Arsenal’s dream of returning to the Champions League after six years in the wilderness is disappearing and already the blame game has started.
The Gunners are not yet without any hope, but relying on the Premier League’s bottom side to do them a favour against an in-form Tottenham side is not a good situation to be in. Norwich City may beat Spurs and Arsenal may overcome Everton on Sunday – stranger things have happened after all – but the chances are slim, especially considering the Canaries have won just once in their last 15 league games.
In truth, Arsenal have all but blown it. They lost 3-0 to Tottenham last week and compounded the misery by going down 2-0 at Newcastle on Monday night. Mikel Arteta’s side have surrendered their advantage in the race for fourth place in a damning fashion, with Rob Holding’s red card against Spurs followed by a meek collective performance at St James’ Park.
The dust had not even settled on the result when Granit Xhaka took it upon himself to show what he probably believes to be leadership. The Swiss midfielder, who has had more than his fair share of controversies at Arsenal, came off the pitch fuming and took his anger out in an explosive interview, which did little but highlight the ructions in the Arsenal dressing room.
“People speak always about leaders,” he told BBC Sport. “We’re not playing tennis, we’re playing football. If someone is not ready for this pressure, stay at home. You can’t come here and play like this. We looked very bad today. The game plan was totally different. We played a totally different game.
“They were running us over from the first minute to the 96th. When you play like this, you don’t deserve to play in the Champions League. The thing is the pressure. If you can’t handle the pressure, it ends like today. It looks like we can’t do something against the pressure.”
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He is right, Arsenal did play a bad game, they don’t deserve to play in the Champions League and they can’t handle the pressure. But really the wisdom in saying such things publicly, rather than behind closed doors, suggests an effort at saving face, rather than an effort to provide constructive observations.
Xhaka has frequently tried to paint himself as a leader, and one particular comment led to widespread ridicule six years ago. “When I was younger, even though I had a big brother, my parents would give me the house key every day,” he said. “It’s in my head that I am a leader.”
House key-holder Xhaka sees himself as the team’s driving force in the middle of the pitch and as someone who is not afraid to speak hard truths. But ultimately he is just as guilty as his team-mates who he has instructed to stay at home rather than play alongside him.
None of what Xhaka says is new. Arsenal have been crushingly mediocre pretty much ever since he arrived from Borussia Monchengladbach in 2016. Arteta is obviously trying to turn that around – and the fact his team handed him a new contract recently shows the hierarchy believe he is on the right track.
Yet the Newcastle defeat showed just how far they have still to go. While Tottenham have been imbued with a steely determination, rigid organisation and undercurrent of the dark arts under Antonio Conte, Arteta’s Arsenal remain slightly naive with a soft underbelly.
Monday’s game was the 11th occasion in the Premier League this season when Arsenal conceded the first goal – and it followed in a worrying trend . Newcastle’s 2-0 win was the 10th time of those 11 games when the opposition has won the game, with Arteta’s side successfully coming from behind to win just once.
That shows a team which is a capable front-runner, which functions well when things are going to plan, but which crumbles under pressure and cannot overcome adversity. Mentality is a hugely important factor in top-level football and, as of yet, Arteta is yet to instil his players with the correct one.