Arsenal lacking identity in their football
In the wake of a terrible result like Arsenal's 2-1 capitulation to Swansea on Wednesday night, it's common to hear complaints about a team's intangibles.
"They didn't want it enough."
"Where was the desire?"
"They have no character."
"There are no leaders."
The latter was masterfully deconstructed by Michael Cox this week, and while "mental strength" and "character" are not irrelevant by any means, Arsenal's failings aren't just in that department. Even if Alexis Sanchez poured doubt over the mental fortitude of this particular side after the Swansea game, the issues go deeper.
"I think we can win the Premier League with the players we have," he said. "That said, we lack a certain hunger. We lack self-belief that we can actually be champions."
It's an extraordinary admission by any standards, especially from a player who could never be accused of not wanting it enough. If anything, he's been taken to task for wanting to do too much, such is his desire. But let's not fall into the trap of thinking these Arsenal players don't want to win the league. Of course they do. You don't get the top level of the professional game without a huge amount of desire and motivation.
However, there's a big difference between wanting to do something and being able to do it. You only have to watch manager Arsene Wenger on the sidelines to see he's a man who suffers throughout every game. Goals are a "knife to the heart," and he's talked of sleepless nights after defeats, replaying them over and over in his mind. He's not a man who doesn't care, or who doesn't badly want success, but caring desperately isn't enough.
If Arsenal players think they have a squad capable of winning the league, but lack the belief to do it, it's got more to do with the kind of football they're playing at the moment than any psychological issue. The bottom line is that on only a handful of occasions have they really performed anywhere near as well as they should have.
You can point to that scintillating 3-0 win over Manchester United in October, or the 5-2 win over potential champions Leicester, as the best of what this Arsenal team is capable of: Direct, quick, aggressive and ruthless in front of goal when the chances were created.
There was a big win over Bayern Munich, but that came after withstanding 77 minutes of Bavarian pressure, before Olivier Giroud set them on their way to a 2-0 win. The away win at Olympiacos was superb, by any standards. Giroud's hat-trick, and the overall team performance was measured and on the night they did what they had to do really well.
Yet those are outliers. The contrasts between those two performances -- against United and Leicester -- and the way Arsenal have played for the majority of the season couldn't be more marked. For the most part it has been tentative, ponderous, limp, and horrendously inefficient.
It continued Wednesday night as chances were squandered that would have changed the course of the game. When you have just the goalkeeper to beat from ten yards, you can't smack it off the crossbar like Giroud did. When you go a goal behind with 15 minutes plus injury time remaining, you can't resign yourself to defeat the way Arsenal did.
Arsenal have some gloriously talented players, but as each week passes they look less and less of a team. They don't play with any kind of cohesion. Even if the middle of Wenger's youth project there was a sense of the kind of football Arsenal were trying to play. It wasn't always successful, but it was obvious what it was.
Now, it's impossible to say, because the team don't know themselves, the manager's approach comes across as muddled. They're no longer a team that always dominates possession, nor are they an effective counter-attacking side. The beautiful passing football that was for so long a trademark of Wenger's regime has been supplanted by triangles down the left, and an anything-goes hotchpotch everywhere else. They have pace they rarely use to good effect, and players who don't have each other's backs when things go wrong.
Arsenal are playing football without any kind of identity, so it makes it easy to understand where Sanchez is coming from. How can you have belief in something when you don't know what it is?
It's probably too late now. While the title isn't out of reach completely, Wenger's side have dropped too many points since Christmas to make a late charge in any realistic way, and they face old enemy Spurs on Saturday at White Hart Lane.
They always say "form goes out the window" when it comes to the derby. Arsenal will hope that's the case this weekend, because right now theirs is terrible.