The curious case of Arsenal: What should the Gunners do to win trophies?
Arsenal FC’s history is a long one, beginning in 1886, when it was founded as a munition workers’ team in Woolwich, now in Southeast London, with the name Dial Square. It became a professional club in 1891, and joined the league two years later.
Their first major period of success came under Herbert Chapman in the 1930s, winning multiple league titles, and FA Cups. Chapman used the innovative ‘WM’ formation, built around the brilliant playmaking midfielder Alex James to brilliant effect before Chapman suddenly died of pneumonia in 1934.
The club enjoyed great trophy hauls in the late 1940s and early 50s, but became mid-table fodder, as the saying goes, by the 1960s.
Arsenal did not reach the same heights until the late 1980s, with George Graham led them to league titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup, as well as a European Cup Winners’ Cup. The now-familiar Arsene Wenger came onto the scene in 1996, and metamorphosed the club, building it into one of the most famous clubs in Europe.
Wenger brought about a new form of attacking football, an overhaul of dietary and fitness practices, and efficiency with money. With players from Wenger’s homeland, such as the brilliant Patrick Vieira and legendary Thierry Henry, Arsenal won their second League and Cup double in 1997-98, and their third in 2001-02.
They reached the finals of the UEFA Cup in 2000, and won two more FA Cups in 2003 and 2005. The greatest moment in Arsenal’s history, however, came in 2003-04, when they won the Premier League without losing a single match, with the team going 49 league matches unbeaten, a national record. The team were given the nickname ‘The Invincibles’, and was chock-full of stars, such as Vieira, Bergkamp, Campbell, Ashley Cole, Ljungberg, Pires and Henry.
However, there was a sudden stop to the flow of trophies. The club did not win a major trophy from 2005(FA Cup) to 2014 and 2015, when they won successive FA Cups. In the 2017 FA Cup Final, they defeated Chelsea 2-1, becoming the only team to have ever won 13 FA Cup titles.
However, last season, Arsenal also finished 5th in the league, placing outside the top 4 for the first time since Wenger arrived.
So here, we have a world-famous club, with a trophy-laden past, and one of the best squads ever in recent history(The Invincibles), that has now become a perpetual also-ran in the context of European football.
And it’s not like they don’t have good players anymore. They’ve made some quality additions to the squad in the recent years, with many millions being spent of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette.
Along with these stars, other useful players like Granit Xhaka, Shkrodan Mustafi, Sead Kolasinac and Petr Cech. The Arsenal Academy is one of repute as well, with some famous names coming through the Academy before making their mark in the world of football.
Ashley Cole, Serge Gnabry, Wojciech Szczesny and Cesc Fabregas have all honed their talents as youth players at Arsenal (as did the legendary Lord Nicklas Bendtner).
The young striker Alex Iwobi, the amazingly fast Hector Bellerin, and the still-full-of-potential Jack Wilshere are academy products plying their trade at Arsenal, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Chuba Akpom knocking on the door of first-team football.
Moving on from Arsenal’s seemingly good personnel situation, let's discuss Arsenal’s style of play- an attractive brand of attacking football based on fluid passing, faintly reminiscent of Barcelona’s style, though, admittedly not as effective.
Arsenal moves its opponents about until they find an opening, and then send a perfectly weighted through ball to split the defence and give the striker a free run on goal. Of course, that situation plays out in Arsenal’s favour only sometimes, but it is a unique style of play in England, and one which is beautiful to watch when effectively executed.
The intricate passing patterns also mean that Arsenal sometimes create some of the most brilliant goals, such as Wilshere’s tiki-taka goal against Norwich. Arsenal moved the ball smoothly up the field before Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Wilshere passed their way through the Norwich defence, with Wilshere finishing the move with a tidy finish.
The last thing that Arsenal have going for them is that they have a tried and tested manager, who has been at the club for decades, which gives the team a certain stability and consistency.
Arsene Wenger, despite all the flak he has to take, is a premium manager, capable of building great squads, that play quality football, and manages money smartly. Despite all the pressure he has to shoulder, Wenger handles himself with the self-respect he should, and in my opinion, often has to face harsh and unnecessary criticism.
However, despite all the positives for the club, Arsenal seem to be simply incapable of reaching the top of the pack both in England and in Europe, for more than a decade.
Though they haven’t been able to progress beyond the Round of 16 in the Champions League since 2010-11, one may argue that they have simply been unlucky, having drawn giants Bayern Munich or Barcelona five times since then.
However, there are no excuses for their lacklustre performances in the Premier League. They’ve regularly been able to place in the top 4, but haven’t been able to mount a serious title challenge in years. So what’s gone wrong?
There are lots of possible explanations. One might point at the injuries that key players have sustained, that have derailed Arsenal’s seasons. Santi Cazorla, the inventive ball-playing wide midfielder, for instance, has been out of action since 19th October, 2016.
