The sniggering headlines, which read “London 2 Manchester 0” a couple of months ago, are not that funny anymore in the capital. It was little wonder that Arsenal and Chelsea relished the fact that United and City tumbled out of the Champions League and into the perceived ignominy of the Europa last December. Neither of the London clubs, who have been annual participants in the Champions League for many a year, have enjoyed the most stress-free of seasons while the Mancunians have led the way, so any light relief was more than welcome. It made for a change during this unstable season for the pressure to lift in London and move north.
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The tension has returned with a vengeance, however. While this week United and City got on with it in the Europa League, and will continue to trade punches in the title fight, Arsenal and Chelsea have been licking wounds. These are turbulent times for both the London aristocrats.
Arsenal are perilously close to crisis mode. Being thrashed 4-0 in the San Siro by AC Milan left manager Arsene Wenger visibly shocked and verbally outspoken. The manager was openly critical of his players afterwards – a rarity, as he believes a publically united front is paramount – and then gave his squad an even more ferocious dressing down the morning after, back at their Herfordshire headquarters. Those who know Wenger well can probably point to only a handful of occasions during his 16 years at Arsenal when he has lost his temper with his players.
If it felt like a last resort, having to tell his players a few unpleasant home truths, then maybe that is because the situation demands it. Arsenal have lost seven games out of their last 17. They have suffered some severe humiliations this year, epitomized by the debate over which is the worst defeat: the 8-2 against Manchester United, which had some mitigating circumstances; or the 4-0 against Milan, for which there were no excuses.
There is a real danger that yet another season is heading for freefall. In the last campaign everything fell apart after they were knocked out of three cup competitions in two harrowing weeks. Should something similar happen again, the atmosphere around the place will be horrendous. On Saturday, Arsenal head up to Sunderland for an FA Cup tie that is overloaded with pressure.
Can they summon the strength to respond to this adversity? Dennis Bergkamp, one of the club’s most legendary players, has expressed his concern about the spirit within the camp. “Sometimes you need more of a winning mentality than a passing mentality,” observed the Dutchman. “I’m not sure Arsenal have enough of that in their players, when the attitude becomes more important than the ability just to pass the ball.” Another former winner with the club, Emmanuel Petit, was even more forthright, saying the team needed a major overhaul.
Wenger has never put together a squad which looks so unimpressive. What must hurt him even more is that he has been steadfastly loyal to a number of players who do not seem to have the capabilities to pay that loyalty back.
Over at Chelsea, the relationship between the players and their manager has also been under scrutiny, especially as Roman Abramovich is loitering around the training ground on the back of a very poor run that has seen the team slip out of the top four. Didier Drogba maintained it would be a “disaster” for Chelsea to finish outside the quartet that qualifies for the Champions League.
Andre Villas-Boas is not the first manager to struggle to exert his authority over the powerful dressing room at Stamford Bridge. In an extraordinary revelation, the young coach admitted that he has lost the support of some factions within his playing staff. At the beginning of the week, after an abject display at Everton, Villas-Boas was confronted by some of the senior players. The boss had intended to rip into them, only to find they were not shy in sending back a devastating return of serve. They told Villas-Boas that they were far from impressed with his performance either.
Chelsea face Napoli in the Champions League next week. They’ll will need to up their game to ensure this season is not a complete washout for Premier League teams in Europe’s elite competition. They warm up with an FA Cup tie against Birmingham this weekend.
It is hard to escape the feeling that both Chelsea and Arsenal need to make some major adjustments in the summer ahead, with some changes of personnel required to shake up squads that are patently not what they were.
In the meantime, they look set for a few weeks of fretting about an all-important top four league finish. It is extremely unlikely both of them will make it. It is possible, with Newcastle and Liverpool also in the frame, that neither of them will. It’s all to play for.