Just what is going on at Arsenal at the moment? They’re about as consistent as Massimo Taibi’s goalkeeping. Saturday’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Blackburn was greeted with a chorus of boos from the home fans, with the renowned ‘pundit’ Robbie Savage even suggesting that time is up for Arsene Wenger. Yet that was their first defeat in six matches – so is there really a crisis at The Emirates, or is this just an overreaction to an embarrassing defeat?
Many observers of Arsenal over recent seasons have commented on their lack of steel, especially in midfield. It is true that Wenger prefers ball-players rather than bruisers in the centre of the park. The likes of Viera, Petit, Parlour, Gilberto, Flamini and Song were all fond of a tackle, but could also play as well. I, however, don’t think they lack a midfield presence. Arsenal’s style of play is very fluid and dynamic and a one-dimensional protector in the Mascherano or Mikel mould would hinder the effectiveness and vibrancy of the team as an attacking force. The two tough back-to-back 1-0 victories against Stoke and Sunderland show that they can still grind out a result against robust opposition when required – reminiscent of the old Arsenal of the 1990s.
What Wenger actually needs to concentrate on is the attack – or more specifically, its balance. He indulges in luxury players like Gervinho and Arshavin who all too often flatter to deceive. Instead he should be promoting players like Oxlade-Chamberlain – good on the ball, yet also direct and – more importantly – hard-working. Yes, the Ox is young, and yes he is nowhere near the finished article, but it’s worth persisting with these promising talents. A midfield of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta has all the right ingredients: industry, passing ability, speed, technique and experience. That said Arsenal do need Giroud to start firing. He has struggled to fill Van Persie’s sizeable shoes, and for all the French forward’s diligence and industry in leading the line, he is yet to consistently find the target.
This is not to say the defence is entirely blameless. Per Mertesacker has never convinced me as a commanding centre-back and the less we say about Andre Santos, the better (he is to defending what Emile Heskey is to lethal finishing). Added to that, Laurent Koscielny has seemingly been determined to become as lethal in his own box as Frank Sinclair, with finishing skills that Ade Akinbiyi could only dream of. Stick him up front I say.
The patience Wenger once enjoyed from the Arsenal faithful is now wearing thin. The reaction to Saturday’s defeat clearly showed that the fans are no longer content with playing attractive football and scraping qualification for the Champions League. They demand trophies and rightly so. Wenger made an error of judgement with his team selection at the weekend and I think fans thought he was devaluing a trophy the Gunners once called their own in the early 2000s. He may have had one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League tie against Bayern Munch, but in that case, play your strongest team for an hour, seal the win and then take off your important players for a rest. It will be interesting to see how the Arsenal supporters behave on Tuesday night, especially if they go a goal down.
Saturday’s defeat and the even more embarrassing loss to Bradford in the Capital One Cup mean that Tuesday’s match takes on even greater significance. But oddly, I think the Blackburn reverse could in fact liberate the team. No one expects Arsenal to progress against Bayern, and so the players could and possibly should play with a nothing-to-lose attitude that might work in their favour. On their day, players like Walcott and Wilshere can win games single-handedly, and if the right Arsenal turn-up with the right mind-set and get a victory, anything can happen in the return leg at the Allianz Arena.
Arsenal in crisis? Not really. They’re one of only two English teams still in the Champions League, they’re only four points off 4th place, and their league form is pretty healthy. The likelihood is that they’ll finish the season off without a trophy for the 8th successive season and at least qualify for Europe, but if the Arsenal board and fans decide that is not good enough then Le Professeur might be in queue for ‘le jobcentre’ come May.
David de Winter