As the season reaches “squeaky-bum time”, Arsenal fans will no doubt be bemoaning the fact that the Gunners’ season is headed for a fifth-straight trophyless finish. Whilst this season’s fruitless quest for silverware will no doubt be mainly attributed to a recurring succession of injuries to key men such as Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas, critics and naysayers up and down the land will yet again be pointing towards manager Arsene Wenger’s stubborn refusal to alter his idealistic principles of balancing youth with a lack of experience. With a horrific sense of déjà vu setting in at the Emirates, is it safe to say that Arsenal are stuck in a vicious cycle?
‘Tippy-tappy’ football. Barcelona-lite. ‘Pretty’ football. The average sports writer’s lexicon is so full of Arsene-by-numbers buzzwords these days that we needn’t waste time critiquing the virtues of Wenger’s much-vaunted stylistic ideals. If we were to sum up Arsenal’s campaign this season round, we would only have to alter the date from reports summarising Arsenal’s last four seasons. Scintillating at times, woeful at others, unlucky with injuries. Look likely to be serious challengers in the future.
And therein lies the crux of Arsenal’s problem. Arsene Wenger’s side seem to be a developing team perpetually in transition, with both eyes constantly focussed on the future. Whilst on several occasions this term we’ve seen the awe-inspiring potential of Arsene’s pretenders, as evident in their opening-day demolition of Everton and their Champions League romp at home to Porto, we’ve also witnessed their now-annual capitulations to both Manchester United and Chelsea. In particular, their clashes with Chelsea this season really seemed to epitomise the phrase ‘men against boys’.
Talking to The Guardian, Sol Campbell echoed the claims of previous seasons by stating that,
“Once everything comes together, there will be no stopping Arsenal winning trophies season after season.”
But with five seasons now without a trophy, are Campbell’s comments indicative of real, tangible progress being made at the Emirates or are his words reminiscent of a tired old cliché that is being wheeled out on a season-by-season basis?
To some extent we can cynically say that Arsenal are in a vicious cycle of development and underachievement. In short, Wenger will painstakingly bring through a crop of young players, allow the cream of said crop to establish themselves within the first team, witness his side prematurely top the table, before inevitably crashing and burning and saying that next season will be the year. Along the way, Wenger may also decide to cash in on some of his more experienced players, and reboot the process all over again. This process means that Arsenal have not really had a consistent, settled ‘spine’ over the last few seasons, with the departures of Jens Lehmann, Thierry Henry, Kolo Touré and Mathieu Flamini all demonstrative of Wenger ridding the club of older players with the know-how to win trophies.
It was Alan Hansen who famously said, “You’ll never win anything with kids”. Whilst Sir Alex Ferguson’s double-winning team that season emphatically refuted Hansen’s assertion, many often overlook the fact that Ferguson’s side that year featured the steel and experience of seasoned pros such as Peter Schmeichel, Steve Bruce and Denis Irwin. A look back at all of the title-winning teams of the last ten to twenty years, including Arsene’s historic ‘Invincibles’ side, will illustrate that you need a blend of both youth and experience to mount a successful challenge. Wenger’s team of 2003/04 was littered with experienced, medal-winning individuals who had ‘been there and done that’.
However, we shouldn’t let age act as the only barometer of experience. At just 22, Cesc Fabregas has already notched up over 250 appearances for Arsenal in all competitions in six seasons. Arsenal’s talismanic number four has featured in countless Champions League knockout stage games, a Carling Cup final and several games against the Premier League’s elite. Only a fool would dismiss Fabregas as inexperienced. Aside from the soon to be out-of-contract William Gallas, Fabregas is the only first-team player in Wenger’s squad with such experience, the only player who can consistently handle the pressure of playing the game against the biggest teams on the biggest occasions. If Wenger could acquire a couple of big-name players to supplement the genius of Fabregas and the youthful exuberance of the rest of his squad, Wenger may be able to maintain his principles and achieve Premier League success.
Unlike the ‘knee-jerk’ minority of Arsenal fans calling for Wenger’s head, I still believe that Arsene knows. It is clear that he is in possession of a prodigiously gifted bunch of young footballers, a group of footballers with the potential to achieve something special. However, in order to turn his group of also-rans into title winners, I firmly believe that Wenger will have to bite the bullet and sign the experienced players needed to complete his jigsaw.
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