I tried to write about the game in the immediate aftermath last night and got absolutely nowhere, but to be honest an extra 24 hours hasn’t made it make any more sense. You can be prepared for most things as a blogger – a close fought win, a thumping triumph, an unlucky defeat, a poor display, but now and then something extraordinary comes along and all of a sudden you’re lost for words.
Some days, the remarkable can be hugely enjoyable. The 7-0 triumph over Slavia Prague in 2007 was perhaps the most recent, such was the perfection of the display. But too often in the last couple of years, the freakish has been painful – losing a 4-2 lead to Spurs in injury time, failing to beat Liverpool despite a four goal Arshavin flurry, taking the lead in the 98th minute only to concede in the 102th, and then what we considered the nadir – blowing a four goal lead at Newcastle earlier in the year.
And then came yesterday. In fairness, the game itself arguably wasn’t the issue – it was the months that led up to it that laid the platform for the battering we all feared. I’ve never known so many nervous fans before a game, not because of a big occasion, but due to a feeling we all had that we could be in for an absolute hiding. Whatever we imagined, it was worse.
I’m not going to go through each of the individual goals – not only would that make the piece ridiculously long, but it seems churlish – no-one can take anything out of the game, not even the better performers (Szczesny was good, but conceding eight and having your goalkeeper play well is not a pleasant combination to consider). The problem was collective. Defensively we were an utter shambles, never more aptly demonstrated than Nani’s goal, one pass beating six defenders and leaving him with a ridiculous amount of time in the centre of the penalty area. Utterly crazy.
Yes, we were missing players, but so were they. To all those who bemoan the absences of Vermaelen and Sagna, undoubtedly our two most reliable defenders, you should consider that United were without their own prize central defensive pairing. The difference was they had reliable backup. When Danny Welbeck pulled his hamstring and was forced off, it was horribly ironic that the man who replaced him was Javier Hernandez, a superb striker bought for a pittance. Compare and contrast.
The facts are there for all to see. While Jenkinson was excellent in midweek, he is still incredibly raw, and we should only really be glimpsing him in the Carling Cup, purring at his promise. Instead, he is direct backup to both Sagna and Gibbs, a situation that means he will see a lot of action this season, too much in reality. Traore has been unrated within the club for a long time, and it said everything about our paucity of options that a man untrusted by his manager, and imminently moving to QPR, was thrust out there. Unsurprisingly, he looked like he didn’t care.
In the centre, Djourou continued his alarming decline, making the most basic of errors, and whilst Coquelin impressed in the holding role on debut, he is another who should be blooded in the first team in less exposed circumstances. Ironically, it was his substitution that acted as the catalyst for collapse – when Wenger took him off at 3-1, thrusting Oxlade-Chamberlain on (another debutant, it case you were counting), I feared the worst. Frankly, removing your defensive shield in front of a dysfunctional defence, no matter how raw, is suicidal, and without him we had nothing with which to repel to wave upon wave of United attack. It was depressing to watch.
Some are clinging to the silver lining that the result means the Arsenal hierarchy cannot ignore the problems any more. I’m not. Quite frankly, if the awareness wasn’t already there then we have even bigger problems – everyone else could see it long ago.
It is difficult to know how much can change in the next three days – in an ideal world we would get a central defender, a full back (preferably on the left), a creative central midfielder and a striker, all ready for first team action. That, combined with the return of a few players, would make our squad look competitive again. But not only is four signings remarkably unlikely, what damage has already been done, both for this season and the confidence of our young players? What of Jenkinson, a real talent, who was ruthlessly exposed and eventually sent off? What of Oxlade-Chamberlain, who ran around for half an hour, barely getting a touch, and seeing his side ship another five goals? What has it done to them?
Ten years ago, a 6-1 mauling at Old Trafford wrecked the career of the then-touted and now-maligned Igor Stepanovs. I would be surprised if this doesn’t have the same effect on someone.
But, we have to look forward. Roberto Martinez made a lot of sense on Match of the Day last night (yes, I put myself through it), talking about how clubs can recover from such a humiliation. And he should know – he sat in the dressing room after his Wigan side had shipped nine to Spurs a couple of years ago. He made the very good point that this is where you really learn about players – do they get angry and build something from nothing, ensuring that this is the rock bottom from which they climb? Or do they fall apart?
It can be mixed, but you learn nothing about players, or people, in the good times. You learn everything from situations like this. Let’s hope they react. Fast.