Jack Wilshere earned the rather unfortunate nickname Jack Wheelchair while he was out injured for the majority of the 2015-16 season.
Along with these players, a whole host of squad players have had injury-ridden pasts which has not only caused Arsenal to have stop-start seasons, but has also led to many players not being able to reach their full potential.
Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin, Danny Welbeck, all fall into that category, while Mesut Oil, Olivier Giroud, Per Mertesacker and virtually half the Arsenal squad have had to deal with injuries quite regularly.
Another reason might be that Arsenal, despite conducting their transfer business shrewdly, have not been able to capture enough of the world-class players they need to catapult themselves back into footballing elite.
While Ozil, Lacazette and Sanchez are at the top of their game, Arsenal still cannot compete with teams like Bayern, Barcelona, Real Madrid, et. al, for they don’t have the quality in all positions to enhance their game as a team.
Fellow Premier League clubs like Manchester City and Manchester United have invested heavily in all departments to create a team that has quality not just up top, but everywhere on the pitch.
Maybe, if Wenger loosened the purse strings a little? He still has the clout to attract top players, but for some reason, isn’t often willing to pay for quality. In fact, the list of players that Wenger had supposedly almost signed are a rather impressive bunch, though it’s slightly difficult to believe he was ever very close to getting legends like Messi and Zlatan.
Selling some of the club’s best players isn’t a strategy that has worked out particularly well either. Robin Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri were all integral players during their time at Arsenal but were sold to rival clubs and went on to build their legacies away from Emirates Stadium.
At the point, the most basic thing missing for Arsenal is a tight, reliable defensive line. While Laurent Koscielny, Kolasinac and Bellerin are all solid defensively, there’s not enough quality to back them up, especially while playing with a 5-man defence as they are.
The addition of a good young centre-back or two like the Italians Daneile Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli would both solidify the defence as well as future-proof that particular department. If Wenger could poach the on-loan Kurt Zouma from Chelsea, that too, would be a great signing.
There’s also a lack of strength and steel in the current squad, an issue that I would say has persisted for many years. Alex Song was maybe the last player who had the strength to bully Premier League midfields, and he wasn’t a player at the top of the game either.
Arsenal require someone like Blaise Matuidi, or Victor Wanyama in the middle of the park to dictate play and make those ugly, but necessary tackles to stifle dangerous plays.
Even when you look at the forward line, and even the defence, there aren’t players that can easily cope with the intense physicality of the Premier League, and definitely, no one who can bully opponents into submission the way Romelu Lukaku or Robert Huth can.
Coming to more abstract shortcomings, another charge that’s been levelled against Wenger is that he’s too content to be the second best, and doesn’t push hard enough for victory. He has seemingly been content with placing in the Top 4, and Champions League qualification, but the fans want more, much more.
That lack of ambition has led to the absence of any sort of fear-factor around the team. Arsenal are a quality team, but very few top clubs would go to Emirates Stadium with a sense of apprehension, something that Chelsea, City and even the re-energised United inspire in great droves.
Arsenal have lost the ability to win ugly games too, something that truly is the trademark of a quality team. The best teams are able to win without always playing at their best, and Arsenal, in the recent years, have been capable of winning only when they are playing well, and playing comfortably.
Now that I’ve explained exactly why Arsenal have lost their place in the footballing elite of the world, let me suggest a few things that might help them get back there. First and foremost, Arsenal have to loosen the purse strings and invest heavily in quality players to overcome this slump in achievement, the way United have.
United have made some smart transfers(though they haven’t been at all cheap) that have helped them regain their old fear-factor, and has catapulted their football to the brilliant levels they used to achieve regularly.
Money needs to be spent especially on the defence, to create a back-line with depth, quality and strength. Defenders like Kostas Manolas and Inigo Martinez would be good buys(maybe along with one of the young Italians I’ve already mentioned), and Moussa Dembele and Sergio Aguero, who have been linked to Arsenal during the last transfer window, would add some much-needed steel and brilliance to the squad.
Along with this, the team itself must become more physical and add a combative side to their game, so that they can ride out pressure-filled 1-0s and pile the points together. While many would expect #WengerOut to be one of the solutions, I think that Wenger is a talented manager, capable of climbing the footballing hierarchy again.
The one thing he needs to do, is be more ambitious and ask for more from the players. Wenger cannot win the Premier League again, if he doesn't dream big enough to dare to do so.
He can no longer be happy with the safety of top 4, and cannot go to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, Etihad, etc. intending to draw. Winning must be the priority, and indeed, the expectation.
Arsenal have been, for a long, long time, a great team, and they’re a very good team. And they have everything they need to become one of the top teams.
They just need the different pieces of the puzzle to be changed about a little, to give them the picture they want.