For just a brief while, it had all seemed so good. Arsenal visited Wembley twice, and came away with the FA Cup, then the Community Shield. The club had finally scratched their nine-season itch for a trophy, and then comprehensively outplayed the reigning champions to pick up another. The sleeping giant seemed to have finally awoken.
Yet fast forward three months and Arsenal’s supporters are again restive over their team, and manager Arsene Wenger. Another winter of discontent is in the offing at the Emirates.
This has not been the first challenge to Wenger’s stewardship of the club, but it is beginning to feel like the most serious. The Gunners are going through their worst start to a season in 32 years and this only tells part of the story in a worrying trend.
Arsenal have failed to beat any of the teams who reside in the top half of the table, mustering a meagre three points from a possible 18 in these encounters. All season, in the league, the Gunners have conceded 13 times in seven games, and have only kept three clean sheets (against Sunderland, Burnley and Aston Villa).
The fans have been here before with their Frenchman, and every time it has eroded the faith in Wenger. The cycle of peaks and troughs has carried on for almost a decade, since the break up of the ‘Invincibles’, and there is little to suggest that this will not carry on being the case under the current management.
If things are not turned around in short order, the atmosphere at the Emirates may turn poisonous. Yet this is easier said than done, given the key issues that need to be resolved.
UEFA Champions League Qualification
A staple of Wenger’s time, and something that his supporters have always rallied behind, is his record in guiding the club into the Champions League, year on year. However this record is in serious jeopardy, and could very well be the sword that the Frenchman falls on.
While the Gunners have floundered, other teams have pulled away from the chasing pack, and before long the North London side could find themselves in a dogfight just to stay in contention for the final fourth place berth.
Too early to say that Chelsea have the title sewn up already? Okay but you could probably buy a house on the odds you’d get from them not making the top four. Manchester City, for all the talk of their unconvincing form, are doing what City do domestically and finding a way to win (as five victories in their last seven league games will attest). It is fair to say that most people will expect the clubs to remain in the Champions League places until the end of the season, leaving two spots to fight for.
Of the teams occupying those slots, everyone is waiting for the wheels on the Southampton bandwagon to fall off without noticing that, despite the draw at Villa Park, they are continuing to build a buffer — currently seven points — between themselves and the chasing pack. During the summer, they also brought in players and a coach who count 12 league titles between, and this experience of participating in successful domestic campaigns could prove vital as the season wears on.
Conspicuously under the radar has been Manchester United’s ascent to fourth. The Red Devils are finally finding form under Louis Van Gaal, and in a six-game run featuring matches against Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City and Everton, have walked away thirteen points from a possible eighteen. This despite an injury list including eight first team players, who will eventually return to strength a team quietly building up a head of steam.
Old Trafford, The Etihad and Saint Mary’s are all among the venues that the Gunners have yet to visit this season, and they will not want to make these trips in desperate need of points to make up ground. So the team must start picking up points now, if necessary without the artistic flair expected from Arsene’s Arsenal.
For a manager who has always extolled his record in guiding his team into the top four places, a failure on this front could leave Wenger extremely vulnerable, if it is even allowed to go that far.
A lop-sided squad
Wenger’s reluctance to invest in defenders is well known, yet in this day and age it is not acceptable for a top level manager to go into a new season with only two recognised centre-backs, and a 19 year old covering both the centre and right back slots.
Questions must be asked as to why just two injuries to defensive personnel, and only one of these a centre back, have led to their second choice left back (Nacho Monreal) being deployed in the heart of the defence.
£51million was spent over the summer on two forwards (Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck) to add to the already ample attacking options at Wenger’s disposal, yet only £31 million was spent in bringing in two defenders (Calum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy) despite Thomas Vermaelen, Johan Djourou and Bacary Sagna all heading for the exit door.
To put this into perspective, Arsenal have six players who are comfortable playing in the right wing berth, the same total as all the established defenders on their roster. This imbalance is striking and has too often been the case under the Frenchman’s recent guidance.
World-class forwards are what the fans pay money for, but managers know that world class centre-backs win you Premier League titles. Wenger has been allowed to act the fan for way too long.
Is qualification enough?
And what of this record of qualification for the Champions League? The Gunners supporters, rightly, don’t just expect the goal to be gaining entry into a competition they stand no chance of winning. Consistent qualification is just a building block; the goal is to be consistently competitive — yet Arsenal have regressed in Europe just as they have domestically.
On Wednesday they face a Borussia Dortmund side who, in the reverse leg two months ago, illustrated how far the North London club have fallen behind the pack. Time and again they tore Arsenal apart in a game that somehow finished only 2-0, but was endemic of Arsenal’s status in Europe in recent seasons — a team consistently navigating their way through the group-stage before falling to the first real test in the knockout rounds.
True, their conquerors in recent seasons have included Barcelona (twice), Bayern Munich (twice) and AC Milan, but supporters are entitled to why the club have failed to record a significant Champions League knockout result since victory over AC in 2008.
The Arsenal board must take some share of the blame for the current position. Whether funds have been made available and not taken, or were just never offered, we don’t know, but steps should have been made to curtail Wenger’s all-encompassing power during the last period of ill-will at the club, but weren’t. This could at the very least have brought some new ideas into what seems a very stale backroom set-up.
This same board could soon be left with no choice. More than any other manager in the English football, Wenger’s last day at his club should be a valedictory occasion, at the Emirates, with fans leading the tributes. Unfortunately, brutal reality often triumphs in football, and may yet do so over the Invincible manager.