Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Rock Bottom?

Or Will They Keep Digging?

There is now genuine ill feeling towards the club, and towards the manager, from a growing number of fans.

The fans are being asked to shell out more money to watch the insipid, overrated sideways passing exhibitions that Arsenal have been churning out for most of the season.

There is a commonly held assumption that whatever his failings, Arsene Wenger is at least trying to do things the "right way". This is true in a financial sense (although he really could do with not bumping up the contracts of frankly awful players and instead spending some money on reliable replacements). But in a footballing sense, I think it's time we admitted there is nothing superior in the way Arsenal play football at the moment.

I don't find it exciting or aesthetically pleasing, not most of the time, and it is certainly not effective. You might say in his defence that Wenger has won trophies in the past, but he has not done it playing this kind of football.

I have said it numerous times, the differences in style between his successful teams and the team he has since built are glaring. The current outfit has none of the power or the pace of the unbeaten side. One might suggest that they keep possession better, and the statistics would probably back that up, but how often are Arsenal allowed possession by the opposition, in the knowledge that they can sit deep, stifle Arsenal's narrow, predictable passing, and strike on the break.

The fact is, Aston Villa needed attack only twice to win that game on Sunday. And that is a very familiar situation. Clearly, Arsenal's style is often self-destructive.

The team's general attitude to defending, or indeed their aptitude for it, exacerbates the problem. They are too lazy or not good enough. Or not taught how to be good enough. Villa scored two goals in the first fifteen minutes at the Emirates, and they scored them with embarrassing ease. By all means, praise the movement and finishing of Darren Bent, but also ask whether Manchester United, Manchester City, or Chelsea would concede two goals in succession like that.

The irony of Arsenal's 'style' is that while they are so often accused of being 'overly intricate' in their own attacking approach, they are themselves consistently vulnerable to direct, simple attacks. You never get the feeling that a team has to put an excellent move together to score against Arsenal.

Why is that? The blame rests at the manager's door. You may say that the defenders are not doing their jobs, and there is an element of truth to that. Squillaci has been woeful almost every time he's taken to the pitch. Koscielny is accident-prone, and Djourou has fallen out of form since the Carling Cup final. But ultimately, it is Arsene Wenger who has brought these players together and placed trust in them, after this time last year admitting that Arsenal needed to sort out the defensive side of their game.

I haven't even mentioned the lack of protection the defence gets. Or the fact that they continue to be comically inept at defending set plays. I don't want to jump on the 'Wenger Out' bandwagon just yet, but at any other 'big club' in world football, this would simply not be accepted. He has failed to affect any improvement over the last twelve months. He and his team have only replicated the same collapse, surpassed it even.

There was an illusion of progress at one point this season, because after the winter, Arsenal were ostensibly in the running for all four competitions. Then the illusion was blown away. They had shown some decent form to that point, particularly away from home, but warning signs flashed at regular intervals. Certain games said that this team had not changed. Blowing a two-goal lead at home to Spurs. Going 3-0 down at home to West Brom. Losing to one attack at home to Newcastle. Doing the impossible, and blowing a four-goal lead, away to the same team. Capitulating miserably away to Manchester United.

Then, after the loss to Birmingham in the Carling Cup final, the players finally went to pieces. The devestating blows came in flurries with no respite in between. The 12th round bell rings out and, after being knocked to the canvass time after time, Arsenal are leaning on the ropes, bloody, bruised, comprehensively beaten.

And by who? No shame in going out to Barcelona in Europe, but losing a final to Birmingham, a side that may yet go down, is unforgivable. It seems now that United, Chelsea and City will all finish ahead of Arsenal in the league- and none of those teams invite easy admiration. A grudging respect is due perhaps, mostly for the ways in which they are different to Arsenal.

The tendency is for Wenger, and his apologists, to point to worse situations we could be in, to point to Spurs and Liverpool, perhaps, or point to our continued Champions League involvement. But I'm just tired, and I think a lot of people are now, of this constant 'grass isn't greener' rhetoric. I accept that Arsenal have no right to win trophies every year. But I don't accept the manager's right to ignore what needs to be done to give the team a better chance of winning something.

He even trotted out some line, after the Villa game, about how we're not battling relegation. I don't hear people in Ireland saying, "well, this recession is horrible but we should be happy with it because there are people starving in Africa". People adapt their expectations to their environment. Arsenal are a 'big team', they are playing in the Champions League, they are playing in a 60,000 seater stadium and fans are being charged exorbitant amounts to sit in that fucking stadium. I think it's fair for Arsenal fans to expect better than what they've got this season.

But if this is rock bottom, will Wenger see the need for change?

Even if he does, he's already made his job very hard for himself. It's unlikely, surely, that Fabregas will want to stay in the event that Barcelona stump up a fair offer. The Spaniard's career at Arsenal, if it is coming to an end, has been one great big missed opportunity. Instead of taking one of the best players in Arsenal's history and surrounding him with players that of the same calibre (or at least of some character), Wenger has made the boy captain and implicitly asked him to carry the motley crew of underachievers that constitutes the current Arsenal squad.

Now, Fabregas and, quite possibly, Nasri could leave for pastures new. That possibility illustrates the lie that is Arsenal's stability. There has been nothing stable about Arsenal's squad in recent years. Most of the continiuity comes in the shape of the younger players who aren't good enough and no other team would want, players like Diaby and Denilson. Otherwise, Arsenal have been consistently losing some of their better players and replacing them with substandard ones or with potential. You only need look at the players Arsenal had as recently as 2007/2008. Hleb, Adebayor, Flamini, Diarra, Gallas, Toure, Gilberto. All those have moved on. Previously, part of Wenger's greatness was in selling on some of his best players at big prices, and repacing them with cheaper, younger players of equal or greater quality. It seems he has lost that ability, because the Arsenal team now isn't close to being as good as that one in 2007/2008, and even they weren't good enough to avoid a late season collapse.

The summer beforehand, they had lost Thierry Henry, and it seemed to galvanise a lot of the players, who took on more responsibility and played with a greater freedom in the absence of the pompous Frenchman. Could something similar happen when Fabregas goes?

Fabregas is a different character to Henry. Watching Henry, particularly his treatment of Jose Reyes, you could understand how some players would feel liberated in his absence. Fabregas is probably a nicer chap but Arsenal do have the same tendency to look to him to dig them out of every hole.

There was some excitable talk after the recent United game about the birth of the Wilshere-Ramsey partnership. Both are very young. Ramsey is still recovering from a broken leg. Wilshere is already playing too many games for his age. But they are both going to be fantastic midfielders and that definitely will soften the blow somewhat should the captain leave.

I think that the emphasis should be on improving other areas, and altering the team's style. Insofar as the way Arsenal play does work, it works because Cesc Fabregas is a chance creating machine. I don't think there is anyone Arsenal could realistically buy who would effectively replicate what he does. But Arsenal need another striker, one who will score goals during those lengthy RVP absences, and ideally, one who can play with RVP.

They also need a fourth centre back, because Squillaci will surely not stay at the club.

They also need, I think, a midfielder that is strong enough to challenge Alex Song for his place in the team.

Ideally, some or all of these players will have extensive experience of being in winning teams.

If Arsenal lose Fabregas, there really is no excuse anymore- Wenger has to spend some money on the squad. If he does not see that necessity, I think his position has to come into doubt.

Even if he does spend, the characteristics of the current squad are worrying- do they come from the players or from the manager? Not being able to defend set plays, not possessing a winning mentality - these things surely derive from the manager to a large extent? In which case, do we need a change of manager almost as much as we need a change of playing staff?

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