Arsenal’s recent defeat in the north London derby to local rivals Tottenham has widely been hailed as the moment there was a change in the balance of power between the two clubs for the first time in nearly two decades, but are Arsene Wenger’s side suffering from a lack of belief more than anything else?
The biggest single factor to back up that point is the club’s record against the top four this season, otherwise known as their nearest rivals, which reads played seven, won one, drawn one and lost five. When you factor in that against better quality opposition in the Champions League this term, in games against Bayern Munich and Schalke, where they have drawn one and lost two, and it’s clear to see why they are finding it so difficult to bridge the gap between them and the level where they need to reach. They simply seem as if they are going into games of importance now resigned to their fate.
Far too many key players are not enjoying their finest seasons at the club, with Wojciech Szczesny doing little to dispel the notion that he’s the Emperor’s New Clothes and has only benefited from being compared to Manuel Almunia, while captain Thomas Vermaelen, centre-back Lauren Koscielny and the likes of Bacary Sagna and Aaron Ramsey have all fallen well below what’s expected of them on a consistent basis.
Against both Bayern and Tottenham, the side dominated possession, but seemed to lack that crucial belief to really take the game to the opposition when the scores were level and they only started playing against Chelsea in their defeat at Stamford Bridge after the break when the score was already at 2-0, therefore leaving themselves too much to do.
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A truly telling statistic is that of the club’s 14 games they have played since the turn of the year in 2013, they’ve gone behind in nine of them, five of those by two goals. In the five games where they have taken the lead first, they have gone on to win. Confidence is so fragile that it seems to often hinder on the first goal, which is not the hallmark of a side capable of challenging for a top four spot, let alone honours.
Looking around the squad, it looks woefully short on leaders, with only really the young Jack Wilshere standing up to be counted in any sort of way this campaign. Mikel Arteta is a quietly assured figure that leads by example, while Per Mertesacker commands respect for his international achievements with Germany, just like Lukas Podolski, but neither appear to have the authority of the dressing room.
Appointing Vermaelen as captain has proved to be a fatal error of judgement, though, considering that is has had an overwhelmingly negative effect on his form and looks more than anything to be like an albatross around his neck, weighing him down. Replacing Robin van Persie was always going to be a difficult task, simply because symbolically, he was the team’s go-to leader to make things happen when everything wasn’t going according to plan, and they’ve not only missed his goals, but the comfort his presence provided the rest of the side with.
Similarly to the William Gallas appointment, Vermaelen could well be stripped of the honour at the end of the campaign, with Wilshere the obvious favourite for the role, because it’s got to the stage where only the captaincy is keeping his place in the side as opposed to his performances meriting continued selection.
Blame for the team’s lack of spirit and belief in their goals ultimately rests on the manager, though, and once against Wenger is culpable for assembling such a weak-willed squad. His usual rhetoric based around the team’s mental strength is little more than hot air and a concerted PR effort to try and change minds despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to the contrary.
His refusal to adjust his methods and the team’s style of play, no matter what the opposition or context and importance of the fixture, is tantamount to gross negligence. Every manager has to adjust their side for certain fixtures, with only really Barcelona capable of impressing their style quite so forcefully; Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid are far more pragmatic and therefore successful. They will compromise their principles if it means winning, whereas Wenger will not.
It’s not only that the side clearly doesn’t have belief in themselves or one another at the moment, but they have walked that well-worn path in big games far too often; dominate possession, fail to create or finish off clear-cut chances and then let a defensive error go punished at their end resulting in a sloppy goal. You can almost see their heads drop when they go behind now, with the knowledge that past scars have seen them incapable of turning round such a deficit. That points to a lack of belief in Wenger’s methods.
Arsenal’s performances this past month or so, which have seen them crash out of the FA Cup and all but certain to be dumped out of Europe, have been hailed as a ‘crisis’ the sort of which Wenger has never known at the club. Nevertheless, with a favourable run-in, they are still capable of pinching top four football, but the underlying issues within the squad go far deeper than just a poor run of form and they look ingrained in the squad’s psyche. Changing attitudes and the culture of the entire club is not small feat and it could take a slice of cut-throat and extensive surgery to turn their fortunes around in the long-term.