Arsenal’s season this year is on the cusp of turning into farce once again. Arsenal last won the Premier League in 2004, and for many years after that were routinely out of contention as the costs of moving to a new stadium restricted them, while Chelsea and Manchester City went on a petrodollar-fuelled spending spree. Chelsea and City shared Premier League titles with Manchester United for the next decade until Alex Ferguson’s retirement brought United to their current merry state. But this season, with Chelsea a laughing stock following a Jose Mourinho-inspired meltdown, and United still bewildered by Louis Van Gaal’s “philoshophy”, Arsenal have the best chance to win the league since about 2008.
And they are pissing it away. Having been top of the league just a few weeks ago, Arsenal have been in freefall since a pathetic 4-0 thrashing by Southampton, and are now behind Manchester City as well as league leaders Leicester and even major rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Now, there is still plenty of time to go this season, and Arsenal might still win the league, but all the indications from Arsenal’s recent results and form are of a team in crisis, while their rivals steadily improve. It’s a maddening but completely predictable situation.
Much has been made this season about Wenger’s refusal to sign any outfield players last summer, opting only to sign Petr Cech from Chelsea. Cech is a fantastic goalkeeper and it is a massive relief to finally have a solid ‘keeper, the first since Wenger replaced Jens Lehmann with the ludicrous Manuel Almunia around 2005-6. But last season exposed major weaknesses in the Arsenal team: there was a dearth of goalscoring talent, with far too much reliance on Alexis Sanchez, and an odd central midfield combination of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla. This worked well for a period of time but most observers felt it was a precarious pairing with the feel of a temporary solution rather than a long-term fix. Many people expected Wenger to sign a back-up for Coquelin, to avoid a reliance on the limited Mathieu Flamini and perenially injured Mikel Arteta when Coquelin picked up the inevitable injury; and, in my view, Cazorla should have been replaced by a more natural deep-lying playmaker. As it stands, Cazorla has an injury that will keep him out for a total of four months and there is nobody else in the squad able to do that job. Arsenal have relied on Aaron Ramsey partnering Flamini in midfield in recent weeks, which is the football equivalent of playing the Duracell bunny next to a headless chicken.
There was much agonizing during the summer about Arsenal’s need to have a new centre-forward, with a lot of moronic speculation that Arsenal would sign Real Madrid’s main striker, Karim Benzema. I accept the difficulty of signing centre-forwards, as there are very few top-class strikers available and Olivier Giroud is a pretty decent player, who has in fact scored the majority of Arsenal’s goals this season. But it seemed obvious to me that Arsenal should instead try and sign another goalscoring winger, like Alexis, who could take some pressure of him and, again, fill in during the inevitable injuries. There are many more good wingers and inside-forwards around then there are centre forwards. Manchester City signed two last summer–Raheem Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne. By comparison, Arsenal have been relying for months on the worthy but limited Joel Campbell and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose performances this season have been risible.
Chamberlain was expected to kick on and have a breakthrough year this season, but to me his performances have indicated a player who lacks the basic mentality and attitude to succeed and win at the top level. Roy Keane criticised Arsenal before this season began, saying that players like Chamberlain were more interested in ‘selfies and six-packs’ than in winning, and frankly I think he was correct. Having read Invincibles recently, and thinking back to that team of 2003-2004, I was struck by how much Arsenal then had a core of players who were desperate to win and absolutely despised losing. Who can honestly say this current team has the same quality?
I think this touches on an aspect of Arsene Wenger’s managerial style. People always talk about how he sees the best in players, seeks to recruit intelligent players and trusts them to do their best and learn to work with their teammates. I think this made more sense with Henry and Bergkamp’s generation of players–players who grew up in the real world and actually had what we would think of as normal human characters–compared to the current type of players who are cocooned in the world of elite football from about the age eight, or even younger. Players like Henry have spoken about how Samir Nasri was a spoiled brat, and Cesc Fabregas turned out to be the same sort of person; that is now the norm, for today’s players. You can’t just rely on these players to actually care–their egos are too big and they’re too disconnected from the real world. When the chips are down, they go into hiding–as Van Gaal is finding at United this season. They need something else to motivate them, whether that’s clear tactical instruction or some actual fear. That’s one of the reasons Ferguson was so successful; Mourinho is the same, although prone to madness as this season showed. I hate both those managers, while I love and respect Wenger, but at a certain point you have to change your methods if they’re not working.
Tomas Rosicky is my favourite Arsenal player by far, partly because he has that old-school intelligence and mentality of giving your best and caring about your club and its fans. It comes across whenever you see him play. Other older players in the squad have a similar quality but are fundamentally different. Petr Cech is a Chelsea legend; Mikel Arteta was a lesser player who only played for Arsenal for a few years, while Rosicky has been at the club for a decade, and Arsenal’s barren decade at that. It’s tragic that he has been injured all season, and that during his return against Burnley last week he picked up another injury straight away which may rule him out for the rest of the season. I really hope he does play for us again, and all year I hoped that we would win the league so he would have the medal in his last year with us. When he leaves, my emotional connection with Arsenal will probably be at its lowest ebb since I started supporting them in the early ’90s.
I looked at buying an Arsenal ticket for the Burnley match, which as it turns out may have been Rosicky’s last appearance. To do so you had to have a paid club membership just to be able to buy a ticket. The club has just announced that season ticket holders have to pay a surcharge for the Champions League match against Barcelona. That’s the seventh home cup match of the season and every year the first seven are included in the price, but this year Arsenal’s American owner Stan Kroenke has changed the rules. And what do we get for all this money, and the countless millions pouring in from TV and sponsorship? The pleasure of watching Flamini, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott. Jesus Christ.
Leicester City are league leaders and at this point I’m dangerously close to wanting them to win the league, even though Arsenal are still in with a shout. The club I grew up supporting and the club I’ve supported my whole adult life just feel increasingly alien to me. I know that Arsene Wenger has values with which I agree and for which I have a lot of respect, but it’s increasingly obvious that many of his players don’t share those. And if they can’t even make a good show of wanting to win the league in a season when their main rivals are Leicester City, I might just lose interest completely.
Edit: I’ve changed the title of this post as I felt it was too unwieldy.