It is well documented that Arsenal have not won any silverware since the 2003/04 season when ‘the invincibles’ were clearly invincible… well, in the Premier League anyhow. I think it is fair to say that that team inclusive of Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry were expected to dominate for years to come and were only thwarted of retaining their league title the following season by an excellent Chelsea team who themselves only lost one league game all season.
This all seems a distant memory. Indeed, Arsenal have moved to a new stadium and have reached (and lost in) the Champions League Final since. Many players have come and gone but what remains constant is their manager Arsene Wenger and his philosophy of how he wants his team to play and how he chooses to manage his football club.
Last season Arsenal finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League once again; a tournament that they lost to the eventual winners in the Quarter Finals. They also reached a domestic cup final (albeit ending in defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup) and went out in the Quarter Finals of the FA Cup. It is odd then for the prevalence of such a collective view of failure with regards to Arsenal’s performance in 2010/11; many teams would be grateful of such a season, but for Arsenal this appears to be yet another example of another season that could have been any of the previous five.
This I think is the concern amongst supporters; their inability to progress in the manner in which they have so often threatened; and are now in danger of being caught by the ‘chasing pack’ in terms of competition for the top four slots. The incredible financial strength exerted by Manchester City has seen them overtake The Gunners in terms of competitiveness and much to supporters’ angst, arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur have also had the audacity to become Champions League contenders. Alongside this, the expected improvement to Liverpool’s fortunes next season means that there is the potential for a much more competitive outlook to the race for the top four positions in 2011/12, never mind the title.
You would think that having replayed basically the same season for half a decade, Arsene Wenger and the club’s board of directors would have identified what was needed to re-assert themselves as real championship contenders. Far too many times last season Arsenal struggled against sides at the ‘wrong-end of the table’ with unexpected home defeats to West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle Utd and Aston Villa. Arsenal’s mettle has been questioned consistently since the departure of talismanic figures such as Adams, Keown, Dixon, Vieira, Petit and Gilberto Silva, and this was a common theme once again last year, most notably in the defeats at Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, the spectacular 4-4 draw at Newcastle Utd and the 2-3 reverse at home to Tottenham Hotpsur.
So the question stands, why hasn’t Wenger addressed this? Is he too stubborn to consider drafting players in who as well as having technical ability they also have steel, energy and a tackle in their armory? All teams have off-days and there will always be instances of a manager being out-thought tactically or a team being out-played, the worry for Arsenal though is that they succumb to the same outcome against the same teams year after year. For instance, as soon as you see Arsenal are away at Stoke City or Bolton Wanderers or another hard-working side, you doubt whether The Gunners will get a result and discuss whether they have the resiliance to go to these sorts of places and churn out a hard-fought victory. Furthermore, it would appear they are no closer to emulating the total-football style displayed by Barcelona having been outplayed in the last four matches with The Gunners managing an average of 39% of possession throughout, and finally, it is well documented that Sir Alex Ferguson has a preferred method of playing against Arsenal which has seen a reasonable amount of success with the implication that Arsenal have only one plan and if that can be thwarted then it is believed they struggle to find alternate avenues. With these issues in mind, again the question is raised, why hasn’t Wenger addressed this?
For the first time last season, Arsenal supporters and the media were more vocal in their assertions that something needed to change. This summer has seen the Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona soap opera re-emerge with Arsenal allegedly happy to sell for £35million; but if Arsenal fans were concerned with the ultimately failed bid last summer, this year they have to accept that other high calibre players may be destined elsewhere; more worryingly to their Premier League competitors.
Already Gael Clichy has transferred to Manchester City and despite Wenger’s determined stance, it is believed that Samir Nasri will follow him to Manchester and will either be playing in the sky blue of City or United’s red next season. This will be concerning and I wonder what sort of message this sends out to other players, particualy Robin van Persie whose impact once returning from injury was significant, scoring 23 times from January onwards. I wonder whether the recent signing of Gervinho from Lille will act as Nasri’s replacement or whether this is genuine squad improvement; either way, Arsenal appear to have a lot of work to do to begin challenging again for the league title.
Since Lehmann’s departure in 2008, Arsenal’s goalkeeper has been a constant issue with numerous high profile examples of bad decision making costing key goals in important matches. I still don’t understand why Wenger didn’t pay the £3million that Fulham demanded for Mark Schwarzer or why he hasn’t investigated the possibility of recruiting any one of a number of quality ‘keepers in the Premier League; Shay Given for instance appears set for a move to Aston Villa, and I would agree with Sir Alex Ferguson’s policy of ensuring you have a trusted and talented custodian between the sticks. Is it any coincidence that Arsenal have failed to win anything since they last had a world-class goalkeeper?
I think Wenger was unlucky last season with losing Thomas Vermaelen to injury, however, the need for a new centre-half is not a new issue, yet it seems that Arsenal are dragging their heels a little; missing out on Phil Jones of Blackburn Rovers and despite reported interest in his former team-mate Christopher Samba, Birmingham City’s Scott Dann and Bolton Wanderers’ Gary Cahill, Arsenal are still yet to add to this vital position.
With the possibility of Fabregas departing, Wenger may have a real hole in his midfield next season. Alex Song has shown promise but is not the ball-winning commanding midfielder that I feel they need to play alongside Jack Wilshere; neither is Denilson who appears also set for the exit door. Scott Parker would be an ideal acquisition but once again, it appears that Arsenal’s rivals have stolen a march on them with Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur being credited with the England international’s likely destination.
And then there is the striking department. Niklas Bendtner looks set to leave (although I doubt you will see too many glum faces in North London with this prospect) and Marouane Chamakh failed to live up to expectations. With van Persie basically being made out of glass, can Arsenal afford not to make a significant foray into the transfer market to acquire a striker who will help take the burden of goalscoring off the Dutchman? If you look at their rivals and the striking ammunition that is available, Arsenal’s forward personnel appears to be a little embarrassing.
It is certainly becoming a strange summer at The Emirates and the uncertainty surrounding Nasri and Fabregas (who quite clearly are two of Arsenal’s best players) is only compounding a sense of expectancy that Arsenal will once again play nice football and be good to watch next season; but are likely to fall short of what is needed to obtain any silverware for another year.
Is the answer for Wenger and the club to part company or is it for the Frenchman to stop being so stubborn and identify where he has made mistakes and rectify them? Surely it’s the latter?