Thursday, 28 April 2011

Sound of the Gunners: Arsenal FC

It's not the most edifying time to be an Arsenal fan, but since the season is almost over, now is a good time to assess where Arsenal stand at the close of 2010-2011.


Football365 commented recently that if the definition of stupidity is repeating the same thing over and over again, expecting different results, then Arsenal are the definition of a stupid team, as the last six years have seen the same pattern take place over and over again.

Arsenal are likely to finish third. They probably won't slip any further, but given that third is the highest place they have reached since 2005, when they finished second to Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, this represents very little improvement. As Wenger points out repeatedly, consistency does have its merits, and Arsenal have reached the Champions League every year, reached finals and quarter-finals of cup competitions, they are, in the cliched sporting parlance, 'there or thereabouts'.

But they are not good enough to win. Not yet. With this core of players, perhaps they won't be. Prior to the disasterous Carling Cup final, the importance of the 2006 League Cup to Manchester United, which they won against Wigan 4-0, was obvious, as it had created a winning mentality that led to them retaking the Premier League crown from Chelsea the following year. This could, it was thought, have happened to Arsenal. From that insipid performance in the final, where the players seemed to panic, and then in the case of Szczesny and Kosnielny did panic, and Arsenal contrived to lose to league stugglers Birmingham, everything unravelled. There was fight against Barcelona, but not enough to close out the tie. Manchester United, to the surprise of no one, beat Arsenal at Old Trafford in the cup, and the league challenge petered out before the dying weeks of the season.

Yet to go back to the start of the season, it did appear as if Arsene Wenger had got it right this year. Arsenal's problems were seen as a need for a tall striker to win crosses (as Adebayor had done in 2008), a commanding centre-back, and a goalkeeper. Marouane Chamakh, Lorent Kosnielny (another for the future), Sebastian Squillaci (experience) arrived, and Johan Djourou got fit. It seemed the answer for two of those problems was present. After Wenger finally gave up on Almunia and Fabianski took over in goal, it looked like all the problems had been solved.

The answer to why this wasn't true isn't actually that complicated. Injuries, and mentality. Injuries to Fabianski, then Szczesny, the season-long injury to Vermaelen, and the massive dropoff in Chamakh's form after December which has essentially made him useless since then, has meant that the problem areas of Arsenal's game were never allowed to be properly fixed. Djourou was immense in defence, but you cannot have a secure defence with only one mentally strong defender. The real problem is not conceding goals, which Arsenal have done surprisingly rarely statistically, but when and how these goals are conceded. Sloppy errors at crucial times, lacadasical attitudes towards defending leads, these have been the serious problems - from a team which, in 2006, set a record in the Champions League for the longest time without conceding a goal, with a makeshift defence of Eboue, Toure, Senderos, and Flamini.

Hire new medical staff. Get a new defensive coach, if not let Pat Rice retire and hire a tactically proficient assistant manager. Buy a striker to fill the gap left by Eduardo's injury. Clear the deadwood from the squad.

The problem is, that since 2006 these have all been the problems facing Arsenal, and investment and an acceptance by Wenger that his backroom is as much of a problem as underperforming players, might be a start to reshaping Arsenal back to a team that can challenge Manchester United and Chelsea in a more consistent manner over an entire season.

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