Arsenal at the Crossroads
They say that every team reaches a nadir. A painful phase that a team goes through when they feel like they’re falling into a bottomless pit, where rock bottom only ends up being a checkpoint until the ground beneath their feet caves in and they fall deeper into the depths of despair. With a cup loss to a determined and well organized Bradford City side that’s more than 60 places below them in the English football hierarchy, Arsenal have reached one of those checkpoints this season, and what they do in the next couple of months will ultimately decide their future as they strive to remain a member of the elite ‘Big 4’ in the Premier League.
Optimism is one thing Arsenal fans are never short of. Not so much this season though. Despite losing their best players every season, Arsène Wenger has somehow managed to break into the top four come the end of the season, and hence, qualify for the Champions League. This time, however, the law of averages seems to be finally catching up with him.
It’s not so much that they haven’t added quality. There is a lot of quality in the team. I say ‘team’, and not ‘squad’. Arsenal do have a decent starting line-up (when everybody is fit). But a lack of quality options on the bench has always been a stumbling block to unlocking this team’s true potential. An over-reliance on injured players has unravelled their season time and again, especially in the midfield. I, for one, have stopped depending on Abou Diaby to make a comeback and strengthen the midfield. People raved about his Man of the Match performance at Anfield at the start of the season, but what we looked for was a consistent run of games from him. We never got it.
Secondly, Wenger still doesn’t seem to have found the right combination in attack. The back four practically picks itself, and they’re still among the top 3 defences in the league. It’s the forward line that is an issue now. It’s almost a role reversal of Arsenal’s problems of the past, when goal scoring was never a problem. New additions have had their time to settle in and goals have been shared by a number of players. But they’re simply not scoring enough goals. They are creating a number of chances in the final third but a lack of a quality finisher in the box is killing the team. Of late, the number of shots on target is alarmingly low for Arsenal.
Olivier Giroud has slowly settled in and has cemented his place as the club’s preferred striker. Theo Walcott’s contract impasse has led to him being benched on a couple of occasions, but he has flourished this season and has remarkably improved on his finishing over the past two seasons. But apart from these two, there is nobody else who is able to deliver consistently.
Gervinho has been the biggest disappointment this season. It’s hard to believe that a player of his standard is currently leading the line of a prestigious club like Arsenal, a club that once boasted Premier League Golden Boot winners like Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie. His skills are better suited to a wide position. In the absence of Giroud, Lukas Podolski could be tested as a viable option in the centre. In spite of his stature, he still has a physical presence in the box and is more at ease with Arsenal’s near-telepathic passing game than Gervinho is. But one mystery that needs looking into is his fitness. He’s yet to finish 90 minutes in a Premier League game, and it is a bizarre stat that is now associated with him.
Arsenal’s tactics have also been ‘found out’ by opponents. Mark Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta out of the game and they effectively stop the supply of balls into the final third. Jack Wilshere’s return has eased the burden off Cazorla and he is slowly becoming a driving force in the midfield. The return of Tomas Rosicky also heralds the return to playing the Arsenal way. His passing and movement has revitalized a static midfield and we are seeing more forward passes and triangles being formed to move the ball around.
Arteta’s new role as a midfield enforcer has been bittersweet. Although it ensures that the ball is quickly and safely transitioned from defence to attack, the lack of physical domination in the midfield has left the backline prone to attacks. Moreover, this role asks a lot of Arteta who has to cover a lot of ground. Starting every game has led to both the Spanish midfielders being fatigued. The need of the hour is a backup dominant defensive midfielder who can simultaneously play Arteta’s role of keeping the ball moving.
A change in tactics by Wenger seems improbable. Wenger has never been known to change his tactics according to the opposition, but deploying players out of position is something that has been hard to comprehend. Aaron Ramsey pulled the short straw and was played on the right on a number of occasions when he’s obviously suited to play in the centre of midfield. He’s received a lot of unwarranted stick for his below par performances as a result.
It’s not yet all doom and gloom for Arsenal. They’re still only 3 points away from the top four. At this point of the season, that should be their first target. There were some positives after the game against West Bromwich, and a relatively easy list of fixtures in December should be used to steadily climb up the table. A favourable draw in the Champions League will also help their case.
But come December, Wenger must splash some cash and get in quality replacements. The time for sentiment is over. Players like Chamakh and Arshavin (in his final year) who haven’t even started a Premier League game should be forced out, and their departure will free up slots and wages for new players. There are a lot of names being bandied about; including the re-return of a club legend. But ultimately, Arsène Wenger must get replacements with whom they can compete for silverware in the future.