For years now, Arsenal fans have had to live with a gut-wrenching truth: that Arsene Wenger’s side are just not the prospect they used to be.
A lack of financial competitiveness, big-name signings and – most notoriously –major trophies have turned the Gunners into Premier Leagues also-rans before a ball has even been kicked during every campaign in recent memory.
Traditionally, though, those bugbears have been offset by financial stability, shrewd transfer acquisitions and continual Champions League qualification. Sixteen consecutive top-four finishes have enshrined Wenger’s role as the club’s head coach and given him an untouchable status amongst club directors that most supporters cannot seem to fathom.
Yet after last term’s infamous scare, Arsenal’s current campaign is providing their weakest showing so far – and things could still unravel to their worst ever state under the Frenchman come the end of the season. In short, Wenger’s side have learnt nothing and progressed very little – if at all.
The Gunners may have won seven of their last nine league games but their last three encounters have exposed a worrying trend. Resounding wins over Swansea and bottom side Reading addressed some of the doubts surrounding Arsenal’s stuttering campaign but Wenger’s men have struggled since: seven points from three games have never looked so unconvincing.
Indeed, problems exist for the north London side club in both defence and attack. Football is a results-based business but even when points are registered on the board, such weak performances warn of tougher times ahead.
And of the Gunners’ last three clashes with fellow top-four contenders, only one point has been taken.
Against Chelsea and Tottenham, they submitted before half-time only to kick into gear in the second 45. It was not enough – and they lost both matches. Then, at home to Everton more recently, Arsenal enjoyed the lion’s share of chances, bombarding the Toffees’ backline in the second half once again. Yet their profligacy – and namely that of Olivier Giroud – cost them.
Apologists will argue that David Moyes’ men are a fine side who offered sound resistance on the night – but that is exactly the point. Arsenal have been limping past weak opposition for far too long; against a worthy rival, the Gunners go into hiding.
That awe-inspiring freak result that was their 2-0 win at the Allianz Arena so long ago seemed to inject a new confidence into the club and inspire another indomitable run towards the end of the season. Instead, however, Arsenal have since almost surrendered a 2-0 lead at West Brom, trailed a hapless Norwich side for 80 minutes before seeing the tide turn thanks to a fortuitous penalty decision and spurned an abundance of golden opportunities against Everton.
That Wenger’s men have accumulated seven points from those three fumbling affairs is testament to their resolve and determination. But with Chelsea, Tottenham and even the Toffees themselves in hot pursuit of a place at Europe’s top table next season, their abject performances and heavy reliance on good fortune will not be enough to carry them over the line at the conclusion of their Premier League campaign. Nor will it be enough at the start of next term.
Their big miss this season has clearly been the goals of Robin van Persie – goals that made a monumental difference last year and have not been replaced this time around. Arsenal’s very own Jekyll and Hyde, Gervinho, appeared to be taking on the mantle and filling that void of late but a dire showing against Norwich proved this was just another flash in the pan – one that would yet again flatter to deceive.
Giroud, similarly, has failed to fill the gaping hole left by the Flying Dutchman. The France forward has 18 goals to his name this term but only 11 of those have come in the league – and only two against teams in the top seven. Against Everton on Monday night, it was clear for all to see: the 26-year-old is not yet ready for the big Premier League occasion.
The end result is that Theo Walcott is unquestionably Arsenal’s biggest threat. And their desperation to hold on to him shows as much.
That in itself, though, signals something amiss at such a once great club. The England winger has suffered from a case of overhype since the fledgling age of 16 and is nowhere near the world-beater a Champions League team require. Wenger’s satisfaction at retaining him for a lucrative contract suggests he values Walcott as a better option than no option at all – but that will hardly encourage Arsenal fans that they can still attract the biggest names.
What is worse for the Gunners is that in defence, they hardly look any surer. For all of Per Mertesacker’s positional and tactical nous, the German simply cannot compete as a Premier League centre back with his comically woeful lack of pace. He was exposed for it most recently when being sent off at West Brom – though that incident was only the culmination of a half in which he was run ragged by a Baggies side intent on exploiting his snail-like tendencies.
Even the strong performances of Laurent Koscielny, Kieron Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson can hardly compensate for a worrying uncertainty over both Arsenal’s strongest centre-back pairing and their best goalkeeper. Club captain Thomas Vermaelen has all too often found himself watching on from the bench this term, while Lukasz Fabianski’s recent spell of five successive starts indicates that Wenger is finally losing patience with the eternally underwhelming Wojciech Szczęsny. Both at the back and up front, Wenger’s men look lost.
Where Arsenal do deserve praise is in midfield, where strength runs deep and Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta turn in outstanding performances on a weekly basis. Elsewhere, Tomas Rosicky’s encouraging recent two-goal salvo at the Hawthorns also suggests there is still life in the Czech midfielder’s career in north London. Even the much-maligned Aaron Ramsey has produced fantastic displays of late.
But even with the abundance of riches available to Wenger through the middle, there is still an obvious over-reliance on Jack Wilshere. It is undeniable that there is a marked improvement in Arsenal’s performance levels when Wilshere is in full swing but Wenger himself has spoken of the need not to overwhelm the youngster. The England midfielder’s injury problems have become a major issue and Wenger’s impatience in returning him to the starting line-up time and again will only serve to hamper them further.
With Abou Diaby missing for an indefinite period, the 21-year-old must be managed better. A sense of desperation becomes evident when Wilshere is repeatedly thrown back into the match-day squad so quickly after recovering from injury.
Imperfections, therefore, lie all through Wenger’s faltering squad – and for all the talk of Arsenal’s traditional late surge toward the finish line, there is a distinct lack of confidence about the Gunners as they approach their end of season fixtures.
Their next trip – a short one to a Fulham side with three wins in their last nine – may provide them with another get out of jail free key but Manchester United’s visit to the Emirates the following weekend certainly will not. Wenger may want to address his side’s most outstanding flaws a little before then. Sticking with a consistent defensive line-up and getting his forwards firing will be a start.
The Frenchman, after all, is adamant that fourth place is as good as silverware – so if he and his players are not careful, Arsenal may end up trophyless this season in every sense of the word. This Arsenal sides football betting odds for a top four finish have been fluctuating for weeks now, with the race for fourth sure to go down to the wire.