Despite Arsenal’s 61% possession and 23 shots on target against another makeshift Manchester United defence, it was still Louis Van Gaal’s side that snatched the three points. Jack Wilshere’s flash-point of anger against the overbearing Fellaini and Kieran Gibbs’ complete deflation after the full 90 minutes both demonstrate the frustration felt within Arsenal’s squad as they travel to West Brom on the back of their worst league start in 32 years.
Arsenal are not exactly on the brink of perishing like the old greats of A.C Milan. But for a club of its history the players seem to be content with mediocrity and are unwilling and unable to stage a potent title challenge, let alone be near the tour de force standards of the ‘Invincibles’. The statistics rave about Arsenal’s per annum profits and pundits wax lyrical about Le Professeur’s consistent ability in retaining the top four spot, despite his limited activity in the transfer periods; but is this really the footballing philosophy that the fans want to continue supporting? A philosophy composed of under-achieving and constant plateauing, resulting in the failure to be regarded on par with Europe’s elite.
What perhaps strikes Arsenal fans the most is the stubbornness of Wenger to come to terms with the deficiencies in his squad and invest in those undernourished areas to make his side genuinely compete again – a sight which has not been witnessed since Arsenal’s title hopes squandered in February 2008 at the hands of Birmingham City. It has been made apparent from last season’s glimpses of Aaron Ramsey’s stellar performances and the instant impact of the remarkable Alexis Sanchez that Wenger does have the potential components for a future championship-winning side. But despite this he has not addressed his squad’s long term problems by giving them the fundamentals needed that all previous winners possessed.
Although his team has been plagued by injuries and there is still over two-thirds of the campaign left to cement a place in the top four, it is perhaps time for the guillotine to be dropped on Arsène Wenger’s 18-year reign.
Oh captain, my captain…?
Since the start of the Premier League era in 1992, every single title-winning side had a natural winner as its captain. Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane and Vincent Kompany to name a few. If the bearer of the armband was not a warrior in the Nemanja Vidić build then he justified the responsibility on either world class status or unequivocal loyalty, like Thierry Henry and John Terry respectively.
Regardless of their trait all previous captains merited that final action of lifting the Premier League trophy based on their influence both on and off the field. These characters would be the role model that the fledglings would be inspired by to perform and the figure players would be afraid of if not putting in their shift, forcing them to raising their game. With Arsenal such a dominant figure has been missing since the era of Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. Despite the honour being bestowed on the likes of Cesc Fabregas and later Robin Van Persie, in such players a chief figure did not lie. They were rather the more ornamental components of a potential title winning side.
[pullquote]With Arsenal such a dominant figure has been missing since the era of Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry[/pullquote]
The current Arsenal captain, Mikel Arteta, is not a physical presence in the mould of Gennaro Gattuso nor is he the type who rubs off his influence through midfield mastery and control. He is too slow to track back and crunch and not cute enough to find that pass to unlock defences from deep. From previously playing a crucial no.10 role during David Moyes’ reign at Everton, he has now slipped into the passenger’s seat after having been unsuccessfully shifted into a more defensive position by Wenger, epitomised most evidently in Arsenal’s 6-0 white-wash against Chelsea in March. His appointment as captain was quite an absurd decision. The departure of Thomas Vermaelen to Barcelona seemed the perfect window for Wenger to readdress his mistake of giving the captaincy to the Belgian. If looking for a clear cut leader in a dressing room absent of one, Per Mertesacker seemed ideal for the role as he provides a presence at the back and can draw upon his international experience and winning mentality he has enjoyed with Germany’s current golden generation. The lack of a captain with stomach and the ability to set the standards for the rest of the team has contributed heavily to the demise of Wenger in the face of his side’s inability to win the past 15 Premier League games against a top 4 team of that season.
Perhaps this highlights the bigger issue of the the lack of leaders in the Arsenal squad as a whole. Most clearly there has been a missing component in the midfield engine room since the likes of Alex Song, a transfer in the view of Arsenal fans that was not even warranted. Regardless of Wilshere’s or Ramsay’s technical ability, Arsenal need that physical combatant, exempted excellently by Nemanja Matić at Chelsea. The use of one is twofold: to do the team’s dirty work of containing those more skilled opposition and see away those turbulent bogey teams. Arsenal’s result against Hull City this season the most obvious example of a missing presence.
