The Gunners and their lack of ammo
I have tended to take a quite reactionary position on Arsenal this year, to my great shame. I admit to leaning more towards thinking Arsene Wenger ought to go after the Man Utd defeat in August, before recovering a certain element of faith in him over the course of the rest of the season, until the recent hiccups, particularly against Milan and Sunderland. Now I don’t know where I stand, but I think it’s more towards a need for a change.
Arsenal really don’t look like winning anything at the moment. In spite of their great form mid-season, helped by a good run of fixtures and exceptional form from Robin van Persie and Aaron Ramsey, the same problems remain that were there last year and the year before and so on. They just can’t seem to get over the line – one bad day soon becomes two or three or four, whereas the best teams in the Premier League will win even on their off days and only slip up a couple of times per season.
There is no denying that Wenger has brought tremendous success to Arsenal over the past decade or so. To deny him a certain amount of credit for that is foolish. When they were good – invincible, you might say – they were to be admired. The talent in that side – Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Vieira, even the likes of Seaman, Campbell, Ljungberg and the others who don’t get that much acclaim – was second to none. Thus it would be very harsh to claim that Wenger isn’t, or wasn’t, an exceptional manager.
Compare those late 90s/early 2000s sides to this one. It’s hard to believe that this is how the team has progressed. It has surprised me over the past few years how far Arsenal have been able to get with a team that, to me, never looked all that great in terms of individual talent. I couldn’t work out whether I was underrating the individuals or I wasn’t giving enough credit to Wenger for what he was getting out of them. And I think there is a case to make that if the manager of the current Arsenal side wasn’t him – if it was just another average British or continental European manager – they wouldn’t be contending for trophies and Champions League spots. Again, he deserves credit for that.
However, he is also responsible for that situation. It was his choice to go down the youth route instead of continuing to buy established names. Some revisionists may try to make out that Arsenal have never been big spenders under Wenger, but that ignores the shed loads of talent that he drafted in down the years. We remember the successes for primarily being Arsenal players, ignoring the careers they had before – Bergkamp the Champions League winner with Ajax, Henry and Pires the World Cup winners, Wiltord the winner of Euro 2000 just before Wenger spent £13m on him. We forget the expensive flops like Reyes, Suker, Jeffers, Diawara, Wright and Cygan – add to that current squad members Squillaci and Chamakh.
And then there are all the players who left before their time was due, for one reason or another – not just the three that went this summer but also guys like Anelka, Overmars, Ashley Cole, Toure and Adebayor. Surely the more exceptional members of the current squad, the likes of van Persie, Ramsey, Szczesny, Koscielny and Wilshere could be considered possibilities for the same destiny. Money will be quoted as an excuse but Arsenal aren’t exactly poor – they have a 60,000 seater stadium and charge up to £100 a ticket. Wenger has just mis-spent his money, spending loads of money on rubbish and not enough on quality, and has ended up losing some of the quality as a result.
Added to that, some of his most recent buys haven’t been wise choices, perhaps even smacking of desperation – most of his deadline day buys of this season have been disappointing, and I would argue even Gervinho has flattered to deceive, which shouldn’t really be particularly surprising, as I’ve thought for a while that the hype was misleading – his performances at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup were disappointing, to say the least.
Having said that, it’s not that Arsenal have a poor first team right now, providing everyone’s fit and available (which is part of the problem – “bad luck” only goes so far). However, naming that first team is an issue. Do you go for Mertesacker alongside Koscielny or do you stick with Vermaelen, despite him getting torn apart from Ibra and co last Wednesday? Santos or Gibbs at left back? In midfield, do you play with Song holding and Wilshere and Ramsey in front, or is Arteta worthy of inclusion above any of those? Is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain now ahead of Walcott in the pecking order? Does Arshavin still have a shout?
This would imply quite good squad depth, but the problem is in reality it hasn’t worked out – there are too many players that, in the Premier League at least, are merely good, or even just average. Either that or they’re not capable of performing at their maximum week in week out (hi Andrey), which is where you could rely on your Henrys, Bergkamps, Vieiras, Pireses (Pirii?) and so on – they wouldn’t have too many off days. Having a side with one or two excellent outfield players and eight or nine good or average players will probably get you above much of the rabble in the Premier League but won’t get you a title, or even, as this year is proving, a Champions League spot – even Chelsea are struggling to get that despite a more talented squad than Arsenal’s. The “Invincibles” (a nickname I’m not too keen on, I must admit) might have had a few non-excellent players but they had enough quality to cover that.
