Neil Humphreys: Arsenal hardly look like Arsenal any more
Wenger's plodders are dull to watch, even in victory
There was a time when even neutrals looked forward to watching the swashbuckling Gunners.
|(Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang 75-pen, 86, Alexandre Lacazette 89-pen)|
Last night, the Arsenal faithful barely mustered the enthusiasm to watch a 3-0 win against the hapless Stoke City.
Ignore the scoreline. Consider the goals. The first was a dodgy penalty, incorrectly awarded and scarcely deserved.
The second came against exhausted opponents.
The third was a daft penalty.
Focus on the performance instead. There wasn't one to speak of, just a tiring exercise in misplaced passes and laboured runs.
Arsene Wenger got the victory, but masochistic supporters must still remember the first 75 minutes against relegation fodder.
Despite the three-goal margin, the win unwittingly reinforced the club's current lack of ambition and overriding stagnation, another reminder that the Gunners are scrapping among the also-rans.
Even the game's kick-off offered an eerie reminder of how far Arsenal's stock has fallen. All that was missing was Simon and Garfunkel crooning on the sidelines. It was the Sound of Silence.
Wenger lost his voice earlier in the week, a fitting metaphor for Arsenal's current state. They lost their collective voice years ago and the hushed crowd was almost as damning as the many empty seats.
Wenger made seven changes to the starting XI - Arsenal's highest in an English Premier League game since they rotated eight against Birmingham back in January 2011.
He's saving his best for the Europa League assignment against CSKA Moscow on Friday morning (Singapore time), a competition that Wenger once treated with disdain.
But standards have dropped considerably at Arsenal.
For more than an hour, there was little to distinguish the Gunners from second-from-bottom Stoke, which was hardly surprising.
Before last night's contest, both clubs had lost five EPL games this year, an embarrassment for Stoke, a scathing indictment of Wenger's debilitating reign.
Even his selections were uninspired. He rested Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but picked expensive signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, a striker who enjoyed his most prolific career spell with Mkhitaryan at Borussia Dortmund.
For 74 minutes, he barely touched the ball. His team-mates rarely kept it. The first boos rang around the subdued stadium after 18 minutes.
In their Highbury heyday, Arsenal always entertained. Even in defeat, they usually delighted in their positive approach play.
At the Emirates, the noise and atmosphere rivalled that of a dentist's waiting room as the sound of his drill drifts through the partitioned wall.
Every half-hearted, sideways pass was met with a collective groan.
Danny Welbeck and Mohamed Elneny saw their efforts blocked as the Gunners improved, marginally, in the second half, lifting the contest from comatose to merely ponderous.
But when the mercurial Xherdan Shaqiri almost pulled off his party piece, curling his corner directly onto the post, the mood threatened to turn mutinous.
In a state of near panic, Arsenal poured forward, with Mesut Oezil and substitute Alexandre Lacazette both going close as a football match finally broke out, after 70 minutes of excruciating tedium.
It was effectively ended five minutes later.
Oezil jinked free in the box, Bruno Martins Indi got a toe to the ball, but the German won an unfair penalty with an elaborate tumble.
Aubameyang slotted home the spot-kick, then added a second in the 86th minute as Stoke's defence collapsed.
Badou Ndiaye's clumsy foul on Lacazette in the box, allowed the latter to convert from the spot in the 89th minute and add a cherry on a rather stodgy cake.
Wenger may believe that the Europa League offers his final shot at salvation, but if the Gunners cannot seriously improve their domestic product, he'll still be off in any case.
The fans won't be fooled by the margin of victory.
Only the shirt looks the same at the Emirates these days. Arsenal rarely look like Arsenal any more.