In a similar mood the inconsistency and lack of quality of the back 4 does not provide a foundation for the rest of the side to push off from. Like Louis Van Gaal, Arsene has come back to the league with caviar rather than bread and butter. His transfer policy in the summer seemed to have taken the Football Manager-esque route of flooding his squad with marquee signings rather than looking at the bare necessities his depleted squad required. Although sparking the imagination of the fans with the recruitment of Alexis, Arsene’s stubbornness in filling out his defence will prove to be a shot in the foot come May.
In his trophy laden years the Frenchman could rely upon the likes of Seaman, Adams, Bould and later Lehmann, Campbell and Toure to provide a firm defensive spine for the rest of the team to play their fluid football from. Within the past few seasons it is undeniable Arsenal continue to play the strong attacking football they are so well known for, but now under a quick turn of pressure a switch is flicked and they seem to crumble. Szczesny seems neither a top-class shot stopper nor a commander of his territory, whilst the unfortunate and unpredictable partnership of Mertesacker and the out-of-position Monreal do Arsenal’s stability no favours. Full-backs seem to overlap but they never track back whilst centre-backs go adrift in the opposite half and seem unable to recover their defensive positions when possession is lost.
Whilst Arsene has not addressed the evident issues in the defensive third of the pitch, he stretches his problems right to the other side. In Danny Welbeck Arsenal have got a grafter and a player willing to run the full 90 for his teammates. But what they don’t have yet in Welbeck is a proven target man. With only a total of 29 goals in 142 appearches for Manchester United, with his best season tallying up to 12 goals, it is a worry for Arsenal fans that their £16 million striker has not yet racked up near-20 goals in a single season. Although football analysts believe Danny Welbeck has the potential step up to be a clinical frontman now that he is played in a more focal role under Wenger, as of yet Arsenal do not have the finished product.
In terms of depth of world-class options, there seems to be close to none. In the past if it was not Thierry Henry rattling the back of nets it was Dennis Bergkamp, supplemented with contributions from Robin Van Persie and Adebayor also. Despite the fact Arsenal do not have either the luxury of proven goal scorers or the potential to develop world class ones at their disposal anymore, Wenger still persists with the likes of the mercurial Giroud and talentless Campbell and Sanogo. It is clear that failed lessons with Nicklas Bendtner, Marouane Chamakh and Gervinho do not seem to have be learnt. Moreover, too often Lukas Podolski is overlooked or played out of position: a player who provides pace, a rocket of a left foot and a proven goalscoring record for both Germany and previous clubs.
[pullquote ]In terms of depth of world-class options, there seems to be close to none[/pullquote]
In Alexis Sanchez Arsenal have a world class performer, dragging them through this season, and going forward he and Arsenal seem a genuine threat. But because they don’t have that fighting mentality behind them to constantly graft out chances against top-draw defensive systems, they need an opportunist no.9 to use as their ‘get out of jail’ card; something that was evidently missing on Saturday afternoon. This has been issue Jose Mourinho has successfully addressed this summer with the recruitment of Diego Costa and has proved to be a masterstroke so far.
The issues that Arsenal are posed with are not a surprise for the current season. The major question marks have been raised over Wenger’s ability within the past 7-9 seasons, and Arsenal as a club do not seem to be able to learn from their recurring mistakes. If these defensive vulnerabilities were a problem occurring only this season you would expect the brunt of the blame to be shifted on those on the pitch. Yet, as an issue that has contributed majorly to Arsenal’s undoing within the last decade the responsibility falls squarely on Arsène Wenger due to his inability to impose discipline and buy defenders that can do their job.
It is inevitable that many will judge Wenger at the end of this season and see if he can continue the FA Cup success with another trophy. But many felt that his real test of character started back in summer and whether or not he had the pride to acknowledge his squad’s weaknesses and buy big. What will prove most frustrating for Wenger is that despite Chelsea strengthening their squad to near perfection, those teams closest to the Gunners last season have not done the greatest business in the transfer period. Whilst Liverpool failed to address the vacancy left by Suarez, Manchester City have not built on their title-winning side, now relying on Agüero to balance the problems in the squad. This was indeed a real chance for Arsenal to accumulate a squad big enough and good enough to become Chelsea’s title-rival all the way through to May but now instead, from Arsène’s point of view, this season will simply be a matter of bracing the storm of scrutiny.