Commentary

Football: Gunners invincible no more

This was a strange evening for Arsenal fans, who received a glimpse of the club's future as well as a flashback to the past.

Given the agonies of the present however, with second-rate competitions the League Cup and the Europa League all that remain to salvage another disappointing season, such diversions may have been no bad thing.

In a sign of things to come, there was no Alexis Sanchez on the pitch at the start, while Mesut Ozil was not even in the stadium.

In the stands, Arsene Wenger was next to Jens Lehmann as he served the second game of his three-match touchline ban, a seating plan that served as a reminder of happier times.

Such was the paucity of action during the first half in particular the pair could have been forgiven for drifting down memory lane and reminiscing about the Invincibles, a subject which has kept many Arsenal fans going through recent long, hard winters.

Wenger previously used this competition to blood youngsters and to great effect, with Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere both making their professional starts as 16-year-olds, but such are Arsenal's diminished circumstances at the moment that their first team looks an awful lot like the reserves.

Petr Cech was given the night off and Sanchez demoted to the bench for tactical reasons, but otherwise the starting XI was the strongest Wenger could muster.

With Ozil, Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac all out injured it did not look particularly strong, and their plight worsened when Wilshere limped off just before the hour.

That a rough gem, Alex Iwobi, being pursued by Chelsea's Danny Drinkwater, was Arsenal's best performer in their 0-0 League Cup draw is a far cry from the days when Gunners fans could brag about their 2003-04 season, when they went an entire league c
That a rough gem, Alex Iwobi, being pursued by Chelsea's Danny Drinkwater, was Arsenal's best performer in their 0-0 League Cup draw is a far cry from the days when Gunners fans could brag about their 2003-04 season, when they went an entire league campaign undefeated. PHOTO: REUTERS

A grand old club built by old Etonians, which expects a permanent place among the Champions League elite, has cheapened itself by shopping in the footballing equivalent of Walmart.

The sad truth is that Arsenal lack quality all over the pitch, from a goalkeeper in Cech who is well past his best to a club-record signing up front who is struggling to adapt to the demands of the Premier League despite his eight goals.

Alexandre Lacazette looked utterly bereft of confidence, offering nothing off the ball and blasted the one good opportunity that came his way well wide. So it was no surprise when he made way for Sanchez in the 65th minute.

There was a smattering of boos from the away end when Sanchez was introduced, encapsulating the divide at the heart of the club. But, without him and his fellow contract-rebel Ozil, the team are almost embarrassingly ordinary.

The Gunners are paying the price for compromising on price too often in the transfer market, with the result that the squad is full of average players.

A grand old club built by old Etonians, which expects a permanent place among the Champions League elite, has cheapened itself by shopping in the footballing equivalent of Walmart, buying players such as Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and Danny Welbeck, who are not good enough to meet their aspirations.

Mohamed Elneny, who replaced Wilshere, is a case in point, a January signing whose tally of 20 league starts in two years suggest he is not worthy of the shirt.

To their credit, Arsenal dug in and refused to wilt in the face of relentless Chelsea pressure.

Wilshere played a few sumptuous passes before his premature withdrawal, but it said a lot about their performance that Alex Iwobi, above, was among their best players.

A reckoning is coming, either at the end of this season or more likely 12 months later when Wenger finally departs, a seismic summer that many Arsenal fans will actually be looking forward to.

The players did their best on Wednesday to keep themselves in contention for a trophy, although that is the point.

Arsenal aspire to more than a bunch of journeymen battling to a goalless draw against out-of-sorts yet still superior opponents, but it may be a while before they get it.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2018, with the headline 'Gunners invincible no more'. Print Edition | Subscribe