When Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp went over to shake hands with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger at the conclusion of the duel between the two sides, the German would have been well within his rights to sign off with the phrase, “And there endeth the lesson”. Klopp’s side came to the Emirates and played the perfect ‘smash and grab’ victory, and although this loss does not altogether dent Arsenal’s hopes of a safe passage from the group stages, it does perhaps put the rest of their season so far into perspective.
Following their emphatic 4-1 win at home to Norwich on Saturday, the Gunners went two points clear at the top of the Premier League and with their 6th win in 8 games, fans and press were waxing lyrical about the Arsenal’s chances of winning their first trophy since 2005. However, there were plenty of others who recognised that although Arsenal have started exceptionally well, talk of the North London side being ‘back to their best’ may be a touch premature, their naïve loss at home to Dortmund adding weight to that assertion.
It is not that Arsenal were poor against the Bundesliga runners up, but it was nonetheless an immature display; the like of which we have often seen over the last 9 years. The Gunners enjoyed plenty of possession, but did precious little with it, and allowed themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security before Robert Lewandowski arrived to slam home and seal all 3 points for his side.
Whilst the loss clearly has implications for Arsenal’s Champions League progress, I’d also venture that the result is quite instructive in terms of their Premier League hopes too. Arsenal may have been getting all the plaudits in recent weeks, but let’s face it: they haven’t really played anyone of note.
Wenger’s side lost at home to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, before beating Fulham, Tottenham, Sunderland, Stoke City and Swansea. They then drew with West Brom at the Hawthorns before enjoying their emphatic victory against the Canaries on Saturday. In that list of matches played so far, the big teams are conspicuous by their absence. Even Tottenham – a side who have finished lower than Arsenal every year since 1995 – were not at their best when they faced the Gunners as they struggled to deal with Gareth Bale’s impending departure and a whole host of new signings.
The long and short of it is that their home tie against Borussia Dortmund was Arsenal’s first truly big game of the season and they failed to come away from the clash with anything to show for it. A team can beat the small clubs all they want, but if they aren’t able to stand toe-to-toe with the best in the business, the likelihood of them winning major trophies is frankly laughable.
What is perhaps more concerning for Arsenal fans than this particular loss is the fact that their next five fixtures include four very tough games. The Gunners will almost certainly be back to winning ways after their date with Crystal Palace on Saturday, but Wenger’s charges then face Chelsea in the League Cup, Liverpool in the league, the return fixture with Dortmund in Europe and then a trip to Manchester United on the 10th of November. Only the most optimistic of Arsenal fans would predict a win in all four of those games, so the chances are that the North London club will now begin to drop some points and perhaps some confidence.
Although the random fixture list generator provided some kind opening fixtures for Arsene Wenger’s side, it could also be argued that their easy start has had a detrimental effect. It appears to have given fans and players an unrealistic notion of their ability, meaning that they were nowhere near battle-hardened enough when they hosted Dortmund on Tuesday. Whilst some more difficult early fixtures may have resulted in a lower points tally, at least Arsenal might have been more ready when it came to the big tests during the crunch periods of the season.
Don’t get me wrong, Arsenal have been impressive this season. Aaron Ramsey has been on fire so far (although he was awful against Dortmund), Jack Wilshere continues to shine whilst Mesut Ozil has radiated brilliance whenever he has been afforded the space to do so. Even Olivier Giroud seems to be playing well. However, I just feel that Arsenal aren’t quite as good as they (and lots of others) think they are. When faced with a big test, they failed, and ultimately it comes down to the fact that although several members of their squad are playing out of their skin, they aren’t good enough to consistently beat the best sides.
Let’s also bear in mind that up until now, Arsenal have (for them) been pretty fortunate with injuries. Although they currently have Podolski, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain on the treatment table, their injury list is nothing in comparison to the difficulties they’ve had in previous years, and in most games they’ve been able to put out close to their strongest side. Nonetheless, history tells us that Arsenal go through at least one injury crisis a season, and the chances of that not happening this year are slim to none.
It is my personal belief that the purchase of Mesut Ozil has given Arsenal delusions of grandeur. Just because they’ve signed a top quality player, it doesn’t mean that they’re a top quality team. Ozil doesn’t suddenly turn Szcz?sny into a great goalkeeper, or make Kieran Gibbs anything other than England’s third choice left back. A player like Ozil can inspire an average team when playing other average teams, but when pitted against high class opposition – as shown on Tuesday night – victory must be gained by a high quality team performance.
Without a top 4 standard goalkeeper, better fullbacks and a proper ‘20 goal a season’ striker, it seems highly unlikely that Arsenal will win the league. Just because their easy start made it seem like they were invincible, it doesn’t mean that Arsene Wenger’s side are.