Time for another Arsenal post, as yesterday saw the Gunners lose 3-2 to Manchester United at Old Trafford in an insipid performance. This is comfortably the worst Manchester United side in over twenty years, but somehow Arsenal contrived to lose a must-win game against a team largely comprising a mixture of unproven youngsters and ageing has-beens. After their last-minute defeat of Leicester City a couple of weeks ago, Arsenal were supposedly back in contention for the league title, just two points behind Leicester. But Arsenal’s performances have been dire for months now, and yesterday’s thoroughly dreadful and tame display puts paid to any notion that this is a team of potential champions. Leicester and Tottenham both won this weekend, and Arsenal are now five points adrift of the league leaders in third place.
I recently read Invincible, an account of the 2003-4 season, the last year Arsenal won the league. The book reminded me of two phrases which were always used to describe Arsenal’s style of football back then: “progression with possession” and “explosive pace”. Those virtues could not be further from Arsenal’s current style, which is characterized by sterile build-up play, partly due to a lack of movement and control of space. It often feels like Arsenal players just don’t want the ball, and there are often no forward or even sideways options for a pass. Players are often careless in possession, especially the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott who regularly dribble into touch or opposition players, often turning the ball over in dangerous areas. Combined with an appalling reluctance to track back, such turnovers often result in goalscoring opportunities for the other team. Going forward, the team’s finishing ranges from woeful to disgraceful. In the last few minutes of the Leicestser game, before Danny Welbeck’s winner in the fifth minute of injury time, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott shinned wide brilliant chances from around the penalty spot, while Per Mertesacker headed wide from about six yards out when it should have been easier to score. Arsenal players have a pathological inability to score goals.
There has been a great deal of ink spilled over Arsenal’s need for a ‘world class striker’, which for me is wide of the mark. Olivier Giroud is no Thierry Henry but he has done a decent job for Arsenal, on the whole, and has largely carried the team’s attack this season. The problem is not Giroud but the fact there are no goals coming from elsewhere in the team. Last year Arsenal were massively overreliant on Alexis Sanchez. Alexis has been in dire form recently, but that’s probably due to mental burnout after two years of pretty much constantly playing, plus travelling around the world to represent his home nation, Chile. His (surely temporary) decline was completely predictable and Arsenal should have bought another proven goalscoring winger to take the pressure off Alexis. There’s a dearth of ‘world class strikers’ around, but even if you accept that finding a better striker than Giroud was impossible, there’s no reason Arsenal couldn’t have bought another winger like Kevin de Bruyne, Julian Draxler or even Mario Gotze if they really wanted to. Instead, Arsenal and manager Arsene Wenger chose to ‘make do’ and run Alexis into the ground, with the results that we are seeing now.
Even Thierry Henry had Pires, Ljungberg, Bergkamp and Wiltord to support him, but this Arsenal side has no midfielders who can be relied on to score goals. Mesut Ozil is one of the best playmakers in the world and must be at the end of his tether over the inability of his teammates to do anything with the service he provides. Who could blame him if he decides to move on at the end of this season. This season Ozil has been regularly flanked by clowns like Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, players who can’t defend, pass, score, or assist, but who certainly specialize in securing lucrative contract agreements for themselves. Joel Campbell, an earnest and more modest figure than either of those two, has been banished for the team for unknown reasons despite the fact he can contribute a lot more to the team’s all-round game.
Arsenal’s defence looks good on paper, but has not performed well consistently for some time. Per Mertesacker is being phased out of the team, his lack of pace meaning he can be caught out of position from time to time. But much of this is not his fault but a function of the way Arsenal often give the ball away with seven players ahead of the ball, meaning teams can swiftly counterattack and isolate Arsenal’s big German. Rather than drop him they might want to reconsider their tactics. His replacement, Brazilian Gabriel Paulista, has put in some shocking performances lately, straight out of the Squill-vestre school of defending. Earlier comparisons to Martin Keown look misplaced now. Laurent Koscielny is a good defender but seems prone to dips in confidence and is not a leader on the pitch.
Arsenal’s midfield is a joke, without a central fulcrum who can make a pass. I have never been a big fan of Santi Cazorla but he did a decent job of transitioning play for Arsenal until a serious injury earlier this season. The ageing midfield pairing of ‘Flarteta’ have belatedly been cast out of the first-team picture; Mikel Arteta’s last performance saw him come on as a substitute, score an own goal, and go off injured. The absurdity is that Arsenal do not have one other player in their squad who is capable of reliably managing the transition in possession from defense to attack. It’s insane.
The person responsible for this mess is Arsene Wenger. This Arsenal team is 100% Wenger’s creation, and he has had huge freedom in selecting these players team. Arsenal these days are one of the richest clubs in the world. Their rivals for the league this year have not been the richer teams from Manchester or Chelsea, but poorer teams. Man U, City, Chelsea, and Liverpool are all clubs in transition; there will never be an easier season for Arsenal to win the league. But they seem determined not to take advantage of the opportunity. For all that I hate the hackneyed use of terms like ‘winning mentality’ that lazy pundits rely on in the absence of any insight or understanding, it is actually true that a desire to win and to push yourself to your limit is important in competitive sport. Some of Arsenal’s players clearly lack that desire, and as a collective they are being shown up by teams with fewer advantages who seem to want it more (and also play better football).
Although this Arsenal team is particularly bad, they have been this way on and off for about ten years. The personnel have changed, but the one constant is Arsene Wenger. I have huge respect and admiration for Wenger and his achievements but he really should have moved on from Arsenal years ago. The routine humiliations by clubs like Man U and Chelsea were bad enough, but in the last couple of years Arsenal have shown themselves capable of losing to anyone. The club is crying out for a new manager. This season, for the first time ever I look at clubs like Spurs, West Ham and Southampton with envy. Who can say Pochettino, Bilic or Koeman wouldn’t do better than Wenger with these players? In the past, no matter how bad things looked I always thought Wenger would turn it round. Now I really feel as if his time at Arsenal has run its course, and he needs to leave. I don’t even think we’ll finish in the top four this season, at this rate.
Arsenal travel to Spurs next Saturday for a game every Arsenal fan must look at in horror. Spurs might not be top of the table but are the form team and surely must be viewed as favourites now to win this year’s Premier League title. Even in recent years as Arsenal have struggled relative to Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal have always been better than their bitter north London rivals. But this season Spurs are playing much better football, playing with belief and togetherness. Most importantly, the days of Harry Redknapp and Tim Sherwood are a distant memory, and in Mauricio Pochetinno Spurs have a young and astute manager. You also have to recognize the role of their chairman Daniel Levy for getting them to this point. While Spurs are over-performing, Arsenal’s under-performance is ultimately the fault of the board, owner Stan Kroenke and CEO Ivan Gazidis. At bottom, the club doesn’t care about winning and just wants to make a profit and have loads of cash in the bank. The attitude of the players on the pitch is a reflection of that philosophy (in some cases it is literally the same).
Wenger rightly gets credit for Arsenal’s success in 1997-2004. So too does David Dein, whose vision was instrumental in creating that side. But Danny Fiszman also played a vital role in shaping that success, by providing the funding for Arsenal to sign players like Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt. That set the club on the road for the major success they enjoyed over the subsequent decade. In the end, it all comes back to money, and while Arsenal’s current regime is in place, there are few reasons for Arsenal fans to be cheerful.