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Troy Deeney does not mince his words. After coming on to score the equaliser and generally rough Arsenal up in Watford’s 2-1 victory over the Gunners at the weekend, the striker might well have considered enough damage done. However, he saved his most devastating contribution of the evening for the television studio.
Questioned about Arsenal’s character on BT Sport (h/t Sky Sports), Deeney pulled no punches in his assessment of Arsene Wenger’s side:
“I’ve heard Wenger’s already blaming [the penalty] as the reason for why they lost. Well, I’m not going to be one to tell Mr Wenger about himself, but there’s a reason that they lost and it wasn’t because of one penalty.
“I have to watch what I say, but it’s [having] a bit of cojones, is what I’ll say. Whenever I play against Arsenal, I’ll go up and think ‘let me whack the first one and see who wants it.’
“I came on today and jumped up with [Per] Mertesacker—I didn’t even have to jump, actually—I nodded it down, the crowd gets up: ‘Yeah we’ve got somebody who can win it’, and they all just backed off. For me as a player, I just think ‘happy days.’ That’s my strength—if you’re going to let me do my strength against you, you’re going to have a tough afternoon.”
Rarely will you hear a player speak so plainly about another team’s failings. It’s difficult to imagine Deeney being so critical of another top team. Arsenal have become a soft target—both on and off the field.
So, is he right? Well, the fact Deeney is even willing to come out with such a damning assessment tells you a little about Arsenal’s shifting status. The Watford striker feels he can make those comments without repercussion.
The modern Arsenal are meek. Imagine if Deeney had levelled those accusations at one of the great Arsenal sides containing the likes of Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams and Martin Keown? The next time he faced the Gunners there would have been serious repercussions. Wenger’s teams used to have a reputation for being overtly aggressive—now they’re more known for capitulations than “cojones.”
Keown himself spoke to BT (h/t SkySports) about his disappointment that Arsenal rolled over so easily:
“I hope the Arsenal players are listening because my blood would be boiling if I was hearing that, because the one thing I have to guarantee is that I’m up for a battle and that I’m going to be confrontational.
“You have to repel that attitude from opposition, because that’s what happens and that is why Watford got back into the game today.
“It was a given in the team that I played in, and if it’s missing from the current group then Wenger has to seriously examine that. You have to wonder whether that’s ever really been replaced.”
The fire has gone out of this team. It’s a trickle-down effect from the very top of the club: The owner is not sufficiently ambitious, so the manager is not under enough pressure from his employers. That in turn allows the players to feel too comfortable. Watching Arsenal, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that none of it seems to matter enough to them.
When Richarlison seemingly thew himself to the ground for the penalty leading to Watford’s equalising goal, there was an air of resignation about the Arsenal team. There were no protests, no cries of disbelief. The Gunners accepted their fate with a shrug, and the subsequent collapse in their performance level allowed Watford to win the game.
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A case in point was the moment Mesut Ozil missed a glorious opportunity to put Arsenal 2-0 ahead. When his tame effort was palmed away, he was not held to account by any of his team-mates. Players should feel a responsibility to their team-mates to seize such chances with some degree of urgency. Instead, he was so casual in that clutch moment. It typified the lackadaisical approach of this Arsenal team.
Wenger would doubtless point out that there have been some characterful triumphs in recent years. However, it’s telling that those have tended to come in the FA Cup. On a one-off occasion, Arsenal can pull it together. However, a league campaign almost guarantees that at some stage you will face adversity. That is where they stumble. The Premier League requires an enduring mental strength that Arsenal do not have.
The Gunners are the ultimate fair-weather team. When the going’s good, they’re capable of producing spectacular performances. However, if one thing—in this instance, a refereeing decision—goes against them they fall apart.
One need only look at Watford’s winning goal. When the ball breaks to Tom Cleverley to score, Granit Xhaka is stationary on the edge of his own box. He has not reacted to the situation and tracked his man. It’s the most basic of defensive duties, and he has deserted his post.
While it’s possible to blame a lack of tactical intelligence for Xhaka’s slip, it also looks like laziness. Cleverley showed more initiative and greater hunger to get to the ball. He’s not a better player, but like Deeney he’s managed to close the gap on his opponents through showing a bit of desire. Xhaka and Arsenal looked as if they had given up.
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Deeney’s comments have to be accepted as fair—especially when you consider that Arsenal’s own players appear to concur. This is what club captain Mertesacker said after the game, per James Benge of the Evening Standard:
“We have to admit at the end that they wanted it more. The second half they were all attack and we were timid. We tried to protect the goal we scored and it was not enough.
“There was a change of momentum. We had a clear-cut chance [Ozil’s miss] and after that they scored the equaliser and had momentum on their side. You could sense second half they were more up for that fight that was required, especially away from home.”
It’s there in black and white: “They wanted it more.” And if you’re concerned Mertesacker’s words might just be a question of something being lost in translation—if you think he does not understand the magnitude of his words—then look back at Theo Walcott saying the same thing after Arsenal lost at Crystal Palace earlier this year, per the Evening Standard).
It’s unacceptable. More than that, it’s unprofessional. Deeney is right: Arsenal are a pushover. The Gunners are a feeble, frail imitation of the team they once were—and it may well require a new manager to oversee the cultural shake-up required to fix the problem.
James McNicholas is Bleacher Report’s lead Arsenal correspondent and follows the club from a London base. You can follow him on Twitter here.