Arsenal’s tilt at the title has ended yet again, although the Gunners did hang in for longer than most predicted. However, the same old questions now need to be answered, the most prominent being: why does Arsene Wenger not see what everyone else does?
As with any problem, there are a number of places to start—is it Arsene’s tactics, the players, the board, or the “lack” of money?
The easiest place to begin is the current squad.
Arsenal has not improved enough on last season. In 2009, they finished 4th on 72pts; 2010 saw them climb to 3rd with 75pts, and this season they have 64pts with four games yet to play, but are yet again out of the title race earlier than one would have hoped. However, the Gunners title challenge, this season and last, was predicated on Chelsea and Manchester United’s dropping of needless points, rather than their own radical improvement.
Only one player of substance joined the club in the last two seasons — Thomas Vermaelan for £10 million. Initially, the previously unknown Belgian international went on to have a fabulous debut season, but his arrival was only one baby step in the right direction - and with his injury – this season’s title challenge was more or less over before it began because Arsene Wenger quite simply did not sign a replacement or partner of the same calibre.
That is because Wenger stuck with a few players who have always had questions surrounding them and then added to it. Laurent Koscielny and Sebastian Squillachi coming in for £9.7 million and £0 respectively and the goalkeeping situation immediately springs to mind. Since David Seaman left Arsenal in 2003, they have not had a single top class ‘keeper. Jens Lehmann might have been the man in goal in 2004, but he did make his fair share of mistakes in that amazing season and as the years went by, those mishaps became more and more common.
His replacement, Manuel Almunia, was another step backwards. The Spanish ‘keeper simply is not good enough to win a league. He makes far too many mistakes, and it is amazing that his career at Arsenal has lasted for so long. His chief rival for the post, Lukasz Fabianski, or “Flappyanski” as Gunners fans are beginning to call him, has enjoyed a torrid time as the net-minder on the few occasions he has managed to take to the pitch. So much so that Wojceich Szczesny has been thrust into action far quicker than Arsene Wenger would have hoped. And in fairness to the young Pole, he has usually risen to the occasion – although the massive clanger that gifted the League Cup to Birmingham still sticks in the memory.
So if the goalkeeper problem is so obvious, then why hasn’t Wenger brought in someone good? It’s not like there are no other good ‘keepers out there.
Another problem is the centre of defence. Sure, Vermaelen has been good, and William Gallas had probably just enjoyed his best season in an Arsenal jersey, so not signing a player of real quality to replace the Tottenham bound Frenchman or the injured Vermaelan has really come back to haunt the club.
As a good manager, Le Prof should be guarding the club against problems such as this by bringing in players of stature. Sol Campbell, but for his few man-of-the-match performances last term, was not the answer, but he is probably still a better defender than either Koscielny or Squilachi. Last season, Richard Dunne was allowed to leave Manchester City for a measly £5 million, and he is exactly the kind of player the Gunners need. Someone who is decisive, a leader, and who can defend.
Then there’s central midfield. Many Arsenal fans feel there is nothing wrong with the current central midfield set-up. Alex Song is improving, Cesc Fabregas is brilliant, and whoever else slots in can play with the best of them.
Problem is, Song offers very little going forward, Fabregas offers very little going back, and the extra body offers very little when the chips are down. Before I go any further, Cesc Fabregas is a fantastic player, a joy to watch, and one of my favourite players. But, in building the current Arsenal team around him, Wenger has been forced to go with a five-man midfield.
Up until 2004, Le Prof usually played 4-4-2. The year after the Invincibles won the league, Cesc Fabregas became the main player in central midfield. Since then Arsenal have moved to 4-5-1 to cover his deficiencies. It is also worth pointing out that Arsenal have not won a trophy since Cesc became the lynch-pin of the team.
For the bigger teams, Arsenal have become easier to play against. They are often out-fought in the critical area of central midfield, and that is one of the vital reasons why Arsenal are not challenging for titles.
They need to bring in a central midfielder who can do everything. An old fashioned player who can tackle, pass, shoot, and head the ball.
Song and Fabregas share these roles between them, and their partner—be it Samir Nasri, Diaby, Denilson, or Rosicky—only provides support in one direction. It is such a critical area of the team, and Wenger has such an eye for great midfielders.
Vieira and Petit were one of the best partnerships of the modern era, so it again begs the question, why hasn’t Arsene tried to sign a similar player?
Up front, Arsenal only have one good striker. Robin van Persie is streets ahead of Niklas Bendtner, or Eduardo, or even the shrinking Marouane Chamakh for that matter. They need to bring in a new forward badly. They won’t win the league until they do.
