"I think they just wanted it more. You could tell they wanted it more. You could sense that from the kickoff.”
Post-match comments from players and managers are usually emotionless, cliched bits of guff that rarely give much insight as to what happened in a game. There are indeed the odd occasions where a player may forget the media training he did a decade ago and surprise everyone by admitting to millions across the world that his team-mates didn’t want to win as much as their opposition.
Theo Walcott’s poignant words after Arsenal’s fourth consecutive away defeat in the Premier League told us more about the Gunners' current state of affairs than the 28-year-old would have wanted to reveal. Walcott is generally one of the first players who will be picked for media commitments due to his polished, PR-trained persona which helps deflect away from a loss as disappointing as Monday night’s 3-0 hammering to Crystal Palace.
Arsenal didn’t manage a single shot on target against Palace in the second half, and despite trailing what many would consider a reachable seven points behind fourth-placed Manchester City with a game in hand, their hopes of taking points from another tricky away encounter on Teesside against Middlesbrough next week are looking like an almost impossible task if Monday night’s display is anything to go by.
“In the first half it didn’t feel like we were ready and then we went 2-0 down,” said Hector Bellerin after the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield last month.
There is something particularly telling about Walcott and Bellerin’s comments. A collective flaw in the Arsenal team appears to be more psychological than a case of inferior technical ability, as it’s evident that this current group of players possess enough skill and ability to contend for the major trophies. However, in 2017 Arsenal have regressed and find themselves closer to Palace in terms of points (20) than league leaders Chelsea (21). It seems like a long time since the Gunners rolled over Antonio Conte’s side 3-0 at the Emirates in September.
21 points behind Chelsea, 14 points behind Tottenham and another Champions League last-16 exit (seven years in a row now) makes this Wenger’s worst season at Arsenal. His summer transfer business certainly wasn’t bad by any means and the signing of Granit Xhaka is an example of a player who has found it difficult to acclimatise due to not being utilised to his best qualities.
"Like I said before, this isn't Arsenal at this moment time,” added Walcott.
The question is, who are Arsenal right now? The identity as a club steeped in tradition and success cannot be questioned, but this season’s horrific demise should be. Wenger warrants the majority of the blame as he is the figurehead who selects the team, signs the players, deploys the tactics and sets the tone for everyone else — but the players shouldn’t escape without severe criticism for the way they have imploded in key games this season.
Defeat in sport is inevitable. The centre of frustration among many Arsenal supporters throughout the 2016-17 campaign has been the circumstances surrounding each major defeat. From the sidelines it has appeared that members of the first team squad haven’t given every ounce of energy to the cause, and behind closed doors the revelations that players have fought with their team-mates only adds to the fractious atmosphere which ironically clouds the fans right now.
“You don’t see it often at Arsenal. Things have happened. They need to stay in the dressing room and the players and staff need to sort it out,” said Walcott. “We are in it together here. We can’t be fighting each other.”
The only hope for Arsenal to salvage their season is that they edge past Manchester City in the upcoming FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. It looks like Tottenham are all but certain to finish ahead of their north London rivals for the first time since 1995 too, although the apathy among many of the fans means that such a change in fortunes between the two clubs hasn’t sunk in just quite yet.
Meanwhile, Wenger still refuses to reveal whether he’ll be manager of Arsenal next season. It’s apt that the players have played like a team with no manager at times this campaign. Devoid of direction, motivation and leadership, it’s crucial that changes to the management come as soon as possible.