Sunday, March 13, 2011

From Despair to Where

Is it time for sweeping changes? Is there reason to be optimistic in the title race? Will Arsenal win anything under Wenger again?

It's been two weeks of utter despondency for Arsenal and their followers. The first blow remains the worst- the team pretty well bottled the Carling Cup final, raising doubts as to their ability to secure any kind of silverware. The games since have done nothing to dispel those doubts. The draw at home to Sunderland in the league may yet be seen as very, very costly. The Barca game was the worst kind of humiliation, exposing the lie of Arsenal's superiority complex, as the team either attempted to execute a very negative gameplan, or, even worse, just lacked the balls to stick to their guns and settled for jogging around chasing shadows all night. Then there was the FA Cup loss to United, Alex Ferguson again outsmarting Arsene Wenger, and with a line up that, on paper, is one of the worst you will ever see United field. For all their vaunted style, Arsenal did not have the substance to make clear chances or the finishing prowess to beat Edwin Van der Sar. At the back, as always, Arsenal were caught out nearly every time they were attacked at pace. Even faced with an immobile midfield pairing of Gibson and O'Shea, Arsenal's laboured attacks mostly failed to test the strength of United's rearguard.

It's a time to look for positives, but most of them seem vague to me. It's a young team that is likely to improve, some say. But Arsenal are, in all likelihood, set to lose their captain and only world class player this summer. That won't help the team's development. There is no comparison with the loss of Thierry Henry, who was a fading force by the time he left, becoming troubled by injuries, losing his pace. And he was, let's not forget, a bit of an asshole who had a detrimental effect on some of the younger players. The season after Henry's departure, the team was clearly liberated and enjoyed their best campaign since 03/04. Without Fabregas, Arsenal will need someone to step up to the plate and show some leadership. Jack Wilshere has been Arsenal's best player through this difficult spell- that is both encouraging and worrying. He is only a kid and yet he is showing more fight and character than people who have been in the team for years. What does that say for the current squad?

It may seem harsh to be critical of Arsenal when they are outperforming big spenders like Man City and the champions Chelsea. But it seems to have become the Arsenal way to point to these disadvantages and claim a moral victory. To clarify, Arsenal do spend money too. Theo Walcott, for instance, cost a lot of money for a kid and so far injuries and a lack of natural talent have curtailed his development. And new, beefier contracts are constantly being signed by underperforming players. It seems Arsene Wenger wants to avoid the kind of situation that saw Mathieu Flamini leave for nothing in 2008. The great irony is that Flamini played out of his skin while his contract was running down- his first ever real run as a first choice player. He had been undervalued, while now people like Diaby and Denilson are overvalued. They are rewarded for mediocrity.

To constantly compare ourselves to underachieving overspenders exposes a small club mentality. Success and progress should be the only measuring stick. If Arsenal are to finish second in the league, Mr. Wenger will spin it as progress, and on the surface, he would be right. But the truth is Arsenal have stood still while others have gone backwards. Manchester United look like winning the league with a worse side than the one that finished 2nd last season. Chelsea endured a wretched winter, and many of their players look locked in decline. Manchester City are handicapped by the negative tactics of their manager and their team is still taking shape. Spurs have been distracted by the Champions League, and Liverpool spent most of the season in crisis. Stability seems to be on Arsenal's side and so this season has to be viewed as a huge opportunity, if Wenger's rhetoric is to be believed. He feels the team has matured but they were not mature enough to overcome their own nerves in a Carling Cup final. They were not good enough to truly test Barcelona over two legs. They are still not good enough to beat what is a poor Man Utd side. The league remains a target but to secure it they will need to show reserves of character that have not been shown by this set of players.

The fatal flaws of last season remain glaring. Defensive solidity was compromised by Vermaelen's niggling injury, but the team's collective approach to defending remains suspect. The downright laziness of Wenger's defensive ethos made clear by the contrast with Guardiola's Barcelona. Here is the most talented set of players in world football, working like dogs every time they lose the ball. Beyond the back four, Arsenal's players too often look uninterested in the defensive side of the game. Jack Wilshere has improved the team in this regard through sheer determination, but the midfield remains lightweight and unconvincing without the ball. Diaby and Denilson are happy to coast as squad players. In fact, beyond the first eleven, most players are unable to cope. Rosicky is stagnating. Squillaci has been a disastrous signing. Eboue barely gets a game. Bendtner and Chamakh cannot be relied upon to score goals when it matters- that has been clear in the last couple of weeks. Arshavin is talented but lazy- Walcott tries but is not talented. There are a number of players that most fans think are not good enough.