One other problem that this current Arsenal team suffer from is that they are virgins.
They have never won anything, because they don’t know how to win anything. They lack the nous, experience, and mentality needed to get over the finishing line. One competition that now deserves to be really looked at and treated with respect is the League Cup.
Back in the ’70s Brian Clough took over a Nottingham Forest team that had never won a thing. During the time, there was a cup called the Anglo/Scottish Cup, the most disrespected trophy in football.
It was such an awful competition that nobody took it seriously, except Clough and Forest.
They went on to win it in 1977. That first win provided the foundation and desire to go on and win other trophies. Forest went on to win the League in 1978 and 1979, the League Cup in 78 and 79, the European Cup in 1979 and 1980, and the European Super Cup in 1979.
In short, a trophy that meant nothing provided the springboard for the most successful period in Nottingham Forest’s history. Arsene Wenger and Arsenal could learn a few lessons from this alone.
They did get to the League Cup final this year, but just as many of the team froze on the day, Arsene Wenger seemed to freeze too.
So perhaps the biggest problem between Arsenal and winning the league is Arsene Wenger himself.
The great man has a number of faults, not least his constant need to take the pressure off his fragile team. But as anyone who plays sport will tell you; Sport reveals character, it does not make it. Amongst the biggest problems this team have is their brittle mentality. That comes from the manager. This has to change but so does Arsenals’ tactical outlook on the game.
To win any league, the Champions must by flexible and pragmatic. Tactics must be changed on a whim to suit the occasion. In this aspect, Arsenal are unyielding.
In every season, there comes a time when the game plan has to be changed, and a new approach to the puzzle must be looked at. Arsenal do not change, no matter the opposition. Be they playing against Wigan or Stoke or Barcelona, the Gunners use the same game plan every time. In football, one size does not fit all.
Part of the reason for this is Arsene Wenger’s faith in Cesc Fabregas, the 4-5-1, and the style of play they use. He has a beautiful philosophy on the game, and will not change it for anyone. It means that Arsenal will play their flowing game that appeases so many, because they and he have a certain expectation to live up to. This philosophy and style of play has given Arsenal and Arsene Wenger something of a superiority complex and now he seems to have backed himself into a corner to such an extent that he can only see his own teachings and tactics.
Fabregas deserves to have the team built around him, but Wenger must find the right players.
In 1958 the great Bill Nicholson took over as manager of Tottenham Hotspur. It was an announcement that surprised football.
He was known as a deep thinker on the game and had his own football philosophy, but he was not what you call a household name as far as management was concerned. A very similar figure to Arsene Wenger when he joined the Gunners in 1996.
Nicholson had his own philosophies and beliefs and had great time for new scientific approaches to training and tactics. He revolutionised English football with this new approach he instilled in Tottenham.
Within a couple of years, Spurs went on to win the Double—the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup—and challenged for the league every season. They only finished outside the top four three times over the next decade.
Tottenham Hotspur and good football became synonymous with each other, just as Arsenal and good football have done so since Arsene Wenger took over.
The problem that Spurs have is that history has dictated that Spurs must play a certain way, which has resulted in them winning very little and not even challenging for years. Countless managers at Spurs have refused to become pragmatic.
While the same level of expectation is now bearing down on Wenger, and he won’t go against his new beliefs, they have not won anything for the last six years. Le Prof too now believes that the game must only be won a certain way.
In football, time moves quickly, far too quickly for some.
In 2004, not one person watching football would have said that the Gunners would win nothing for the rest of the decade. In 1990, nobody in their right minds would have said that it would be that last time that Liverpool would win the league.
Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are at a crossroads.
Le Prof has dithered with this experiment for far too long, and the club have accepted finishing in the top four as the height of their ambitions. Bringing money into the club through the Champions League has become the No. 1 goal for the every year, not winning trophies. This can be seen in recent statements by Stan Kroenke.
Wenger has to recognise that he has failed with this team, accept it, and move on to get their title challenge back on track. It only needs minor tweaking, and not a huge amount of spending.
Four players and Arsenal could win the league or the Champions League.
He needs to buy his team a strong spine; the one they currently have is too weak to win the title with.
A club with the modern history of Arsenal should not be waiting for their rivals to decline, they should be forcing them into decline, strangling the life out of them when the opportunity arises—just as Manchester United have done to Liverpool for the last 20 years.
Arsenal should be doing that to United and Chelsea—and winning the English Premier League on their own terms.
Football is a simple game.
Le Prof is a genius of a manager. Surely he can figure this out?