It may have escaped your notice given the relative silence it’s been afforded, but Arsenal’s rag-tag bunch of pre-pubescent pygmies lost out 0-2 last night to the very same Portuguese side, SC Braga, that they trounced 6-0 at the Emirates in their opening Champions League fixture.
The defeat represents a considerable if not critical blow to Arsenal, who would have confirmed their passage to the knockout stages of the competition by leaving the Estadio AXA with a solitary point, and will now have to rely on results going their way when they take on an equally limp Partizan Belgrade outfit in a fortnight’s time.
As is his way, manager Arsene Wenger refused to admit that his side’s utterly non-committal defending or aimless final-third clippery may have had anything to do with the surprise defeat, and instead choose to blame anything and anyone that he set his astigmatic, Gallic eyes upon.
First up for an admonishing were Braga themselves, who Wenger accused of using ‘every trick in the book’ to disrupt his (much-changed) side’s epic exercise in self-entitlement.
Of course you could feasibly argue that Arsenal were denied an almost irrefutable penalty by Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai, who booked substitute striker Carlos Vela after being unceremoniously felled by defender Alberto Rodriguez as he made his way across the penalty area, and that taking an away lead that late in the tie may have been enough to see the Gunners to ride it out.
However, the fact remains that Wenger’s agitated side then proceeded to capitulate, only to eventually succumb to a brace of even later, break-away goals from fleet-footed Brazilian forward Matheus, leaving the Frenchman to lament Braga’s propensity for counter-attacking (which is, lest we forget, a perfectly legitimate tactical disposition) for snatching defeat from the jaws of parity:
“We played against a team who refused to play and tried to catch us on the counter attack. They used every single trick in the book to slow the game down.”
We were not sharp enough to create clear-cut chances. Saturday’s result (losing 3-2 at home to local rivals Tottenham) had no knock-on effect, because I had seven players who did not play, and I had to rest some players.
I think we had enough on the pitch to make a goal, but football is like that when the other team focuses not to play. Everybody is free to play the way they like, and they won.
We could play 10 matches like that and win eight or nine times, but tonight was the one we didn’t.”
Braga were undoubtedly resolute, stubborn and aired a certain degree of gamesmanship, but accusing them of turning up to play ‘anti-football’ is a little on the rich side for my taste.
From where I was sitting a little, dare I say, tactical naivety on Le Professeur‘s part was (and continues to be) Arsenal’s Achilles heel – the decision to deploy Denilson (and Song for the first-string) as some form of free-radical anchor man is just ridiculous and an over-reliance on Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere to push play through a coagulated midfield often rendered the attacking triumvirate offensively impotent.
Anyway, after unloading his initial ire on his opponent’s, Wenger then turned his focus on UEFA’s ridiculously convoluted five-referee system, claiming that at least one of the ten eyes that were supposed to be officiating should have been able to spot and call the clear penalty:
“It is difficult to understand how we did not get a penalty. The five referees is not an answer to the problem. We were caught when Eboue was just down on a bad tackle which went unpunished.
The turning point was the penalty – I still cannot understand how Carlos Vela got a yellow card. It remains a complete mystery. The referee had some surprising decisions tonight. It is hard to swallow, but now we have to win our last game.”
On the officials, Wenger continued:
“We are going through a period where we have bad luck, we had Eboue kicked off the park without any punishment and we also had the penalty turned down.
What was the fifth official doing? We have another proof that it is absolutely useless, this system.
Then when we were 10 against 11, we made a mistake at the back, there was a minimum of communication and that’s where we were punished.”
Wenger also had to sit and watch as first Eboue then Fabregas had to hobble from the pitch (with damaged knee ligaments and a fresh hamstring tweak respectively), and admitted that the gamble to play the latter despite his ongoing fitness malaise was a risk that back-fired:
“Eboue will be out for a while and we will have to assess Fabregas tomorrow. It could be two to three weeks.
It is very disappointing because I had a hesitation to play him before the match started. I took the gamble and it backfired on us.”
You can say that again Monsieur, but let’s try and put Arsenal’s little slumpette into some kind of reasonable perspective.
The club are currently lying third in the Premier League, two easily-recoupable points behind the faltering leaders, having Champions League progress still within reach and sitting pretty in the quarter-finals of the Carling Cup, so two flimsy defeats in the space of four day does not necessarily a crisis make.
That said, if Wenger continues to stubbornly deny his considerable role in Arsenal’s ‘inexplicable’ failure to get beyond the dry-humping stage (and I really don’t think it’s just a public facade anymore) then, he too, is surely running the risk of beginning to undermine all of the exceptionally laudable work that he has gotten through during his 14/15 years in North London.