Arsenal have lost some easy games this season, but with the exception of a fine performance at home to Chelsea, they have come up short again in the toughest ones. Twice now at Old Trafford they have drawn blanks. They did not turn up at Wembley against Birmingham and paid the ultimate price thanks to one of the most amateur mistakes you will ever see at this level of the game. They won the first half against Barcelona thanks to some good fortune and some resilience, but retreated into their shells in the second. The lack of a winning mentality and the lack of defensive strength is summed up by the way Arsenal made an excuse of RVP's dismissal. At that moment, Arsenal were leading the tie with about forty minutes to go. Inter Milan had held out much longer minus a man the year before. With Arsenal, it was as if the tie ended with the red card. The players saw their excuse to run less, to try less, to hide. Arsenal had defended stoutly for the most part when 11 v 11, but suddenly every Barcelona move was puncturing the defence. Wenger ranted at the decision and then sat like some inanimate object while the game slipped away, refusing to make a change that was patently needed.

Injuries have hampered the team at a crucial time again. But the game against United has shown what a feeble excuse injuries really are. Because United are flexible, they were able to win playing two full backs on either wing. Arsenal have been unable to effectively replace Theo Walcott, even though he's not even that good a player. Without his pace, the whole system seems so one-dimensional. Arsenal only have one way of playing and without pace, it becomes so blunt, so lacking in incisiveness. For all their supposed artistry, Arsenal without Fabregas lack genuine creativity. They pass, pass, pass- sideways, sideways, sideways. Then there is the edge of the box and the brick wall it represents. Of course, United have played all season without a creative midfield player. They remain the foremost team because they are durable, flexible. They realise that for most teams, goals come from quick moves, counterattacks, crosses. They use proper wingers and they have centre forwards who score. It's simple and some may find it prosaic; certainly, this is one of Ferguson's least impressive line ups, but they succeed nonetheless. If it came down to a simple dichotomy, you could say that what drives Ferguson is the pursuit of trophies, whereas for Wenger, aesthetics get in the way. He wants to win, no doubt, but stubborn, flawed idealism has handicapped that quest.

Victory in the title race could, of course, be the making of this team, but victory seems far less likely to me than the table suggests. I had serious doubts before the Carling Cup final as to whether Arsenal could recover from defeat and events since the loss have gone as I expected. This season represented an exceptional opportunity to end the run without silverware and so far that opportunity is going down the toilet. I don't expect the teams around Arsenal to be in such poor shape next season and I don't expect Arsenal to improve much if Fabregas leaves. Wenger will see that the team has plenty more attacking midfielders and in a way, that's an understandable view, but what he has to do is fix the character deficit that has plagued this team for years. Fabregas has been one of the best players in the club's history and at the moment it seems he'll be leaving with one poxy, jammy FA Cup victory to show for his efforts. That is a sad state of affairs for a supposedly big club and if failure this season does not serve as a wake up call there is a danger of Arsenal becoming entrenched in a state of perpetual transition.

Wenger has become obsessed with moulding players, building a team in his own image. He is able to instil a playing style but not a winning mentality. He has proven incapable of that. When he arrived, there was Adams and company. They showed Vieira the way, but the 'Invincibles' were dismantled before a lot of the current crop arrived, and the only experience in the current squad is experience of failure. There is no sense of a torch being passed. There is a sense that they are playing 'good' football for its own sake and that losing is ultimately acceptable. It may hurt Wenger's delicate sensibilites, the idea that character has to be bought in, but it seems to me that that is the only way to grow a culture of success. If nothing changes, I think there should at least be some pressure on the manager. Pressure breeds success, comfort breeds complacency. The fans want to see success and familiar excuses are growing tiresome.

No comments: