Tom Lappin: Arsenal's artistry is trashed once again by English artisans
A quick consensus has decreed that Arsenal's defeat against Stoke City on Saturday ended their title hopes on the first day of November. No matter that Liverpool were also going down to a defeat against one of the division's bottom-feeders, it was the manner of Arsenal's loss that encouraged those who like to stereotype Arsene Wenger's team as pretty but fragile.
Some sections of the English media relish seeing Wenger's brilliant youths beaten by a robust English-style team, akin to Corporal Jones yelling, "They don't like it up 'em." No wonder Wenger occasionally watches proceedings with escalating dismay and disgust.
Saturday typified his frustration. Wenger knows better than to whinge these days, but anybody with any aesthetic appreciation would lament the way Stoke's attacking gambits amounted to exploiting Rory Delap's extraordinary quarter-back deliveries from throw-ins. To underline the crude message, it was the same player's challenge on the fleet Theo Walcott that led to the England prodigy being stretchered off with what looked like a dislocated shoulder.
The received wisdom, developed over the last three seasons, is that Wenger's choreographed fledglings can be barged out of their stride by some applied bullying. It is unfortunate that some of the most technically-brilliant football ever seen in England can be negated in such a reductive manner, but Wenger has been in England long enough that some of his purism should have worn off. Clinging to his ideals so stubbornly begins to look self-defeating.
If Wenger can take the credit for nurturing such a production line of talent, then he also has to take the blame for failing to provide them with the necessary protection. It seems that since the irreplaceable Patrick Vieira took his leave, Wenger has had a pathological resistance to any midfielder who isn't a repository of deft flicks and disguised through balls. Every Arsenal fan in the Emirates' equivalent of the North Bank can tell him that the team needs a midfield enforcer in the mould of Javier Mascherano, a tidy and imposing player whose role is to collect the ball and deliver it to those with more creative inclinations.
Mathieu Flamini was the closest approximation in recent seasons, and he was allowed to depart. Wenger flirted with signing either Gareth Barry or Xabi Alonso in the summer, but it seemed neither player was cheap or young enough to sustain Wenger's interest.
One of Wenger's youths will eventually mature into the role, but a more pragmatic manager, Sir Alex Ferguson for instance, would have made sure he spent substantial amounts of the owner's cash on at least two likely candidates. As it is, Wenger is going through this season with his beautiful work of art wondering which philistine is going to be next to stick his boot through the canvas.
Seven days that began unhappily in the Potteries could define Arsenal's season. Bonfire night at the Emirates should see Arsenal secure progress from the group stages of the Champions League against Fenerbahce. Saturday lunchtime at the same stadium will show whether they still deserve to be classified among the Premier League's big four or whether Manchester United will swat away their pretty pretensions.
Not for the first time, Wenger will relish the European game's opportunity to distract him from the rudeness of English football. If domestically, it already seems that Arsenal may have their work cut out resisting the likes of Aston Villa and Manchester City, in Europe their lan is still potent. Part of that can be attributed to referees who are more stringent in punishing the kind of challenges that Wenger abhors. Unfortunately, substantive progress in Europe in the last couple of seasons involves coming up against one of the three English clubs willing to mix it more ruthlessly.
The United game comes at a bad time. With Walcott and Emmanuel Adebayor likely to be unavailable, and Robin Van Persie suspended, Arsenal's attacking options will be strictly limited. Arsenal's strategy boils down to Plan A: attack with pace, fluency and invention. If there is a Plan B we have yet to see it come to fruition.
These matches used to be the passionate summits of English football. Now you wonder whether Ferguson even dislikes Wenger anymore. If Arsenal are to restore some credibility, Wenger has to see that familiar Sir Alex snarl on Saturday.