Arsenal standards reach dangerous low
For a split-second the ball was there, and then it was gone. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, perceived big-game choker but undoubted possessor of world-class talent, had tricked his way past Johan Djourou, 25-year-old "youngster" and former Birmingham City loanee. AC Milan were all set to complete their 4-0 Champions League drubbing of Arsenal, and every question mark over the increasingly under-fire Arsene Wenger was soon to be raised.
Other than the most obvious: What was Djourou doing on the pitch in the first place?
Djourou, of course, was not solely to blame for Arsenal's worst defeat in European competition. He was not even on the pitch for Milan's first two goals. Yet he embodies the lowering standard that Wenger has come to accept at Arsenal - and like a stone (Djourou most definitely isn't a rock) hitting water, it is a standard that is rippling through the rest of the squad.
In the context of what happened at the San Siro on Wednesday, Djourou was only on the pitch due to a rash of defensive injuries to Per Mertesacker, Carl Jenkinson and - picked up in the match itself - Laurent Koscielny. But honest Arsenal fans will acknowledge he is one of many who should not be wearing the shirt at all.
Neither, arguably, should the three names mentioned ahead of him.
Djourou is a symbol in this article to represent the many names who are lucky to be playing for one of England's greatest clubs - Carl Jenkinson, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Andre Santos, Theo Walcott, Andrei Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh. An honest head says none of them have consistently shown they are capable of the form expected of past great Arsenal sides.
Wenger, mocked as a nutty-looking professor when he arrived in England, once produced arguably the best footballing side to grace the Premier League - the famous Invincibles. The current crop, by comparison, must be dubbed the Unreliables. His mathematician's mind was once heralded for picking out footballing gems such as Patrick Vieira and Cesc Fabregas at bargain-basement prices, but nowadays most football fans would rather walk to White Hart Lane for Harry Redknapp's street-savvy approach.
The dealings of the past 12 months are evidence enough that Redknapp could currently teach Wenger a thing or two. Scott Parker was so obviously needed at Arsenal that he may as well have been gift-wrapped with a one-way ticket to Holloway Road tube station, yet for a cool £5 million he is currently being hailed as the next England captain whilst in the white of Tottenham. Ryan Nelsen, who did not even cost a penny, is surely another who would walk into the Arsenal line-up.
Wenger, over time, has allowed the standard to drop so low at Arsenal that players who were once derided as liabilities are now championed as their strongest assets. Koscielny is a prime example, a defender capable of solid performances such as the one against Manchester United, but equally prone to a gaffe. The mind only has to rewind to the 3-2 defeat at Swansea in January to recall how he allowed Danny Graham in for the winning goal. When he arrived at Arsenal it was obvious he was not the type of player to stand up and be counted when 1-0 up away at Fulham (another loss for Arsenal), yet Wenger's latest comments on the Frenchman lead one to believe that the Gunners have the next Laurent Blanc.
"[We found him] in France of course, from a smaller team," he said. "You could see that there was something special there. I believe that last year you could already see the potential but he did not have that dominance in the duels that he has found this season. That makes him, I personally believe, one of the top-class central defenders in the Premier League."
Acceptance of mediocrity is the path to exactly that, and it only takes a comparison to the last trophy-winning Arsenal side to prove it. How many of the current XI would have featured in that 2005 FA Cup win against Manchester United?
Is Wojciech Szczesny better than Jens Lehmann? Temperament-wise perhaps. Are Kieran Gibbs or Santos superior to Ashley Cole? Only morally. What about Bacary Sagna - woefully exposed in Italy - compared to Lauren? Or Koscielny in relation to Kolo Toure? All answers, truthfully, are no. Only Vermaelen would step into that back five at the expense of Philippe Senderos.
In midfield, do Alex Song, Aaron Ramsey or Mikel Arteta lace the same boots as Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva or Cesc Fabregas? That question is purely rhetorical.
And are Walcott or Arshavin preferable to Jose Antonio Reyes or Robert Pires? Not on the form of the past six months. Only Robin van Persie qualifies for that 2005 team in the midfield or attacking positions, and even he would only make the bench behind Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry (the final was even won without Henry's services). That totals a grand number of two current players good enough for the side Wenger built seven years ago, with Jack Wilshere a promising up-and-comer.
A mathematical mind Wenger does indeed possess, after all, he boasts a degree in economics, yet when it comes to the simple maths of football his sums do not add up. Summer outgoings: Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy. Replacements: Arteta, Yossi Benayoun and Santos. Three top-drawer players replaced by three players significantly less talent. Replace Heinz Tomato Ketchup with a low-budget alternative and what do you expect?
In Wenger's defence, he had no choice with the players he lost, but according to his board and all noises coming out of Arsenal, he most certainly had the money to replace them. "There have been suggestions that we keep stopping him from buying," chairman Peter Hill-Wood stated earlier in the season. "That is not the case."
Player for player, Arsenal have two or three at most who would challenge for a spot in the Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham XIs (yes, none of them are currently in the Champions League, but it's a hollow point): Van Persie, Wilshere and Vermaelen (the latter is generous). Simple maths says that statistic must change if Arsenal are to stop their slide from the country's best.
The club, the manager and the fans can defend the likes of Koscielny, Song and Djourou as strongly as they want - the loyalty is to be admired. But how often do these players return the favour by fighting for the reputation of the club? And how long, given current circumstances, until Wenger is heard championing the importance of the Europa League - another lowering of the standards?