Why are Arsenal holding themselves back from challenging again?
Barring a miracle against Bayern Munich next week – which is exceedingly unlikely – Arsenal will end this season on eight years without a trophy. If we don’t win the Premier League next season – which is even less likely – a decade will have passed since we last won the title. Arsenal have gone through several long stretches in their history without silverware and we have had title challenges and several cup finals since the Invincibles of 2004, but the idea of a decade soon having passed since last winning the league suddenly makes you gulp. Given the money that Arsenal have at their disposal and yet the serial failures to build a strong enough squad to sustain challenges, you have to wonder, why are Arsenal holding themselves back?
In what feels like the blink of an eye, Arsenal have gone from a club that routinely challenged and usurped Manchester United for trophies to a club that is nowhere near a title challenge and which can just about qualify for the Champions League. Arsenal have gone from a club that had outstanding players like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires and many more, ready for anything and who you would trust with your life, to a club with players like Gervinho, Squillaci and Chamakh, ready for nothing and barely trusted at all. But it really doesn’t need to be this way.
People are concerned that we will struggle to sign Champions League players if we don’t qualify for next season’s Champions League, but we have largely eschewed such signings in recent years anyway. Most of our recent signings have been of a Europa League level. Are Chamakh, Gervinho and Giroud grade A Champions League players? Would United or City or Chelsea have signed any of them? Cazorla is a quality player and Monreal has looked steady in most of his appearances so far but they were signed somewhat on the cheap from Malaga, a club struggling financially. We have the resources to build squads capable of challenging, but instead we choose to get by. We could shop in Harrods’ food hall every day if we wanted, but we are making do with Asda.
We know in our hearts that the Invincibles are long gone enough now and far enough removed no longer to be relevant, but we want to support our current players and so we build them up, even though we know that they aren’t that good enough, as if somehow it won’t take that much to return to those outstanding and unheralded heights. It will. The Invincibles was an astounding one-off, not a benchmark. We want our players to be brilliant but we have added gilded reputations to players that don’t necessarily deserve them. Are we not getting enough from these players, or are they just giving the best that they can manage? Look at the team realistically, are these players under-performing or are they under-coached? I think it has to be both.
Look at the goalkeepers. Arsene Wenger inherited David Seaman and he was brilliant. By and large, Seaman won us points and trophies. Wenger replaced him with Jens Lehmann and, before losing it a bit and becoming random and wild, Jens was also excellent. Yet we then failed to replace Lehmann and instead pitifully allowed his average understudy Manuel Almunia to have several seasons as our number one. Almunia never looked good enough to help to win us anything and he was never going to be anything more than an okay goalkeeper.
We heard that Wojciech Szczesny was a talent in the making and, after random performances from Lukasz Fabianski, many fans felt that we had another great keeper on our hands when Szczesny started to become a first-team regular. But are you so sure now? Does his form make you feel safe? Is Szczesny being let down by poor coaching, or is he just not that special? Is Szczesny little more than yet another player that we hear on the grapevine is good, so the consensus builds him up and confirms him thus, yet he fails to fulfil his promise?
Sometimes goalkeepers are only as good as how well their defence avoids them being exposed, but I find Szczesny’s attempts at saves from long-range shots quite baffling. Rather than shift his feet to reach a nearer position to smother a shot, Szczesny often dives full length from his starting position. He has little chance to control and hold a shot that way and every chance to spill a shot outwards. That is a danger that both Blackburn and Villa recently took advantage of.
The back-ups for Szczesny are Fabianksi and Vito Mannone but they are not terribly trusted and provide little real competition. Surely we could have signed an experienced keeper, to act as number two, as competition for Szczesny, but also to help him become tighter in his game? The likes of Shay Given, Thomas Sorenson or Brad Friedel could surely have been signed to do that job. We certainly have the money, we just don’t have the brains. Again, why hold back?
Defensively we are a shambles at times. Thomas Vermaelen looked immense in his first season. He doesn’t look quite so immense now. Vermaelen has become a whirlwind of slovenly randomness. Is that down to his long injury lay-off, or just enough discomfort with the quality around him that he ends up trying to do too much and cover too many team needs, that he overstretches himself and fouls up his own work? Could the Arsenal captaincy truly be that much of a burden, that it negatively affects his game? Something is not right there.
Laurent Koscielny impressed heavily towards the end of his first season, even given his appalling and inexcusable balls-up with Szczesny in the 2011 Carling Cup Final, yet he can still have the most bizarrely absent-minded performances. Have Koscielny and Szczesny learnt anything from that cup final calamity? I am not convinced. Koscielny seems to switch off at times and arrive at the scene of a conceded goal that he should have been better placed to prevent. Per Mertesacker is a slow and ponderous defender who comes across as wise and reliable when he makes astute interceptions. However, Arsenal prevaricated at length over a suitable fee on whether or not to sign Gary Cahill and were ultimately usurped by Chelsea. Apparently Mertesacker cost Arsenal little different to what Cahill cost Chelsea. Who would you rather have at Arsenal, Mertesacker or Cahill? Personally I think there is little contest. When Mertesacker is caught out due to his physique or lack of speed, I wonder why we held back on signing Cahill.
