Arsenal fans are often berated by the media for their supposed impatience. The truth is that at any club other than Arsenal, the pressure on Arsene Wenger would be approaching unbearable.
From 15 league games – almost half a season – we have won only five. We’ve lost four; as many as 17th place Sunderland. We’re 15 points behind the league leaders Manchester United. Distressingly, we’re now as close to United as we are to rock-bottom QPR. We’re just one league place ahead of Liverpool; a club whose mid-table mediocrity we are in serious danger of emulating.
Before the game I talked about us entering a series of very winnable matches. We’ve kicked that sequence off with a resounding defeat. Arsenal are falling well below the standards that even the most measured and reasonable of fans expects.
I don’t want to take anything away from Swansea, who were fantastic yesterday. They played the sort of football Arsenal aspire to play themselves: intelligent, consistent pressing coupled with incisive, intricate passing. They are quick, direct, and relatively ruthless. I was seriously impressed. Don’t let the late timing of Michu’s goals fool you in to thinking this was any sort of sucker-punch. Arsenal’s best player on the day was probably Wojciech Szczesny, who kept the Swans at bay by saving brilliantly from three one-on-one opportunities.
On the day, they were the better side. I accept that much. But on paper, even the most vehement of Swansea fans would accept that they’re an inferior team. Try to build a composite side out of the two squads, and in all probability only Michu would survive from the Swans. Possibly marauding right-back Angel Rangel. It’s hard to contest the fact that Arsenal’s XI, however flawed, is comfortably superior to that of the Welsh side. I’m not for a second suggestig our team is perfect – if I never saw Gervinho in an Arsenal shirt again I’d be delighted – but we’re packed with internationals and multi-million pound players. They, on the other hand, are a relatively rag-tag bunch of Championship graduates and bargain Spaniards.
You wouldn’t have known it yesterday. Nor is it suggested by the league table: Swansea’s win moved them above us, where they now sit in a group that includes Stoke City, West Ham, and West Brom. It does not make for pleasant reading.
And yet, to continue my point, we have a stronger team than all of those sides. We have a stronger team too than Aston Villa, Sunderland, Norwich and Fulham, but it didn’t help us beat them. Arsene talks with conviction about how we’ve come through some of our toughest fixtures already this season, yet our achilles heel remains picking up sides against teams we should be able to beat. Our problems are not ‘on paper’ – one look at the balance book confirms that. They’re on grass.
The only possible conclusion is that the team are not performing to their potential. And then the only possible question is ‘Why?’. Assuming the problem is not personnel, it has to be one of two things: tactics and motivation. Both, I’m afraid, directly implicate the manager: Arsene Wenger.
The question of tactics is an interesting one. It’s long been said that Arsene is no tactical chess-player. He just makes sure he has the most powerful pieces in play, and secures victory that way. Sadly in Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, he’s lost his Rook, Bishop and Queen. The power-players are gone, and Arsenal’s collective unit seems to require a greater degree of organisation to make up for the lost ability.
Motivation, however, is an even bigger concern. Yesterday, watching a pedestrian Arsenal stroll to defeat, I couldn’t help but feel that this is a side that isn’t playing for their manager anymore. You’ve seen it other clubs: group of players who clearly have ability, hiding on the pitch and glumly accepting defeat. At these ‘other clubs’, it’s what gets managers sacked. That won’t happen at Arsenal, and I suspect the players know it, which reduces the stakes even further. Even if they lose, things will still stay as they are. We’re locked in stasis, and it’s going stale fast.
Although the team aren’t playing up to standard, I won’t pretend there aren’t issues with the quality of the squad. The lack of depth and options means that our best players are being over-used, and subsequently fading fast.
Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta were unusual signings for Arsene Wenger. Both in their late twenties upon arrival, they were educated elsewhere and hired in to add experience and quality to a youthful squad. There are some members of his squad of whom Arsene Wenger is hugely protective – these are typically youthful academy types like Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Cazorla and Arteta do not tend to fall in to this category. Both have the potential to be Rolls Royce players; at the moment Arsene is using them like second-hand bangers that he doesn’t mind getting scratched and bumped. With Arteta in particular it feels like he’s concluded, “this guy is old, his knee is screwed anyway – I may aswell run him in to the ground”. Rarely have I seen a player so desperately in need of a rest denied it.
Olivier Giroud was given a sixty minute reprieve after starting on the bench – presumably he had moved beyond Arsene’s precarious “red zone” in to something approaching a purpley-black. However, that meant that the trio of Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Lukas Podolski was asked to fill the gap, with the latter two rotating in the central berth. None of them convinced, and despite the desire of the entire trio to play more centrally, I’d have no hesitation in saying that Podolski and Walcott are best suited to the wings, and Gervinho to the reserves. I don’t want to go overboard about Giroud’s ability – I still think he’s a significant step down on Arsenal centre-forwards of the past, but at the moment his presence is absolutely crucial to the team, because we simply don’t have an adequate alternative. Resting Giroud is not in itself a crime; failing to have a single player capable of deputising for the Frenchman, however, is.
With every dropped point, pressure increases on Arsene to amend the situation in January – and not just with the stingy solution of a 34-year old striker on loan for six weeks from the MLS. I’m sure he will endeavour to add a couple of players to the squad. The difficult truth is that the lack of quality is probably the easiest problem to solve. We’re fast approaching the point when any signing, whether it’s Henry, Falcao or anyone you may care to mention may prove to be just a sticking plaster.
Arsene Wenger has never lost faith in his players. The signs are there, however, that they may be beginning to lose faith in him.