Monday, April 18, 2011

The Hardline View

"Arsenal are a gutless team playing for a clueless manager in a soulless stadium"
-Myles Palmer

And since the disappointment of the Wembley calamity against Birmingham, there has been little evidence to contradict that viewpoint. Arsenal are second in the table, but almost solely on the basis of points won before Spring. Since the Carling Cup final they have collapsed in a manner that for any other team would be deemed incredible. From Arsenal, this is now what most expect.

It is not really true to say that Arsenal have challenged for the title this season, though that is what Wenger will claim, being either deluded or disingenuous. Their away form was good enough for long enough to put them in a position to challenge, and possibly to win. But they stopped playing as soon as the real pressure kicked in. United had a genuine wobble for two games, losing at Chelsea and Liverpool in the space of a few days, and Arsenal failed miserably to take any kind of advantage, even when presented with the kindest home fixtures you could hope for.

This weekend, when United were dealt a blow in losing an FA Cup semi-final to their hated neighbours, Arsenal were again generous enough to cheer them up by reminding them that they don't have a genuine rival for the title.

Most of us have known this for some time. When Arsenal blew that two goal lead to Spurs, were played off the park by WEST BROM, and when they failed to test Newcastle's defence in an embarrassing defeat, all at the Emirates, there was no sense that this team had improved on last season. There was also no game that suggested the team had turned a corner.

When they beat Chelsea convincingly at the Emirates, the players talked the talk. They acknowledged that they had set a blueprint for how to play in every game- pressing high up the pitch, working hard to deny the opposition time, then striking in attack. Days later, they blew a 2-1 lead at Wigan, who had just had a player sent off. And as the season went on, it became clear that the energy of the Chelsea performance was a mere aberration.

Ok, Arsenal are unbeaten in the league since that abject showing at Old Trafford. Ok, they lie second in the table (for now). Progress cannot be measured only through a team's league position. They may have finished only 3rd last season, but Chelsea were Champions last season, while this campaign, they are locked in decline. Spurs and Man City are not strong enough, yet, to sustain a challenge. And Liverpool were, until quite recently, a club in turmoil. Arsenal are second in a weak league. Unable to challenge an uninspiring United side.

With none of Arsenal's major rivals in optimal shape, this was the season that Arsenal's stability should have led to success. Instead, this collapse invites the question of whether Wenger's Arsenal is turning into a story of stagnation rather than stability.

There is scope for improvement, of course. But that improvement must, simply must, come in the form of transfers. Arsenal's captain has the look of a man who is simply waiting for a move, and not a single one of his team mates, with the exception of a fucking 19 year old, has stood up to show some leadership. None of them have character, and none of them are learning it, because they have nobody to learn it from.

Wenger's great project, dismantling the Invincibles to build a young and brilliant team, one to grace the sprakling stadium his vision has helped create, that project has been a failure so far.

It needs an injection of new ideas, some open-mindedness at last, but the manager's stubborness is starting to look terminal. Six years and counting.

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