Over the last eleven years of barren returns from hard labour a section of fans and pundits have always hinted that the time has come for Arsenal football club to change their manager. The intellectual economist, Arsène Wenger, has aided in the construction of the club’s current state in terms of finances and status throughout the transition. League titles and European Cups have eluded the London based club. During this campaign, where Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City have all fallen well below standard, Arsenal showed title potential with their only realistic rivals being Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur, clubs they should easily beat to the prize. Arsenal have not only failed to do so finding themselves eleven points off the top, but have also made poor showings in any redeeming cup competitions. While objectively speaking it remains clear that it would be difficult for Arsenal to replace a quality coach like Wenger especially to challenge Guardiola at City (and the potential Jose Mourinho to United) but to also maintain Wenger’s consistent top four record (which has continuously been overlooked when looking at Liverpool and United’s current state). The question that remains is: in light of the big dogs’ positions, have people overestimated Arsenal’s chances?
At the beginning of the season, every one sounds out their clear favourites and who they expect what from. Arsenal having made only one clear addition to their team in the window, were far from favourites in the minds of many. Most had them realistically finishing in their usual position of third or fourth. The minority who have Arsenal as favourites looked at the team’s consistency throughout 2015 and used it as a marker to say that the team was capable. It was indicative that the team had grown, has quality, and built a sense of camaraderie among themselves in the dressing room. However that did not translate over to 2016 where Arsenal are still failing to pick up points and players such Walcott, Giroud, Gabriel, Coquelin, and Sanchez are failing to reproduce consistent quality. With the big teams falling to the wayside, Arsenal’s tags as favourites grew, as did the expectations placed on the team, a team that most did not expect to trouble the top two. Yet here we are, with between seven and eight games left in the campaign, and fans and pundits alike seem absolutely baffled, shocked at how Arsenal managed to let this chance pass them while not remembering their own expectations of the team and not looking at what how their season has played out holistically and objectively.
What has been ignored is Arsenal’s shocking but not so shocking injury record in this season. After the recruitment of Shad Fosythe in the 2014/2015 campaign, a marked improvement in Arsenal’s injury numbers was recognised and many saw the American as a real coup for the club and he was seen by the very few believers as a reason Arsenal could push towards the title. However the same old problems reared their ugly heads. Losing Coquelin and Cazorla as the teams central core hurt the team immensely. Moreover, Coquelin has been unable to return to the same effect. The loss of Sanchez, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain left the team short of forward options, while Welbeck had been out for almost a year and only recently returned. The club has lost Ramsey twice to injury and mostly due overplaying because the club has been short players. Arteta, Wilshere and Rosicky all who could have played a part in rotation and helping to balance player usage and game time have been unable to muster any real fitness for the entirety of the campaign. We have seen Twitter doctor make claims about training regiments being the cause. However in the case of most players, they are easily explainable and simply down to poor luck, as ludicrous as that sounds. Examples being, Wilshere on his way back in full training has his leg broken by Gabriel. Oxlade was hacked in half by Mascherano versus Barcelona, Sanchez has had very little rest since World cup 2014 Arsenal, trying their best to manage him could not delay an inevitable breakdown for a player that previously had a poor injury record at Barcelona, and we could go on. The manager and his medical and fitness team do their best to manage the players but when compared to the little injury the top two in Leicester City and Tottenham have endured, it would have surely set Arsenal back.
Based on some of the personnel listed before in addition to the lack of player recruitment, many would blame the manager for that and ultimately the fact that Arsenal somehow lack depth and that a few of these players are consistently either on the treatment bed or are not good enough for the team. While both assertions are true, what are also true are the facts that the manager did try his hardest to recruit players who would have made a difference in the summer window and made an addition in Elneny January, which we can assume fell through in the summer. Benzema was on the cards but Arsenal were unable to secure his services and despite the critical perception of Flamini and Arteta, both are capable as cover players not long standing starters. Also, Wilshere’s setback as highlighted was just poor luck and unfortunate. Arsenal, had all things gone well, as it has for Spurs and Leicester City could have seen themselves in a far better position. However being completely honest the players who have featured from January to March were more than capable. They will get tired, they will lose form, and there will always be a time where rotation is necessary. However, Arsenal did do their part and what must be understood is that club transfers in real life and in your video game are different, how negotiations work are different, the breakdown of fees to paid are complex and even the figures reported that clubs may have to spend have not accounted for part payments that need to be paid for players purchased from previous seasons. The transfer window is not a supermarket for clubs to pick up players willy nilly and in recent seasons we have seen both Chelsea and Man City fail, with all their cash reserves to secure particular targets, it can be expected that the same will happen to Arsenal.
What can be questioned about the club and personnel is the ability to get the players playing at a high standard which obviously will be affected by all of the above mentioned, but often have we seen along with other British clubs, Arsenal being a significant step behind the European elites which goes beyond natural ability of the players. It also speaks of the application of tactics and systems in the British game as well as how the football IQ of the players are developed and utilised, which can be exhibited by the decision making of players and the quickness of how these decisions are made. While these players still operate at high level the fine lines in the difference between their understanding and decision making show a vast difference especially as it relates to performing well and consistently as a unit. Obviously the blame cannot be fully placed on the manager but he does play the most important role in this aspect and it is one where Arsenal find themselves significantly behind most top teams. Buying ready made players in their world class prime is a solution, one which Wenger has highlighted as in adding and building his squad, but what can be noticed is that this current squad is filled with players who have been a part of Arsenal or another British youth set up and with that there are clear issues with their game which is stopping not only themselves from being on an elite level but Arsenal as well, which goes back to education and development of these players as a factor which has held Arsenal back not only in this season but over the years.
Ultimately, realty has set in and regardless of whether it was Chelsea on top or even Aston Villa, where Arsenal find themselves now is what was expected given all things. While the same excuses, reasons, answers are doing the rounds one thing that remains certain is that Arsenal cannot win the title as is but the approach to change must be well thought out and certainly kept away from the court of public opinion. In Wenger, Arsenal has the best available option for a top class coach. He has evolved and he has adjusted tactically. The old dog has learned new tricks but the players are not up to speed and same goes for how quickly he’s learning these new tricks.
The club needs new vision and direction but not with the storm that’s coming in Guardiola and Mourinho, not with any rush, and certainly not because of people being confused about something they expected.