There’s only a few hours left until Arsenal take on FC Barcelona at the Emirates, in what football purists undoubtedly would call “the battle of beauty” or some other tired old cliché. Arsene Wenger’s comments this week suggests he, as always, believes that his subtle, short-passing creaton is finally ready to challenge what is universally renowned as the finest team in world football. But nearly 6 years since they last lifted a trophy, how far have the ever transitional Arsenal outfit really come under the stubborn and determined Frenchman’s guidance?
There can be little doubt that over time, Barcelona is still superior to the English side. Most neutrals and even Arsenal-fans would agree. The two teams do share a common philosophy, a belief in youth, a similar style of passing and possession as a means to open up the opposition. Even the talisman and captain, the bearer of this Arsenal-side himself, Cesc Fabregas, once wore out his football shoes at Barca’s famed La Masia training facility before arriving in England. Under the watchful eyes of Arsene Wenger he has matured into one of football’s finest midfielders, a complete attacking midfielder as proficient in front of goal as he is with the ball in his control in the centre of the pitch. Fabregas’s badly hidden urge to return to Catalania in the summer was merely calmed down, not succumbed, and there would be no great surprise if he once did return to ply his trade at the Camp Nou.
Aside from the obvious similarities between the two clubs, Barcelona have been the most successfull club in the world during the very same barren spell, in terms of trophies at least, that Arsenal have been through. In Barcelona’s DNA you find not only a particular and intriguing view on football and the way the game is played, but also a need to succeed. As Xavi Hernandez, the brilliant passmaster of the side, told Sid Lowe in an interview recently, going two years without a trophy in Barca would mean changes. Not in the philosophy, but in the personnel of the club. Still, at Arsenal not much seems to change, as Arsene Wenger still remains firmly in charge of proceedings in London. A side which have been “in transition” for 6 years with seemingly no real results to show for all their talent and potential has done little to raise voices of malcontent amongst the Arsenal faithful. As they now meet what many believe to be Wenger’s perfect picture of a football club, his holy grail, his target, how far away are his squad of challenging Barcelona, or even the giants of their own domestic league?
Leaving aside the issue of the Champions League-meeting, one which I believe Arsenal might stand a better chance in than many, this would in many ways be the ideal season for the Gunners to challenge for the league title. A season which has seen the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool struggle horrendously, Manchester United leading the charge without impressing too much and Tottenham and City still a bit short of going all the way, Arsenal couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to finally bring an end to the wait for a new Premier League trophy. Still, in mid-Februay they find themselves four points adrift of United, a deficit which should in reality not be there. Losing a 4-0 lead to Newcastle at St. James’s Park merely added to the notion that their biggest weakness in recent challenges, their lack of winning mentality, still resides through the side. Shock results to West Bromwich, Newcastle, and giving away a 2-0 lead only to lose for bitter neighbours Tottenham didn’t help repel this myth either. As the business end of the season approaches, Arsenal will need to show that they have the fight and belief necesarry to win the trophies that matter.
A fine way to move closer to that feeling is to secure the League Cup title, where they are in the final along with Birmingham City. Wenger has this season moved away a bit from just using the younger players in the campaign, and added a bit of experienced players to the mix. The recipe that brought Sir Alex Ferguson the trophy two years in a row might also win Arsene Wenger a trophy which might go some way in instilling the hunger and desire for trophies in his squad.
Another fact is that while Wenger’s side in recent years has struggled with injury and a smaller squad, this season has seen him expand in numbers. Robin van Persie has struggled all season, but Marouane Chamakh did help free Arsenal from the lack of the Dutch striker in the early parts of the season. Cesc Fabregas has struggled as well, but Jack Wilshere and Aleksander Song has gone a long way in replacing his influence in matches. Samir Nasri has grown into the main creative force of the side, scoring and setting up goals at will. All of this, along with options like Walcott, Arshavin, Bendtner, Rosicky and Denilson shows Arsenal’s strength in depth and their attacking force really is formidable.
Where Wenger has failed to remedy his problems are in the defensive phase of the game. His goalkeepers still seem a bit short of real quality, even allowing for the promise of Wojcech Sczeszny and the improved performances of compatriot Lukasz Fabianski. They are a way short of a real top class goalkeeper who does the business week in week out. Bacary Sagna is a class act at full back, but aside from him the Arsenal-defence has been questionable at best this term. Laurent Koscielny looks a walking liability, Sebastian Squilacci not much better, and Thomas Vermaelen have been injured all season. Even when fit, the Belgian showed a rash nature and some suspect pieces of play, even if he is better than their current options. Gäel Clichy simply don’t seem capable of defending on a consistantly high level, his high-profile mistakes happens far too regularly for a left back on a side competing for major honours. There might be hope in the shape of Johan Djorou, who has performed admirably, and young Kieran Gibbs, but investment in this area of the side would be wise if Wenger wants to compete for the biggest prices for seasons to come.
All in all, this season do seem a bit too soon for Arsenal to win the Premier League or indeed the Champions League. The holes in the side, although beginning to be filled, still seem a bit too many. In a season where no other side has really taken control of the title race, Arsenal were presented with a glorious opportunity and still haven’t taken it. Manchester United are an experienced proposition in these kind of situations, and one would be hard pressed to tip Arsenal ahead of them when it comes down to it. Fixing the holes in their squad should be easy, bring in another defender or two and perhaps a keeper and they look set. Fixing their approach to defending, their vulnerability to counter-attacks, their winning mentality, desire and overcoming the obstacle of that first trophy might be much more important. The question then, is, how long can they claim to be in transition? For how long can they go without winning something major? Will the youngsters eventually step up? Time will show, but Arsene Wengsters younger can’t be kids forever. This season, or next, they will have to grow up, and win.