Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Is This The Year?

There are two ways to read the question.

The pessimist wonders whether this is the year that Arsenal finally drop out of the top four, out of the Champions League.

The optimist wonders whether this is the year that Arsenal finally end the trophy drought.

Which outcome is more likely?

Realistically, Arsenal can only win the FA Cup. A league title was never a possibility, and success in Europe would require luck in even greater quantity than Chelsea enjoyed last term.

Sadly, fretting over silverware is a luxury we can't afford. If Arsene Wenger could choose between the FA Cup and 4th place, it would be no contest. Champions League qualification is paramount.

The further Arsenal get in the FA Cup, the more distraction from what is shaping up to be a fierce battle for 4th place. We have to admit that, at present, the Arsenal squad is not strong enough to carry a fight on multiple fronts.

We should be grateful for a glamour tie in the second round of the Champions League. Bayern Munich ought to be too strong for Arsenal, and it would be no tragedy to lose to them. Getting a lucky draw and beating inferior opposition would prove nothing. You would still expect Arsenal to get turned over by the first tough team they face.

A tie against Bayern can be viewed as a win-win. If Arsenal triumph over two legs, confidence will shoot up; the team will believe they can go far in the competition. If they go out, as I expect they will (hopefully not in humiliating fashion), legs will be fresher for the league run-in.

In hindsight, the agonising failure to overturn that 0-4 deficit against Milan at the same stage last season was probably a blessing in disguise.

As for the league and European qualification, we can no longer convince ourselves that it's all down to Arsenal. Last campaign, most people thought Spurs had a better team; while Arsenal did brilliantly to turn things around both after a dreadful start to the season and again from February onwards, we have to remember that Tottenham imploded and that even then, Arsenal enjoyed some good fortune on the last day after a mini-implosion of their own.

This time around, Spurs have so far recovered better from the departure of Modric than Arsenal have from the departure of Van Persie.

January, as ever, is viewed by anxious supporters as an opportunity to address the flaws that have emerged in the season so far. The team has looked toothless up front at times- some argue that Van Persie has not been replaced adequately, while others, myself included, would focus more on the team's lack of guile.

Obviously the Dutchman is missed. I would welcome the arrival of another prolific goalscorer. But the more pressing need is for greater creativity. Cazorla is a wonderful player but not the chance-making machine that Fabregas was for Arsenal. And when opposition sides manage to shackle Cazorla, Arsenal look seriously short of ideas.

Maybe the solution lies in giving Jack Wilshere more freedom to get forward and help make things happen. This leads me to the next important issue that, ideally, could be addressed this month. The current midfield trio of Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla looks great on paper but in practice seems imbalanced. Arteta and Wilshere are adept enough at reading the game to do a competent job as a midfield pairing, but Arsenal lost something with Song's departure, a bit of physicality perhaps. Song was never really a "holding" player as such, but for all his sporadic lack of discipline he was willing and able to disrupt the opposition's possession play. At the moment, it looks too easy for good teams to play through and around Arsenal's midfield.

That puts too much pressure on a defence that is still, despite some signs of improvement., flaky and unpredictable.

Arsenal can either take action now to strengthen the squad and the team, or soldier on and hope that Tottenham make more mistakes than they do.

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