When Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger told reporters that his side had no special plans to deal with in-form Tottenham Hotspur winger Gareth Bale this week, several onlookers raised an eyebrow at the Frenchman’s dubious decision.
The Gunners, said Wenger, should concentrate on getting their own game right. If they piece together a competent performance then, regardless of the opposition’s play, the win would be there for the taking.
In the end, Wenger’s side did indeed exhibit their lack of attention towards Bale’s individual skill – but they turned in a very ordinary performance of their own, too.
Atrocious defending from the Arsenal back four was present throughout the match, but Spurs made them pay in three mad first half minutes, as first Bale and then Aaron Lennon made the Gunners’ backline look silly.
What was truly extraordinary was the Arsenal defence’s insistence on playing a high line against a side with one of the quickest, most incisive teams in the Premier League. Both goals saw the respective speedy Spurs player beat the offside trap before finishing coolly past Wojciech Szczesny – as hapless Arsenal pair Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen watched on helplessly.
But the contrast between the penetrative nature of Andre Villas-Boas’ third-placed side and Wenger’s charitable defence was not the deciding factor in the match.
More worryingly for Arsenal, Tottenham looked more competent in almost every facet of the game.
Villas-Boas’ impressive outfit were quicker, more composed, had a higher sense of urgency, showed more desire and were stronger – both physically and, perhaps most patently, mentally.
When Per Mertesacker pulled a goal back for the Gunners early in the second half, you could be forgiven for expecting a typical Spurs implosion, not dissimilar to that which Arsenal profited from last season.
But Villas-Boas and chairman Daniel Levy have recruited and moulded a team which is capable of remaining organised under pressure. With Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson at the heart of their defence, Tottenham didn’t really look like allowing Wenger’s men to find a second goal.
It’s a big ask for the Gunners to make the Champions League places now. With Spurs seven points in front and Chelsea five ahead, Arsenal will probably need to win the majority of their last ten fixtures. Sunday’s result could turn out to be one of the final nails in Wenger’s coffin.
Wenger’s single-minded insistence on trusting his players to perform is admirable. Arsenal’s squad is undoubtedly made up of talented footballers, capable of winning football matches.
But the fact is that they are not good to win football matches on ability alone anymore. This is not the ‘Invincibles’ team of ten years ago. Wenger’s failure to set his defence up appropriately cost him dearly, and allowed Bale an opening that he would have picked himself if he could.
Such managerial mishaps are becoming more and more frequent. A fifth-place finish, or even below, will be even more difficult to justify.
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