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4th place and big game disappointments have become an Arsenal cliché. Both are of course borne out of the same issues. Andrew Thompson explains just why the once invincible are now perpetual big-game chokers.
Sometimes it truly is difficult to understand why those in charge are the ones that are standing on the bridge of the ship when it goes down under the same circumstances time and time again. It will never be up for debate if Arsene Wenger is one of the greatest managers in the history of English football, and despite the last eight or nine years of him masochistically shooting himself in his own foot, his place in the annals of the English game are all but assured. The question that so many continue to debate, right up to the current season no less, is why Arsenal are incapable of getting one over on their title rivals.
Over recent seasons, it truly comes as no shock that the Gunners have had to settle for fourth – you cannot possibly win the league if you can’t take points off those you are fighting against. Last season alone Arsenal were trashed 6-3, 5-1 and 6-0 at the Etihad, Anfield and Stamford Bridge, while this term they’ve stumbled at home against City, Spurs and United (2-2, 1-1 and 1-2) and losing to 2-0 at Chelsea…yet another season where we’ve yet to turn in a performance against our main rivals, but why? Why is it so difficult for Arsenal to put in a 90-min shift and take away three points when it matters most? For me, there are three main factors why the current state of affairs has been/will continue to remain the status quo…
While it’s a given that any joust against our direct rivals will require maximum commitment to see out a result, it’s the other 28-30 matches a season that also lend weight to Wenger’s now consistent lack of success against the top teams.
During the first half of the Wenger reign, Le Prof truly only had Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United as his only major title rival – a rivalry that saw Wenger was well and truly bested on the whole. But it was the rest of the league that really failed to offer enough resistance to threaten Arsenal’s position as half of the cream of the crop…that is not the case in today’s game, however.
As it stands right now, one of the main factors that can be attributed to the feelings of admiration of so many for the Premier League, is that it’s arguably the only league, apart from probably the Bundesliga, where smaller sides routinely cause the big boys to stutter step. At any given moment, a brilliant performance on the day by Leicester, Hull and others can throw a monkey wrench into the grandiose schemes of the EPL elite; back in the late ‘90s and the early 2000’s, such occurrences were far less commonplace.
Now, you’ll ask yourself how does this effect Arsenal in the long run? Simple – Wenger has failed to prepare his first-team in a way that they can come through tough matches against smaller clubs, and then be prepared for the joust against his rivals…how has he failed? It all comes down to mental strength and desire. Too many times now, Arsenal come out sluggish and with a sense of entitlement against a smaller club, and before we know it we are still 1-0 down in stoppage time in the second half, or 3-0 down to Stoke at half time (as we were recently). Simply put, if you cannot prepare for the little fish, you can never dream of catching the big ones.
Think back to the second paragraph in this piece, and refresh your memory on the thrashings received from City, Chelsea and Liverpool. Have you done that? Now if you can, think back to those matches individually, do you remember exactly how those matches played out? I certainly do, and if you are as passionate as I am, you do not appreciate those reminders of how top sides always beat us the same way time and time again – hitting us on the break.
While many will always blather on about how Arsenal play football that is pleasing on the eye, its football of substance that yields results. That is not to say that we don’t have anything about us, we do, the issue is that everyone (and I mean everyone) knows what we are about as well.
One of the chief complaints of Wenger in the second half of his time at the club, where I have dubbed him Headmaster of the Arsenal School for Fourth Place, is that he never has a plan B. Truthfully, you’d be hard pressed to ever conjure up examples to the contrary – Arsenal possess the ball for large spells, build up play, look around for the killer pass and involve both their wing-backs in the build up more often than not…it’s a recipe for disaster for any side that have the ability to regain possession and end up in our 18-yard box after just three passes.
It’s not that our style of play is not effective, it is, but the issue is that Wenger rarely ever has had the tactical wherewithal to tweak the team to counter their ability to hit us on the break. We saw it from City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund in the Champions League, and United this season as well.
Most frustrating of all, is that this is an easy fix that has never been implemented. Wenger will always be stubborn and stay the course with our possession game, and that is more than fine, but sometimes all you need is a simple tactical adjustment to give your side a much better chance of getting the results that not only you want, but that the supports crave.
Having a strong core is not something that is ideal in just the footballing world, but in all professions and walks of life. In the military, having a strong and reliable core of officers and non-commissioned officers helps the unit run as efficiently and effectively as possible. Running a news organization? You better have a core of outstanding editors, so forth and so on. In football, what’s that age old saying? “Matches are won and lost in midfield.”
Arsenal was once a side to be feared in the middle of the park. In days gone by, Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Gilberto Silva provided the vertebral column that was necessary for the Gunners to be successful; they were the anvil in an Arsenal team that often hit you on the break as hard as a hammer stroke. The unfortunate reality now, is that we have no spine; what makes it worse, is that all our rivals do.
If you compare Arsenal’s central midfielders to our rivals, the major difference is evident and glaring – our rivals have midfielders who can boss the middle of the park, we don’t. God bless Ramsey, Wilshere, Arteta and Flamini, but none of them can take a match by the scruff of the neck and truly lock down the midfield. It really is our biggest weakness, and has been ever since Gilberto Silva departed the club.
What is even more frustrating is that it can be argued with some degree of certainty that now West Ham and Southampton both have more steel in midfield, which certainly has contributed to their early success this season. Sam Allardyce can call upon Mo Diame and Alex Song, while Ronald Koeman has the very capable pairing of Morgan Schneiderlein and Victor Wanyama. But once more, this is a problem that only persists at the behest of the manager and nothing else.
There was not a soul on this earth that did not loudly question Wenger’s option to not bring in a holding midfielder this season, and with the injuries we have suffered and our sub-standard start to the campaign, one can only wonder what would have been if Sami Khedira or even Fabregas himself was brought in. The good news is January is right around the corner, and even though Wenger would rather not spend in the winter window, he honestly may not have a choice depending on what happens over the next two weeks. As usual with anything involving this club…time will tell, but…
For Wenger to solve the issues that he, up to this point, has failed to address. Mentally preparing the squad, regardless of the opponent, can easily be done. Taking a couple of extra hours per week to review our next opponent and how to better protect our tactical set up is certainly not difficult. Acknowledging that we lack steel and grit in the midfield and bringing in someone to fill the void literally costs 15-20million pounds, money that we can easily spend.
Sure, I make it sound so simple; but it really is that simple, and that is, at least in my observations, what frustrates so many of the Arsenal faithful. For years now, we truly have not been that far off from really becoming contenders once more, it just takes a little bit of extra elbow grease that for some reason Wenger does not want to expend. But you know what? It’s never too late, especially if he wants to make good on his promise that we’ll win the league by 2017; after all, he owes it to us.
Written by Andrew Thompson