Premier League is passing Arsenal by as Wenger sticks to stubborn ways
LONDON -- It's tempting to compare another injury-weakened, quality-deficient, error-strewn and fairly spineless opening to the season for Arsenal to "Groundhog Day." The problem is that in the film, Phil Connors, the character played by Bill Murray, actually learned from the reoccurring history. It doesn't appear that Arsenal and Arsene Wenger have.
The Gunners have won just once on the opening day in the past seven seasons. That was a 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace in 2014. In other years, they have been tripped up by West Ham, Aston Villa and Sunderland. Two of the teams they failed to beat on those opening days went on to struggle against relegation.
Liverpool won't be toiling toward the ugly end of the table this season, but there was still a grim familiarity to Arsenal's 4-3 defeat (a scoreline that flattered the hosts) on Sunday. It was a performance that was less a football match and more a checklist for Arsenal's repeated failings over the years. Periods of dominance that weren't capitalised on, glaring missed chances, defensive frailties and a general sense of spinelessness were all there, with a couple of injuries thrown in as an added flourish, like throw cushions on a powerfully depressing couch.
It was interesting that after the game, Jurgen Klopp, despite being the winning manager, swiftly admitted a mistake, confessing that his celebrations for Liverpool's fourth goal (he gave scorer Sadio Mane a piggyback ride on the touchline) were excessive because it gave the impression he thought the game was over. The evidence that Wenger is not so keen to do the same was on his team sheet.
A year ago, Rob Holding made his full debut for Bolton, against Burton Albion in the League Cup. Thirty appearances and a relegation later and he was thrown in at the deep end after signing for Arsenal, theoretically as one for the future, against a Liverpool attacking quartet that cost near enough £100 million. It's fine and perfectly reasonable to make signings for years to come, just as long as they're not used in the present, before they're ready. Holding didn't disgrace himself against Liverpool, but he was still clearly a man -- a boy, really -- in over his head.
That's not his fault but Wenger's, who was left without his three first-choice central defenders due to a lack of fitness. And any arguments that those ailments can simply be put down to bad luck can be refuted by a glance at Arsenal's past record with injuries: When it's been going on for this long, it can't be bad luck. Wenger places much stock in bringing through young players, but using players like Holding before they're ready is jeopardising the future, as well as the present.
One does have an element of sympathy with his defence for fielding a weakened side.
"You're in a Catch-22 situation with the Euros," Wenger said, in reference to the players left out of the matchday squad after their summer exertions. "You have to give players a rest. They are not ready to play this sort of game. They will get injured, like [Aaron] Ramsey today."
Certainly this is true, and it is slightly rich for people to express concern about footballers being overworked and then complain when managers such as Wenger don't play them. But this defeat was about more than simply fielding a few second-string players: Liverpool had to do this too, with no James Milner, Loris Karius or Daniel Sturridge available from the start, while Alberto Moreno played because Klopp had no other option at left-back. Although, given the way the Spaniard played, "nobody" might have been a better choice.
Arsenal's predicament stems partly from a reticence and dithering in the transfer market, a sense that players who have proved themselves to be good but not good enough are kept and trusted: One thinks of Per Mertesacker, Nacho Monreal, Francis Coquelin, Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud. Say what you will about Ed Woodward's past record in the transfer market, but Jose Mourinho identified four players he wanted for his Manchester United side: Three were in place before preseason started, while even Woodward's sternest critics will forgive the Paul Pogba deal taking a little longer, given the complexities involved.
Meanwhile, Arsenal -- in dire need of another central defender and centre-forward -- have been mucking around trying to buy another attacking midfielder in Riyad Mahrez. Sure, there is talk of a defender coming in, as well, but Wenger knew some time ago that he would start the season without at least Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, with Gabriel Paulista's injury coming a week before Liverpool's visit.
Even if he regards all of those defenders as good enough for a title-challenging side, which is at best debatable, to put himself in the position of fielding a player, in Holding, that even he admits is not yet ready, is criminal. And yet, it's entirely predictable; it's as if, in a tumultuous and unpredictable world, Arsenal want to be the one thing everyone can rely on.
Arsenal have the money -- hell, every Premier League club has the money -- but Wenger seemingly remains obsessed with value, which at this stage is simply an abstract concept inside one stubborn man's head. The time to hold one's nose and pay the necessary money came some time ago, and it seems Arsenal are the only ones not doing it.
As an aside, Alexandre Lacazette scored a hat trick for Lyon on Sunday, while at the Emirates, as Arsenal's extended self-parodic art project played out its latest scene, Alexis Sanchez toiled out of position, alone up top. Timing is the key to more than just comedy.
The problem is that years of the same things happening mean even the most innocuous event can inspire howls of derision and frustration. In the second half, when the score was 4-2, Arsenal started an attack, and after a few passes the ball reached Alexis on the left, who didn't immediately cross into the box as he assessed his options. Whistles and boos rang out to this perfectly reasonable pause in the attack, because this looked suspiciously like what the fans had seen before: the start of another indeterminate prod at goal, rather than an incisive thrust.
They know what's coming, because it's all so tediously predictable. This is also partly the reason why last season, when let us not forget Arsenal finished second, is still regarded as something of a failure.
One of the signs that things are really going wrong is when someone, in the desperate search for some sort of redeeming quality, talks up the bare minimum. After the game Wenger commented that "mentally, we kept going," as if trying for 90 minutes is beyond the call of duty. Arsenal are standing still while everyone else is moving forward. It's no wonder none of this is remotely surprising.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.