They wouldn’t allow themselves to be bullied too often either. They were a team to be feared, not in fear. Mentality is a big issue at Arsenal right now – I know that the idea of a “winning mentality” is very much a cliché, but look at most of the big matches Arsenal have played this year, or the League Cup final of last season, and there is evidently a mental weak spot there. Barring their captain, there’s no one there who opposition players must be scared of right now.
Even over the last week we’ve seen their mental deficiencies come to the fore. The Arsenal of old would have come back from a thrashing by thrashing their next opponents themselves; this Arsenal side got beaten again (and it wasn’t undeserved either), and there is easily a chance that we could see another collapse as after the League Cup final last season. That is particularly worrying because Arsenal don’t have the leeway to qualify for the Champions League this time – they only just made it last year, having been challenging for the title prior to the Wembley game.
The League Cup might be a “nothing” competition, but it does highlight a flaw, and a major one at that. There is a feeling, running through the players and the fans, that they “deserve” a trophy having gone on so long without one – there’s hubris, and pride always comes before the fall. The best teams know they have to work for their trophies, not just expect one to fall in their lap because of their wealth or status. That’s why Barcelona are so exceptional – they don’t take anything for granted despite the world telling them that the Sun shines out of their collective arses, individually and as a team.
Again, this problem has to be laid at the feet of Wenger. Not only is he responsible for instilling the mentality into the team, but he has sold a succession of big personalities and leaders in the dressing room. It’s an often-quoted cliché that the current Arsenal side lacks “leadership”, but what that really means is that it lacks personality. The current bunch of players, with one or two exceptions (Szczesny, Frimpong, van Persie, maybe Wilshere at a push), are rather anonymous figures. Look at the great Arsenal sides of recent times and you will see a squad packed full of personalities – Adams, Vieira, Keown, Campbell, Henry, Bergkamp, Kanu, Ljungberg, Parlour, Pires, even Seaman and Lehmann. Gradually, one by one, these guys left and were never fully replaced.
It’s all well and good trusting youth if you’ve got a core of experienced players capable of leading them already in place – Arsenal don’t have that; only van Persie has been in the senior team a considerable length of time, and even before the summer, you could still only really add Fabregas to that list. Ability, or potential ability, is one thing, but as Man City have shown in patches this year, you can have all the raw footballing ability possible and yet that isn’t necessarily enough, because all players get nervous or believe in their own hype.
All footballers are human, and in some ways, it seems Wenger may have forgotten this – his youngsters aren’t commodities to use and then sell once ripe for a few million before the next ship arrives from across the Channel, but real living breathing people. Sir Alex Ferguson hasn’t forgotten, and that’s why Man Utd are battling for the title again and Arsenal aren’t – Ferguson will put the boot in when he needs to (quite literally in some instances, eh, David?), and has a clear out when he needs to; Wenger is too loyal, and makes too many excuses for them when they don’t perform.
I did like Arsenal back in the day, when they were winners. It’s hard to admire this side now, though. Overused term it may be, but they are a bunch of losers. 5 years without a trophy has become 6 years without a trophy, and will probably become 7 years, and then 8, and then 9, and then 10. Robin van Persie is the only player left who was part of a trophy-winning Arsenal side. Inevitably, soon there will be none left. Soon there will be hardly any players left who can remember winning a senior trophy full stop. And that point is the point where it’s over. Arsenal as a competitive force will be dead soon unless they make drastic changes this summer, starting at the top. Get a new manager in, someone with a different perspective who doesn’t have the emotional ties Wenger has to the current squad – let him manage the clear-out and build a new side from scratch. That’s the only way Arsenal will become a winning club again.
A “winning mentality” isn’t simply believing you can or will win. It’s knowing how to win, and what it takes. Arsenal FC simply doesn’t know how to win any more.