Simon Heald
Simon Heald

A mauling by Manchester United, hapless defending, hopelessly adrift in the title race for another year and question marks about the stomach and character of their foreign legion.

Yet, just 15 months after Arsenal capsized 6-1 at Old Trafford in February 2001, they were crowned Premier League and FA Cup champions.

That wasn’t exactly an uncharacteristic reverse either. Wenger’s fragile pass-masters had earlier capitulated 4-0 at Anfield to Gerard Houllier’s tidily-marshalled pedestrians.

But the United defeat was particularly shocking. For the hapless Igor Stepanovs, it was a career-defining afternoon, but none of the Arsenal players – Pires, Henry, Wiltord and co among them – emerged with any credit.

The suspicion lingered that the new side Wenger was building would never have the backbone required to bridge the ever-growing gap to United.

Interestingly, only one of the signings Wenger made in the summer of 2001 would contribute greatly to that 2002 success. Sol Campbell certainly added power, pace and quality at the heart of the defence but the basis of the side was already in place.

Arsenal just needed to learn again how to win the big games.

The same applies to the current side – beaten so convincingly by a marvelous United performance yesterday,

Just as two Andy Murrays showed up in Melbourne – the skilled aggressor that dispatched Rafael Nadal and the tentative prodder that provided Roger Federer with one of his easier Grand Slam final wins, the Arsenal side that passed loosely and shot tamely until Nani and Rooney punished them severely is not the one that overwhelmed decent sides like Aston Villa and Tottenham in a blizzard of Emirates one-twos.

As Wenger alluded to in his frank post-match concession of Arsenal’s poverty, much of his side’s difficulties are psychological.

For the simple backhand Andy Murray sent to the net when serving for the third set yesterday, read any number of misplaced passes and scuffed shots from players cowed by the occasion and worried by previous defeats.

Arsenal are much better than what they showed.

There is one caveat. That Arsenal team so humiliated in 2001 had Thierry Henry. (They also had Patrick Vieira, without whom Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal have not won a single trophy, but that’s another story).

Having Thierry Henry in your ranks almost automatically earned you the right to be feared. Just as Wayne Rooney does now for United and Ronaldo did for the past three seasons.

Robin van Persie is a mercurial talent and may yet become one of the game’s great forwards, but he’s not a force of nature like Rooney or Torres are and Henry was. Or even a more destructive force like Didier Drogba.

Without the kind of one-man-band brilliance that Henry brought them and the shear threat of his pace, Arsenal have to gradually earn the right to be feared again and shed their own mental frailties.

Maybe they are again just one Sol Campbell away.

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