Is he right with his assessment of Arsenal?

Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger

Alan Hansen isn’t too far off his assessment of Arsenal. The problem, like with most, it that it’s laced with the hope of failure, hatred even, and resentment at the idea that the pieces could finally fall into place for Arsenal.

I don’t expect Arsenal to win the Premier League title this season. The squad isn’t strong enough. But there is a difference between winning the title and being in contention. At this stage, Arsenal are contenders for the Premier League title. Why wouldn’t they be? They’re top. If the excuse that they’ve only played the “weak” sides of the league is wheeled out, then what exactly is the point of those teams? Dock points off Arsenal because they’ve had an “easy run.” Yet funnily Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Tottenham have all lost to one of the “weak” teams so far.

Hansen’s criticism is based on the fact that Arsenal aren’t as good without the ball as they are with it. Yes, that is true. But again, people like to ignore the progress that’s being made at the club this season. The pieces are in fact coming into place. Clubs like Arsenal have to pace themselves in their building, either through choice or necessity. The team may not be a title-winning team now, but why couldn’t they be next season or the season following? In any case, Arsenal aren’t a team who finished seventh, or ninth or even lower; they finished in the top four, as they have done in all the years of Arsene Wenger’s reign. Why is it so absurd that a fourth-placed team could win the title?

The club have made a massive improvement from what they were last season. The midfield is stronger in terms of numbers, while most are capable of carrying out the style of football fans want to see on a weekly basis. The defence, too, doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. But then I wouldn’t be overly worried. Those who criticise Laurent Koscielny for not being strong enough and Per Mertesacker for being too slow are the same who say David Luiz is a terrible centre-back.

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My own criticism of Arsenal, as it has been for the whole of the season thus far, is that the squad isn’t deep enough. But everyone knows that. The problems Hansen is highlighting are correct. The team don’t defend as well as Borussia Dortmund, for example, whose pressing game alleviates the need for an out-and-out “destroyer” in the middle of the pitch – Hansen alluded to Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, citing their leadership, but his true intention was clear. Dortmund press from the front and win the ball high up the field. Arsenal simply don’t do that. Dortmund are a good example but Barcelona – at least the Barcelona under Pep Guardiola – are even better. They worked tirelessly to win the ball back as a unit so individuals wouldn’t be exposed.

This is where Arsene Wenger’s tactical shortcomings come into play. When discussing the best tacticians in the game, Wenger doesn’t belong. He’s tactically inflexible, forcing his own methodology on every situation. When you’re not as good as Barcelona, you simply can’t do that. And if there is a suggestion that Barcelona only did it when faced against Spanish opposition, they twice made Manchester United look well, well, well, below average.

But where is the credit? Nobody plays football as well as Arsenal do in the league. Manchester City, Chelsea and even Manchester United – the three teams who Hansen states will finish above Arsenal this season, though failing to state how or why – all have fantastic footballers but collectively don’t move the ball about as well as Arsenal. Some teams are ok with that; others want to maintain or even rediscover the ideals of their club.

Arsenal blew away Napoli in the Champions League, they spun Norwich in circles and even looked good in spells against Dortmund. But where is the acknowledgement of the football on display? Santi Cazorla is so good that it isn’t sensationalism to say he could have easily played for Barcelona during the Guardiola era; Mesut Ozil actually came from Real Madrid and was considered their most important player by Cristiano Ronaldo. Why are we not celebrating the football that’s on display at the Emirates?

Everyone has an agenda. Everyone is desperate to see Arsenal fail. If Arsenal do eventually finish fourth, there won’t be any comment about the good football that was played this season, the fact that the club obliterated their transfer record or the improvements of players like Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud. Instead, everyone will point the finger and say “I told you so, they simply weren’t good enough.”

That’s why, while Hansen’s criticism may not be far off the mark, it’s a little hard to take. The compliments seem forced, as if he reluctantly obliged to tip his cap to the team so far but held absolutely no sincerity in anything he said.

In their current state, I don’t believe Arsenal will see out the season and finish top. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they deserve to be where they are now.

Is Alan Hansen right?

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