In recent years, Arsenal have developed a reputation for crumbling. At the business end of the season, everything falls apart. Last season was perhaps the finest example so far. After suffering defeat to Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final, they swiftly exited the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona and the FA Cup at Manchester United before dropping out of the title race completely. Their dramatic losses of form always raise questions about Arsenal’s mental strength. Where is the self-belief of United’s squad? Where are the leaders? Why can’t they shake off defeats and close out the season or just close out a game? These are all valid questions, but it would be wrong to suggest that all their problems are mental.
Since the invincibles side, Arsene Wenger has steadily siphoned the leadership and experience out of the squad. He continues to do so with the recent sale of Gael Clichy to Manchester City. Clichy may be only 25 but he has 48 Champions League appearances and nearly 200 in the premiership. The duty of left-back now falls to the vastly less experienced 21 year-old Kieran Gibbs.
Whilst Wenger’s young side may be full of talent, willingness and speed, it lacks the power of players in their physical prime and the mentality of those who have tasted success and want more. There is an over-riding sense that even at their best this Arsenal side are an incredibly talented group of boys. Van Persie is the old hand and Fabregas has inherited the responsibility of captain because of his essential role on the pitch, not because he has the mental qualities required. When things are not going well he often looks pained, struggling under the weight of his title.
Whilst the squad lacks leaders, it also lacks fighters. Perhaps as a consequence of Wenger’s football philosophy and his abhorrence of the physical side of the game, hard talking players are a rarity at Arsenal. Jack Wilshere may be the first midfielder to demonstrate a willingness to get stuck in since the departure of Flamini in 2008. Wenger’s nurturing, molly-coddling attitude towards his youngsters and his bitter complaints of ‘rugby teams’ create a sense of victimisation rather than a desire to fight back.
The biggest problem Arsenal face is not a mental one. It is the quality of their squad. Even their best starting 11 has flaws, primarily in defence, and there is an unhealthy dependence on the fitness of Van Persie and Vermaelen. Walcott has shown flashes of brilliance but has struggled to find consistency due to injury and Arshavin has gone from a star to a sub in a disappointing season. There is a lack of depth up front and the need for a solid, consistent, central defensive partnership to bring some stability. It is these problems that really took Arsenal’s season off the rails.