When Arsène Wenger drove into the Arsenal training ground last Tuesday he was greeted by a sight that spoke loudly on several levels: a grown man had put on the full Arsenal kit and was holding aloft a mock “fourth-place trophy”. It was yet another protest against Wenger’s regime.
Never mind the ridicule, Wenger would gladly sign up for another fourth-place finish after what has been an impossibly stressful campaign. But the chances of that happening look increasingly slim. It was not only the scale of this defeat by Sam Allardyce’s resurgent Crystal Palace that sucked the optimism out of Wenger but the manner of it.
The Arsenal team bus had been delayed by south London gridlock en route to the stadium. Once it got there, his players never escaped second gear. Going forward they hardly created a clearcut chance while at the back they were a shambles.
Arsenal had only once lost away to Palace, back in 1979, but this was a horror show on every level. With 15 minutes to go, and the game over, the travelling fans passed damning judgment. “You’re not fit to wear the shirt,” they chanted. On this evidence it was difficult to disagree.
Wenger must have known what to expect from Allardyce, his old adversary, but from the first whistle his players looked anxious in the face of the physical fight. Not that Palace only bullied them. They out-skilled them and, to borrow a phrase from Allardyce, they out-tacticked them, too. It was a glorious night for Palace.
Wenger will continue to rage against the dying of the light. Though his team must still play Tottenham, Manchester United and Everton, he will believe they can snatch Champions League qualification once more.
But even if they were to pull it off, where does the club’s aim of winning a first league title since 2004 stand? It seems further away than ever. In that context the question of whether to persist with Wenger through what could be a summer of transition will take on an even more venomous tone. Can the stubborn old so-and-so really be expected to reinvent himself?
At full-time it was revealing – if typical – that only the substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain went over to within 30 yards of the away enclosure. Héctor Bellerín eventually followed him, only to beat a retreat when he was jeered. The players looked trapped, undermined by fear, and their performance was most notable for its timid tone.
Wenger’s team left spaces at the back throughout and repeatedly stood off their Palace counterparts. Individual errors betrayed the nervousness: Emiliano Martínez sliced one clearance into touch, Mesut Özil put another simple ball there and Bellerín almost ushered in Christian Benteke with a panicked back-pass. That was just in the first half.
Arsenal’s previous foray into the mad-house had ended in the home win over West Ham United last Wednesday and a bracing sense of relief. At last Wenger could talk about having stopped the rot and a corner being turned. Since then, though, every team above them had won and so had Manchester United, to squeeze them down into sixth. Arsenal’s margin for error had become slim going on nonexistent.
Every Arsenal game these days is loaded with tension and what feels like a do-or-die significance. Wenger will say that it is overblown. Inside the club, there is calm – most of the time. Wenger and the directors are likely to wait until the end of the season before they assess whether to commit to another cycle and, remarkable though it may seem, it is likely he will remain.
The uncertainty over Wenger’s future has become divisive and damaging. The players know they must deal with extreme pressure but right now it is beyond edgy. The fans are desperate for clarity.
The evening had began in inauspicious fashion. At 7:15pm the Arsenal team bus finally made it to the ground and Wenger’s players could be seen in their tracksuits, bolting for the dressing-room. Özil looked more stressed than he ever has on the pitch. In terms of a guideline, the Premier League likes teams to be at the stadium 90 minutes before kick-off.
Palace were as stubborn as the South Circular. Arsenal’s defence has found itself under an unforgiving spotlight of late and this would always be an occasion when their physicality was tested. It is a pleasure to watch Benteke play but rather less of one to face him. Palace often looked for the high ball up to their centre-forward and the breakthrough goal stemmed from Benteke putting himself about above Gabriel Paulista and Arsenal losing their shape.
Palace scented blood at the outset. They put everything into their one-on-one duels and it was startling to see how unsettled Arsenal were. Shkodran Mustafi was guilty of two reckless fouls before the opening quarter was up.
Wilfried Zaha was a thorn in Arsenal’s side. He has the tricks but, crucially, he showed the strength to come out of the 50-50s and to keep going after he had been knocked. He has sometimes been accused of going down too easily but not here. Arsenal had nobody like him. Townsend, too, was outstanding, even if he went down far too easily for the penalty, converted by Luka Milivojevic.
Who took the responsibility for Wenger’s team? Özil tried to weave his patterns but they looked powder-puff and they sank without trace. At full-time Wenger made the long and lonely walk along the Selhurst Park touchline – once more unto the breach.