arsenal.
And that is better. Not psychologically superior or mentally tougher, even are those things as well, but first and foremost they are actually better. Those two teams are not footballing equals.
This is relevant because it’s too commonly overlooked. When Arsenal lose matches now, they are whipped with the same list of pejorative descriptions. They are always spineless, gutless and weak.
The lesser issue with that, obviously, is that it often does a disservice to their opposition. It pretends, perhaps unwittingly, that all would be well were it not for those dreaded intangibles - that if the Arsenal players had arrived at Wembley in the right state of mind, then they would have had a fighting chance of leaving with the trophy.
It was a similar situation on their last visit to the national stadium, when they lost 1-0 to Tottenham. Arsenal exhibited a whole rainbow of structural deficiencies that day too, and yet it was a loss that was largely attributed to an absence of spirit - to not understanding the culture of the rivalry and to not matching the desire of their neighbours.
In both cases, the criticism isn’t entirely unjust. Arsenal have a long history of failing when it really matters and that, quite understandably, has instructed the narrative which surrounds them. However, there’s a very real danger that these criticisms are starting to obscure more significant issues and that any emotional weakness is a multiplier of their problems rather than a true cause.
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For the sake of clarity, it’s worth inverting this situation: are Manchester City in the position they currently are because of teflon self-belief, or is such confidence the result of squad depth, ability, and long winning sequences? Of course, it’s the latter - it’s a footballing truism. There’s some worth in having particular personality types within a team, but not nearly as much as there is in prolific goalscorers, a mechanically reliable midfield and a defence which doesn’t concede one avoidable goal, like clockwork, every week.
Arsenal are heading for a reset. Arsene Wenger might leave this year or he may defer his retirement until 2019, but eventually he will depart and the club will have to grow into the gaps which are left. It’s critical, though, for that process to begin with a dispassionate, accurate evaluation of what they are as a team: they’re not psychologically flawed, they’re just not particularly good.
The context of the top six makes that overwhelmingly apparent. They posses by far the most understocked and imbalanced midfield within that group of clubs, their defence lacks a single elite performer who can be relied upon, and their forward line, while superficially impressive, is really just a collection of famous names unbound by any real chemistry. Some of the other teams may share a couple of those issues, but Arsenal are the only one possessing them all - and the Premier League table reflects that.
It’s fair, at this point, to note that they don’t possess the financial advantages held by either of the Manchester clubs or even Chelsea, but then that doesn’t explain away the increasing distance between them and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool or, more gallingly, Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs. Instead, those gaps are characterised by coaching and recruiting deficiencies: both of those teams are better built. They don’t benefit from invulnerable cores or particular personality genes, but more sturdy foundations and fresher, more relevant tactical ideas.
The fragility is a result of that, not a cause. The line of attack which claims otherwise is - and has always been - based on a set of reflexive observations which have no real worth and are only repeated out of habit.
Arsenal aren’t weak, they’re just not good enough.