Haven’t we been here before?

Gunning for Glory – A Gooner’s View

A COUPLE of weeks have passed since the last blog, and how have things changed since then? Four competitions have faded into lingering hopes in one (scratch that – Bolton did a Bolton on us again on Sunday; it’s a 150/1 shot as I speak), and the usual weaknesses this team possess continue to haunt us.  The most frustrating part in all of this is that the majority of neutrals love the way Arsenal play football, slick and stylish going forward, easy on the eye – like a Karen Koster xposé special, but at the end of the day, there is a soft centre in this team which prevents the obvious potential turning into success and silverware. In fact I’m sure the lovely Miss Koster probably possesses as much silver in her shiny wardrobe collection as the entire Arsenal team combined.

But as was suggested in my last column, Arsenal were in a good position at the turn of the year but the January transfer window was the turning point to invest in, at the very least, an experienced centre-half which would have provided a bit of steel and assurance in the defence. I’m not too sure if it’s faith, stubbornness, or lack of a suitable target that resulted in no purchase but Arsene must be thinking that if only he could turn back time, he would. [I don’t know what’s in Wenger’s car CD collection, but I’d hazard a guess at this. Just look at the Chelsea turnaround in the same period with the signing of Sideshow Bob’s cousin, David Luiz for proof of that.

Every press interview the boss takes at the moment, he re-iterates his faith in this team and mental strength. I’m sorry, but there’s only so many times such excuses are gonna wash with the fans. Losing away to Man Utd and Chelsea again, squandering a four-goal lead at Newcastle, losing a two-goal lead twice against Spurs, a calamitous last-minute giveaway goal in the Carling Cup final, conceding the latest penalty in Premier League history against Liverpool, a final-minute set-piece collapse against Bolton, etc. all point to a major weakness in the team which needs to be addressed.

As much as Arsene would like to focus the blame on the referee, the fourth official or Kenny Dalglish, the buck stops with him in the end. Much like Ferguson at United, he has total control of football affairs at the club. The point of all this is, as long as things stay the same, Arsenal will most likely fail to break the trophy drought as there’s a mental paralysis in this  current squad of players. No matter what size of lead they have in a game, the opposition will feel that there is a chance of a miraculous comeback. I can’t think of any other team in the league where it is possible to reasonably believe that a sizeable lead can be turned round.

When you look at the other top clubs in the league, the backbone is stuffed full of experience, Vidic – Ferdinand – Fletcher, Terry – Ivanovic/Alex – Essien, Kompany – K-Toure – Y-Toure. (We all know Spurs can’t defend either so their stats are meaningless.) You wouldn’t expect any of those teams to turn into jelly the very minute the pressure comes on to hold out with a lead, and really that’s where the difference lies. The statistics back up the above, with the current Arsenal back-line of Koscielny and Djourou amassing a total of 91 Arsenal appearances between them, with zero trophies won. Whilst I consider both good promising centre-halves, ideally you would have someone beside them, older and more experienced in all things world football, to guide the team from the back. We should’ve cloned Tony Adams when we had the chance really.

I’ve come across a stunning statistic today that 56% of the goals Arsenal conceded this season were from set-pieces.  It shouldn’t be surprising really when you step back and think about it, as it has been an Achilles heel for more seasons than I care to consider now. For whatever reason, Arsene just doesn’t seem to have the command to address this weakness. A few tweaks will be needed in the form of defensive-orientated signings, but one has to question what is happening on the training pitch on the defensive-drill side and whether the coaching staff need much greater scrutiny, analysis and alteration.

Whilst I don’t buy into the growing ‘Wenger Out’ campaign, I think it would be an unhealthy scenario were we to find ourselves in a situation where the questioning of the manager was a taboo subject, with a growing split becoming apparent in the opinion of the boss’s future among the Arsenal fan-base. In fact, we’re gone way beyond that in reality and the summer media frenzy on what Arsene does over the coming weeks and months will be at fever-pitch. Arsenal seem to be at a crossroads for the past couple of seasons now, having on average finished 15 points behind the eventual champions and having mostly collapsed in a heap the very minute the pressure comes on in a title run-in. It doesn’t really matter what the fixture list brings up.

From a club-board viewpoint, Arsene is the perfect manager in terms of financial number-crunching, keeping the team in the top-four Champions’ League places season after season, returning sizeable annual profits whilst paying off the Emirate Stadium bank loans, and never asking for the £30 or £40 million deadline-day signing to make Sky Sports News reporters wet their pants. Yet from a fan’s perspective all the above means little when the team have become perennial underachievers. The frustration groans get louder from the stands (and more worryingly empty red seats) and you have to wonder whether the team crown jewels in Fabregas, Nasri and V.Persie will be looking at things this summer and saying is it time to switch before it’s too late. Wenger’s recent comments that second place is a successful season is a bit of a faux pas when you’re trying to convince the only World Cup winner left at the club to stay.

As a fan, this is terribly frustrating as there was a clear chance this season to really push on and make a sustained challenge for trophies on a number of fronts. In the end, a two-week spell in early March really scuppered the growth and belief of the team. The psychological damage caused by the Carling Cup final defeat was significant and rippled through to the following games. We should all be used to Man Utd winning the league at this stage, the 19th is only a matter of time away really, but it does get your goat that it all came rather too easy for them.

It’s not a vintage United side by any means and how things could’ve been different if the boss had owned up and recognised the weaknesses of the current Arsenal side along the defensive spine that everyone’s granny could’ve told him were there last summer. When the shopping basket does come out this summer, it’s not Lidl or Aldi buys that will suffice this time around for the Arsenal fans and the media. The team needs natural-born experienced leaders at the back which will cost plenty of moolah, and with the change of ownership now in place, the expectations will be that, for once, Arsene will do the right thing and support the team with the experience that the last title winning ‘Invincible’ side oozed in 2004.

We’ve been stuck in a Groundhog Day scenario for far too long now, and it’s about time the club woke up to the physical aspects and demands of balancing both a Premier League and Champions’ League season. I’m sure a lot of fans at this stage wouldn’t have a major issue with substituting the ‘Plan A-only’ attractive football philosophy to allow room for a more direct physical style of play which can grind out results when it’s ultimately needed. Maybe, just maybe, this is the summer of change.

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