Going into the game, every football fan knew what Bradford were all about: hard work in midfield closing down space, hard work up front winning headers and putting balls through for the second forward to run onto, and disciplined hard work at the back cutting out crosses and keeping a compact shape. We all knew what Bradford were all about and Bradford knew what Arsenal were supposed to be all about: intricate passing, crosses into the box, and a defensive line which can be exploited for space. But what we all found out last night, as Arsenal exited the League Cup on penalties to fourth division Bradford, is that the Arsenal players and managers didn’t seem to have a clue what Bradford were about and somewhere along the line forgot what Arsenal is supposed to be about.
It’s not about the money. Bradford are in League Two, effectively the fourth division. Their top players earn less in a year than Arsenal’s top players earn in a week. Bradford has been beaten this season by Port Vale, a team that exited administration a month and a half after they beat Bradford 1-0. Arsenal, with their 60,000 seat arena in the heart of London, have the money at their disposal to buy the talent required to beat a team like Bradford.
But it is about the money. Because what we have found out with ruthless precision is that players like Chamakh and Gervinho are not good enough to beat Bradford and players like Podolski and Ramsey have a casual attitude in a cup competition that makes them a poison on any team. And all of those players have been purchased at great expense and earn massive salaries compared to anyone on the Bradford side. If it is about the money then the team that Wenger put together aren’t good enough to beat Bradford and Wenger isn’t spending wisely.
The decisive moment came in the 41st minute. Podolski awoke from his slumber and passed the ball to Gibbs who was dashing at goal. Gibbs saw the space developing in front of Gervinho and played in the best cross of the night, one of the best crosses Gibbs has ever played. The entire Bradford back line was beaten and the ball gently tumbled in front of them just far enough away that none could reach. The Bradford keeper made a dive but was beaten too and lay on the ground arms out, head twisted around his body to see Gervinho wide open, the net gaping, no defenders. Gervinho missed and collapsed on the pitch. He lay there in corpse pose for an eternity hoping that the grass would grow and eventually cover over his shame. In the background you can see Gibbs’ head drop. Podolski turns in disgust. Ramsey drops to his knees and holds his head.
In many ways, it would have been a let off for this Arsenal team if Gervinho had scored: on the merit of hard work and application of talent, Arsenal didn’t deserve that goal. In midfield, Ramsey had been serially dispossessed all night by a Bradford side who, in the end, didn’t even have to work too hard to take the ball from him. At one point Ramsey casually dribbled right up to a Bradford player and “that guy” (because they were all anonymously interchangeable, like generic “beer”) simply took the ball and started a counter attack. Ramsey couldn’t have made a better hand off to a teammate.
That Ramsey was wasteful with the ball wasn’t entirely his fault, the whole team had trouble making even routine passes because no one seemed too terribly bothered to move. It was cold, after all, and they were probably dreaming sugarplum dreams of a warm hotel room, hot cocoa, and FIFA with their best mates. There was no fluidity to Arsenal’s midfield, but rather a quiescence that has been taking form all season.
And defensively, Arsenal weren’t much better. Bradford’s offensive game plan was simple: they have a center forward who is 6’4″, hit the ball high to him and let him try to win the header and knock the ball down to their main striking threat, a kid named Wells. To defend that, typically, a team will either challenge for the initial header or they will concentrate on the knock down (the second ball, as it’s called). Arsenal tried both and failed miserably. Arsenal’s captain and ostensibly the best defender on the team didn’t seem to win a single defensive header and when he switched the tactic to cover the second ball, he spent the rest of the evening in Wells’ pocket. Thomas Vermaelen put in one of his worst performances in an Arsenal shirt as he spent more time pushing over their center forward or fouling their striker than inspiring his teammates to defensive solidity.
Reading the paragraph above you might think that Arsenal lost 3-0. The reality is that Bradford threatened Arsenal from open play, but they actually only scored one goal and it came from a set play. Unhumorously, from a set play that Arsenal practice.
At the start of this season, Arsenal hired a new assistant coach, Steve Bould. An old Arsenal man from the days when Arsenal were known as “boring boring” because they would close up shop defensively and try to win games off set pieces. The famous chant “one-nil to the Arsenal” was started then, because that was a frequent score-line to celebrate by the Gunners.
One of Bould’s Arsenal’s most famous ways to score a goal was to put a guy like Bould himself on the near post and a player like Tony Adams on the far post. The corner kick would be whipped in and Bould would head the ball across the box where an Arsenal player would be waiting to poke home.
Given that Bould is now assistant manager it should be no surprise that Arsenal have used this play extensively from the beginning of this season and while they have struggled to score with it, it’s clear that this is something they work on in training. That is also the play that Bradford used to score: from a corner, “some guy” headed the ball across the box, Sagna was left covering two defenders and picked the wrong one and “some other guy” scored an easy goal.
A fourth division team beat Arsenal with their own set play and I’m not sure which circle of hell that goal comes from. I am sure, however, that being beaten on the play that your assistant manager is famous for and a play that you practice all the time is a clear indication that the team has given up listening to the management.
Arsene Wenger wanted to win. He picked the very best team available to him to get that win. Ostensibly, he prepared this team for the threat we all knew they posed and for the best way to attack them and get the goals they needed to win that game. And through a combination of laziness, ineptitude, and what looked at times like mutiny, the team responded with the worst 90 minute performance of the season, only deciding to have a go at the opposition in the final 30 minute overtime.
In the wake of the defeat, Arsene Wenger will now come in for criticism and deservedly so. He bought this team, paying £12m for Gervinho, which the Bradford fans mocked with chants of “Premier League, you’re having a laugh”. He’s persisted with playing Ramsey out of position on the “wing”, despite the midfielder’s constant frustration as a ball dawdler, rather than buying a player who would fit that position. He gambled on the physical fitness of Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, and Jack Wilshere, and the mental fitness of Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott, and Marouane Chamakh. He gave Vermaelen the captain’s armband and has had to sit back and watch as the player has unravelled as a leader before millions of people’s eyes. He trains this team, a team which the vice-captain (Mikel Arteta) bragged last week are asking for more training sessions and who couldn’t even defend the set play that they practice week in and week out.
This is a team that no longer controls possession, unless the opposition want them to. This is a team that pretends to be an attacking side, with their comically high defensive line, but who couldn’t manage to work the Bradford keeper until the 70th minute. This is a team with an academy that we are supposed to be proud of, which has only produced one world-class player. This is a team with a global scouting network and a manager with an encyclopedic knowledge of world football who spent good money buying a player like Gervinho who adds nothing to his team.
Arsenal are all of those things and none of them. No one seems to know what Arsenal are about any more because this is a zombie team: they are a team that is dead but who have yet to give up living. They are going from one game to the next, going through the motions, playing as if they were still the Arsenal, only slower, uglier, and rapidly decaying.
As anyone who has ever watched a zombie film knows, the only way to kill a zombie is to shoot it in the fucking head.