In midfield we have enjoyed the likes of Fabregas, Flamini, Hleb and Nasri over recent seasons and a combination of factors have seen the likes of these players leave. Factors like the chance to join a hometown club, the chance to join a European giant (even if it doesn’t work out and you’re soon floundering, looking for a half-decent club) and the decision to leave through sheer loss of belief in the club’s way forward, through the sheer lack of investment in players, leaving us ill-equipped to sustain challenges. The lure of a bigger pay packet elsewhere never hurts of course and you could argue if you like that Nasri was largely only particularly effective in the first half of his last season with us, but still, we could have done without losing him or the others.
We have Jack Wilshere and he is a tremendous player that we are grateful to have, but beyond Jack you cannot help but feel that we are treading water in midfield. Abou Diaby is a talented attacking midfielder, but his fitness is sadly utterly unreliable. Mikel Arteta is an experienced operator, but he is limited as a holding midfielder. Aaron Ramsey gets shunted around various positions, Tomas Rosicky is a livewire talent, but he barely gets to see the light of day and we don’t even trust Andrei Arshavin enough anymore to play him.
It has been enough seasons now since Fabregas left Arsenal that we no longer need to hold ourselves back playing the Fabregas 433 formation, but we still persist with it, even though it does not appear to suit the players that we have now. I am not convinced that Arsene Wenger knows if Theo Walcott and Gervinho are strikers or wingers. That flexibility gives us striker options, but also limits us for true certainty over the credibility of those options. I have been a big admirer of Lukas Podolski for some time and I long felt that he would be a fantastic replacement for Robin van Persie should he leave. Well now we do have Podolski, a 100-cap wide striker for Germany, but we don’t give him the freedom to attack goal enough for me, which is a huge waste of his ability as a natural finisher. Instead we persist up front with Olivier Giroud who, although a player that I like, does not have a killer finishing instinct. Sadly you only need to look at how Giroud wanted an extra stride before taking his early chance at Spurs last weekend, which allowed Vertonghen time to knick the ball off him, to see that our attack is not ruthless enough. Again, why hold ourselves back? Why not play Podolski instead?
Our best and most experienced striker left out of out left. Why?
We should not remotely be in a context where Spurs can finish above us and oust us from Champions League qualification, but we are not currently better than Spurs. As things stand, we are currently seven points weaker than them. But current standings are not binding. Only the final league table is binding. That is what matters ultimately. It’s a 38-game season and this basic fact has saved us from Spurs finishing above us a few times now, like when they infamously only managed a 37-game season in 2005-2006 and when they missed out by one point behind us last season. Spurs were 10 points better than us at one point a year ago, verging on 13 points, but it was meaningless in the end because we finished one point above them. We can all go insane right now if we want to, at our current deficit behind them, but the bottom line is that we can only make the fullest sense of our plight this season once the campaign is over. As things stand, we have a season to save. It won’t be easy but it remains saveable. We can still turn this around and finish above Spurs. The final league table will not lie.
Who is holding Arsenal back? The board? The manager? Both? The players? The truth, being realistic, is all three, in whatever measures. A serial lack of squad investment over several seasons has seen Arsenal dissolve from being serious trophy contenders to borderline hangers-on. We talk up signing players and we talk up challenging for honours, but in the end we are failing on both counts, as the quality of our signings and our challenges are just not good enough. But the quality of the players here is not necessarily a binding factor. What is more cutting is the nagging feeling that there are problems in the coaching set-up and that this same set of players could be doing much better. Our apparent lack of constructive coaching seems to be strangling us. Cuttingly for Arsene Wenger, beyond some ridiculous and at times utterly disgusting and disrespectful abuse, could a different coach come in and improve this set of players, with better coaching and tactics? I think the answer there, unavoidably, is yes.
For now, personally, we need to concentrate on immediate pressing needs: finishing this season as well as possible. Perhaps a new manager could come in, right now and produce a better final outcome than Wenger might, but I don’t think that is remotely set to happen. For now, I think we all need to concentrate, as supporters, in supporting the players we do have, to achieve the best outcome that we can achieve. Yes, of course, we’d all love that to be a winnable title challenge but that is not on our horizon. Qualifying for next season’s Champions League and hopefully finishing above Spurs too are that horizon and I’m still confident that we can pull it off. Remember, it’s all about the final league table and it’s a 38-game season.