My default position is always to defend the club, manager, and players against criticism, often over zealously in truth. Despite what I may think, I always stick up for my team publicly or down the pub. Such is the adorable freak-fest of the internet that I do most of my yapping here now, partly because I left home, but also because most people I know refuse to get involved with me on football matters anymore. That said, one of the great things about being an Arsenal fan is that always backing the boys will leave you happy more often than sad.
However, even I found it difficult to swallow my own bullshit the last few days. I still think this season has great promise and this team can make history, the faith remains strong on this one. What I am struggling to do is defend the manager with the usual vehemence and passion. The fact is we have lost 4 games we shouldn’t have, allowing for a bad day here and there we should at least have won 2 of those. With the quality in our side that seems a very reasonable expectation.
Firstly let me say that Arsene Wenger is the greatest manager this club has ever had. It amazes me that a person can be so stupid to think sacking him would be a good idea and yet functions sufficiently to wipe their own arse, let alone learn a language well enough to bumble that sort of incoherence. This is not an attack on the great man, but mistakes have been made and this team has now gone backwards. I would like to know what they are and why so that we don’t repeat them again.
I watched the Villa game and my instant reaction was that we missed Flamini and Hleb. Flamini would have added some midfield steel and broken up their counter attacks. Hleb, although statistically unproductive, played a big role for us last year against teams with packed defences who clogged the middle. As the manager used to say, he was the one player who could play centrally, receive the ball with 3 men tight, and then pass into the resulting space. This seemed a logical conclusion.
I don’t truly think this is the issue though, it is too obvious to say whenever we lose we miss these players, but ignore there absence when we win. The only thing the midfield did do against Villa was play rough: Cesc and Denilson were both booked for rather ugly lunges. These were also the same players that beat united a week earlier. If anything the big problem in this team is immaturity, but that should not be an excuse.
After last season, when we played so well and came so close it would be expected that we would progress further. After 2 years of steady development however we have now gone backwards. Surely (don’t call me Shirley) we need to look at the manager here and ask why.
In midfield we have gone with youth over buying a proven experienced player. This in itself I don’t mind, we are absolutely loaded with talent here that should give us a pool of world class players that will be hard to match anywhere. Cesc, Nasri, Diaby, Walcott, Ramsey, and Wilshere all look amazing, with Denilson and Song improving rapidly.
I must say I am surprised though at how long it took Wenger to realise that with the players we have 5 in midfield is the way to go. He should have been more pro-active and astute in designing a system that would suite the players we have. If he insists on playing with a certain system then he should have found players who could make it work. 10 league games into a season is too long to find the right balance honestly, that is what pre-season is for.
Our defence has let in far too many goals. There is no way around that fact. Perhaps some blame could be laid at the door of the midfield, the argument being the back line is not sufficiently protected. I think this dodges the issue though. The games that we have dropped points in generally have seen the midfield struggling in attack. With all our possession we should have beaten Sunderland and Hull long before they scored and against Stoke and Villa we created nothing. These last two games saw very cheap goals conceded through individual defensive errors, which has generally been the trend. The only mitigating circumstance is our ridiculously bad luck with long shots, I don’t imagine any team has a worse shots to goal ratio from over 18 yards – Almunia has rarely been at fault.
In part Wenger has been let down here I think. Sagna and Clichy have both dropped their level from last season. Second season syndrome is common, although it is harder to rationalise the alarming propensity of Gael to make mental errors. Clichy this season has not defended as well generally, he allows his winger too much space then relies on his pace to get him out of trouble, and often gets caught out of position. Both these players though look like the long term solution at their position.
The same cannot be said at CB. Silvestre is clearly a stop gap measure. Gallas is 31 and he has been on the wane since the world cup final. Toure? That is a mystery. I hope at his age he finds his true form again because he is a fabulous player and seems a decent human being, it would be a very sad to see him slide into mediocrity then say goodbye. So, why was this not dealt with in the summer when all and sundry were screaming out for a commanding presence?
Wenger has said that there was a lack of talent at this position available, hence why Milan signed Senderos on loan. Still, even accepting we will not pay mega bucks for a star player (despite the regular summer tease that that is what we will get), other teams have done good jobs on budget. Vidic, Skretel, Agger have all come into top 4 clubs and played well and none cost more than 10 million.
Perhaps the problem though is to sign a player from abroad, especially in defence, is rarely a short term solution. The adaptation period would have meant that the older heads we have now would still have played most of this season, so why stifle the progression of Djourou and Song longer term. If Wenger had seen 2 or 3 years ago that Gallas and Toure would lose form spectacularly and possibly permanently at 27 and 30 respectively perhaps he would have groomed replacements standing by, but at present he does not.
At some stage we cannot simply tread water, always finish fourth and talk about the future whilst playing young players. This sounds like a recipe to slide back into the pack. However, maybe the boss is not solely to blame for the situation this season, it is entirely his responsibility to fix it, but he may not be the root cause, nor could he be expected to foresee every eventuality.
I think some of the players you would look to as proven players and leaders have not showed up: Cesc, Clichy, Gallas, Toure, Adebeyor (RVP?). If anything our better players have been new and young: Walcott, Nasri, Denilson, Silvestre, Ramsey, Diaby. At the start of last year our defence looked fine and a long term plan was in place, it would have been difficult to predict the disastrous decline of Gallas and Toure then.
So what now? For starters we mustn’t imagine that everything is wrong and look for massive changes, this team has produced some genius displays this season. We are inconsistent, struggle to play against packed defences, and sloppy at the back. The first 2 of these will improve with experience through the season and when Cesc regains form, although that shows the burden on him. Hopefully in time Walcott and Nasri will share that. At the back I think we should start looking ahead. Djourou and Song should play more, especially Johan who is very unlucky to keep getting dropped, which is maybe an indictment of Wenger. If this is the future then lets see it , if not we need to find the players who will be immediately and get them in the team.
Ironically this season talent evaluation has been Wenger’s greatest downfall. Usually he is so astute here, although perhaps it was difficult to predict such a decline from the clubs most experienced players, and a simultaneous loss of form from last season’s best players. Had this not happened together then maybe our youthful inexperience in a changed midfield would not have cost us so many points so far in the league. Still, it is clear that this team is not far away, there is transcendent talent in the side, and greater depth than ever before at the club. For now we must refocus, secure fourth, and do something in the cups. Europe is the big prize – remember our best ever showing there came in our worst ever league campaign under Arsene.