Arsenal just need two or three players to be title challengers. That has been the narrative for almost the entirety of the decade since Arsenal last won the Premier League. It was based on the belief that we had a good squad but required a couple of so-called world class players to push us to the level of our rivals. With every failure to win the league, the narrative was perpetuated to the point that it became accepted wisdom. Whether you were a fan or a pundit, everyone knew that Arsenal needed two or three more players to become challengers again.
But do they really? Last summer, Arsenal went and got those fabled three players: Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Perez. Uncharacteristically, they spent nearly £100 million just to bring those three to the club, making them one of the biggest spenders in the process. This is the biggest and most complete squad of players Arsenal have had in a long time. Yet, they find themselves well behind Chelsea and looked anything but title contenders against Watford on Tuesday night.
As much as we enjoy scapegoating players – Aaron Ramsey is the go-to player to blame for everything these days – there’s only so much the players can do if the conditions aren’t right. Modern football, for all the money that’s thrown about by clubs, is much more about preparation, coaching, tactics and mentality than player quality. In the Premier League especially, the gap between the biggest and smallest teams isn’t as vast as it once was.
You don’t need to look far to find a good example of this. Chelsea made minimal changes to a squad that imploded under Mourinho last season but once more find themselves runaway leaders. Many claimed they needed to renovate their squad to reach that level again, but Conte has proven otherwise. He brought organisation and motivation back to the Chelsea squad, and changed the system to one that extracted the best out of their players while minimalizing their weaknesses. Victor Moses encapsulate this, going from an average winger to an important wing-back.
Likewise, Leicester City last season proved that success is not built on player quality alone. While their title win was miraculous, it nonetheless showed the importance of good organisation and motivation. Arsenal, despite having a vastly more talented group of players, didn’t come close to winning the title that year.
Surely that says a lot about the modern Arsenal. Very rarely do Arsenal play with the same organisation and purpose as this year’s Chelsea or last year’s Leicester. We’re a team with several tactical flaws and worryingly reliant on the individual qualities of certain players. Last year it was Ozil. This year it’s Alexis. When these players don’t perform, as they’re bound to do at certain points in a season, we struggle to win even the most straightforward of games. We’re a team that wants to play attractive, passing football with highly technical players, yet struggle to play around an opposition press. We want to be an effective attacking force, yet hinder our own attack by playing narrow. We have no distinct approach to defending, often falling somewhere between pressing and sitting deep and doing neither well. I can go on.
Arsene Wenger has a deep and versatile squad. He can play any way he desires with the players at his disposal. But these issues have been around for many years now and he continues to fail to address them. Little wonder, then, that Arsenal lose games in the exact same way every season. You can tick them off: comprehensively outplayed away to a title rival, slipping up against mid-table sides, and having “accidents” in home games they’re expected to win comfortably. Every now and then they’ll put in a performance of real intensity and quality, such as when they beat Chelsea 3-0 earlier in the season. But these are exceptions, not the norm.
Far be it for me to claim I know better than Wenger, but it’s frustrating to watch Olivier Giroud play yet never be supplied with good service from wide because the wide players have been given freedom to roam infield. It’s frustrating to watch Alexis and Ozil press the opposition, get beaten, turn back and see the rest of the team hasn’t followed them, making their efforts wasted energy. It’s frustrating to watch Koscielny and Mustafi pass it amongst themselves because the midfield fails to provide them an option. It’s downright infuriating watching Cech lump it long whenever the opposition put on a press. Isn’t this meant to be a team confident in its technical ability and passing?
None of those are issues that can’t be resolved on the training pitch. You don’t need to spend tons of money and high quality players to execute those things well. I’ve seen many teams in Europe over the last few years have success with cheaply assembled squads: Borussia Dortmund’s Bundesliga wins under Klopp, Atletico Madrid winning La Liga under Simeone, Sevilla winning three consecutive Europa League trophies under Emery and, of course, Leicester winning the Premier League last season. In each case, good organisation, preparation, coaching and motivation have overcome any gaps in talent. Equally, for the super clubs of Europe – the Barcas, Madrids and Bayerns – those things have emphasised the gaps in talent.
Replacing Wenger might not fix everything. There’ll certainly be a transitional period once his reign has ended. But the longer we go without improving on our issues, the more I’m convinced that it’s Wenger who’s holding Arsenal back, and not the players.