Occasionally as a fan with unconventional career choices, I am forced to miss big games. Sometimes it’s no bad thing.
As Arsenal were once again boosting the career prospects of another Manchester United youth product, I was pretending to be a 7th century mercenary in the oldest church in London.
I’ve remained sufficiently busy to have not had a chance to catch up with the 90 minutes as a whole, but once again it is the character rather than raw ability of Wenger’s side that has been most highly criticised, from people across the spectrum. Not least by Graham Souness (who always seems like Arsenal frustrate him as much as any of the fan base) and a bewildered Thierry Henry on Sky.
It is increasingly looking like Arsenal’s best chance of winning a trophy once again rests with the FA Cup. Which would be a consolation prize if it were to happen. A bad result next weekend, and the title challenge is dead in the water…found face down having fled the fight.
As I say, I can’t really comment on the ebb and flow game itself, but there is clearly something fundamentally lacking in this squad when it comes to pressure situations. Sure, our form has been ropey ever since the Coq-zorla axis was disrupted, but it is getting harder and harder to unreservedly support a manager who seems unable to get us through the door even when it has been left open.
Sure, he’s been let down by the players, but when he’s been manager of the club longer than any of the squad have been playing, it’s hard to look much further than him for the responsibility of squad composition.
Part of the problem is that the Premier League is relentless…meaning consistency is often as important as top level ability – hence the vast salary of James Milner. And looking at the current squad, who are the guaranteed 7 out 10 every week players?
Özil is obviously a genius and his invariable top draw performances this season allow a certain latitude for his occasional disappearances. Čech in a goalkeeping sense is similar, and has undeniably been a very successful signing. Beyond that only Monreal, Koscielny and to a certain extent Giroud can claim any real reliability in performance levels.
In 2015/16, Alexis Sanchez has been either red hot or stone cold, Francis Coquelin has not really got up to full speed after his injury, and Ramsey seems to have mislaid his positional sense in terms of a central role, and is not nearly as impactful as the 2013/14 vintage. Bellerín has been rather more good than bad, but as a 20-year-old attacking wing back, fluctuations in form are inevitable.
Mertesacker has been largely solid but has made catastrophic errors in big games, Cazorla was starting to go off the boil before his injury, and our right wing position has been a revolving door of personnel, all failing to nail down a position, despite the best efforts of Joel Campbell. Certainly both Walcott and The Ox have shown flashes beyond the Costa Rican’s capacity, but both have stunk the place out at times, and with worrying regularity. Those reserves who have been fit have been plagued with inconstancy, with form adorning and deserting the likes of Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini and briefly Debuchy like the rising and setting of the sun.
The likes of Rosicky, Welbeck and Wilshere have been missed because their work-rate and commitment is always evident even when form and confidence wax and wane. But with all three being probable bench warmers, all things being equal, their return wouldn’t solve our problems.
To me, it seems fairly mystifying why so many of our squad’s individual performance levels have been so far from their peak for so long this season. Sure, the injury crisis of November was always going to de-stabilise things, but too many players, week after week, have been below par. This has got worse as the season has gone on, despite the difficulties of traditional rivals providing clear incentive and cause for optimism.
If we were to undertake a school report for the season to date, assessing performance against expectations (as is so popular with U.S. sports reporting), how many would be in line for an A? Maybe Özil & Čech, with a handful of others looking at high B’s. It would be fair to say they would be outnumbered by those with disappointing grades.
Regardless of any assessments of the game itself, hearing Arèene talking about the transfer fees spent on Man Utd’s midfield (albeit in response to a question intended to get a rise out of him) felt like a dead argument. The total current market value of the Arsenal players on display would have been somewhat greater than that of their hosts, and more importantly there would probably be more of ours than theirs in a composite XI. Experience has taught that the manager gets snarky when he’s cocked up his selection decisions, but the changing football landscape means that he’d be a lot better off avoiding the question of money.
Most reasonable fans accept that 2005-2012 was a period where financial competition with our rivals just wasn’t an option. But the further we get away from that point, the harder it is for fans to fathom our unconvincing league campaigns. Particularly when Leicester and Spurs (albeit aided by a total lack of injuries) are showing that the correlation between financial power and results that we had got so used to may not be as absolute as we have been led to believe.
Both have reminded us that balance of team shape and personnel, when combined with clarity of purpose and bloody minded determination can be more than a match for chequebook management. And both have severely undermined the strength of our manager’s arguments regarding the financial imperative.
Of course, we may yet find our stride, catch and overtake our current title rivals, and now is certainly not the time to give up hope or turn on the team. But having Spurs win the title on his watch, or finding ourselves looking up at Leicester City come May 15th, would really put Arsène’s reign into serious question from a purely objective perspective for perhaps the first time. Although possibly inaccurately excused at times, Arsenal’s apparent underachievement over the last decade has always been in the context of significant mitigating factors. It’s hard to see how finishing outside the top two this year could be viewed as anything other than a catastrophic failure. And one that would probably erode any last remaining shreds of confidence in Wenger’s capacity to build and manage a team capable of reaching the heights that the club’s ticket prices suggest should be a realistic prospect year after year.
Petr Čech has highlighted the vital importance of the next two games, once again fronting up to the press. We’ve heard this from less credible members of the squad a hundred times before in recent seasons, but it feels like the stakes are higher than has been the case for a long time. Because the outcomes don’t just represent the club’s comparative status in this year’s title challenge, but also perhaps the manager’s, and thus the players’, long-term futures.
With Arsene’s current contract due to end in 2017, would he have the stomach and faith to keep the fight going beyond that point if things go as wrong as is seeming increasingly plausible? And could the board consider encouraging him to hang up the tracksuit? A lot would depend on fan reaction. But we’ve all seen how close the Emirates stadium crowd is to at least partial revolt, and has been for a while yet. And even if Le Boss is stubborn/brave/deluded/committed (delete as per your personal prejudice) to keep on keeping on, it’s hard to see him keeping faith with certain players who will have let him down.
2015/16 remains a season of opportunity, but equally, because of that opportunity, it also represents a significant threat to the status quo. And at present, the threat is growing rather than receding.