Despite the ever-present criticism of Arsene Wenger this season, with the Premier League’s finishing line now in sight, Arsenal are in a fairly promising position at the start of the home stretch. There is still a lot to do, but it would have taken a brave, wise or completely ignorant man to have guessed the Gunners would be just a point behind local rivals Tottenham at this stage in the campaign following the last North London derby, which at the time appeared to signify that the Lilywhites had secured the fourth and final Champions League spot, whilst Chelsea’s position appeared to already be a certainty.
The pressure is now almost entirely on Tottenham; having recorded two defeats in a row against Fulham and Liverpool in the Premier League to let the Gunners back in, but furthermore, Spurs are constantly looking over their shoulders and keeping one eye on their local rivals, as a Champions League qualification place in the Premier League is now firmly theirs to lose.
Perhaps that is why Arsene Wenger last week tried to maintain some focus at the Emirates, by stating in a press conference that many of his roster will be playing for their futures throughout the remainder of the season, in the run up to what will be a history-defining transfer window for the Gunners in the summer: “What will decide our attitude, my attitude, is how we do now until the end of the season. What is important is we look at how we finish the season, how well we play – and make the decisions on who to buy and who to sell at the end of the season. This will be influenced by the way we play in our last nine games.”
But will the blunt words do the trick and motivate the Arsenal roster to up their game for the remainder of the season, or is drive and enthusiasm the least of the Gunners problems?
The harsh words were certainly warranted. Although Wenger’s recent signings and reluctance to spend has come under scrutiny, he and the club have been let down by some rather questionable performances from their more senior players, most namely club captain Thomas Vermaelen, who has done anything but lead by example this season.
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Rather than questioning Wenger’s organisational and motivational skills however, I find myself pondering the Belgian’s actual abilities. Now that the goals have dried up, Vermaelen has been found wanting on a number of occasions, most importantly in the recent North London derby, where his lack of defensive awareness was duly shown up and criticised by the match-day punditry analysis team. He is certainly one hell of an athlete, being incredibly quick for a defender with excellent springing legs which can make him dominant in the air, but in terms of actual defensive nous – his reading of the game, positioning, marking and ability to tackle- the 27 year old comes up rather short in my opinion.
I have similar views on Bacary Sagna, whom once was believed to be the best right-back in the English top flight, but as injures and age take its toll, the French international appears to be half the player he was a few years ago, which once again only makes me doubt his initial reputation. Wojciech Szczesny is yet another first team regular whose form has been openly criticised, as many of his attempted saves this year have been so woeful they hint at match-fixing, leading to him being dropped due to his apparent mental state for Arsenal’s Champions League clash against Bayern Munich. But should consistent form really be expected of a 22 year old, considering he plays in a position in which even the best goalkeepers do not reach their peak until their late twenties or early thirties?
And thus, we return to the age-old argument surrounding Arsenal – are their players actually good enough? On paper, and without comparison, you’d argue that their first team is incredibly strong, especially in midfield, with Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere all being incredibly gifted on the ball, and similarly Lucas Podolski and Theo Walcott are two of the best wingers in the Premier League. Yet, excluding Cazorla, Wilshere and perhaps Walcott considering his form this season, would any of the Arsenal first team actually make it into the Starting XIs at Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United or Manchester City? And even with the three exceptions, it comes down to personal preference more than it does any particular guarantee based on a proven track record or quality.
Similarly, the Gunners squad depth is practically non-existent this season, with Aaron Ramsey being the predominant candidate to fill in at apparently any position in midfield that has a first-team absentee, from playing on the right wing to being deployed as a defensive midfielder, incapable of making any role his own, whilst Gervinho, Tomaz Rosicky and Andrei Arshavin appear to be spent forces, Abou Diaby remains continually injured, Sebastien Squillaci deservedly doesn’t get a look in, and furthermore, youngsters Francis Coquellin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain haven’t stepped up to the plate this season when called upon.
But perhaps that is why this season could be up there with some of Wenger’s greatest managerial achievements should the Gunners make it into the top four. I am of the opinion that this is the collectively the worst team Arsenal have possessed in a long time, and although I am a firm believer that the problems at the club and the depreciation in first team quality is very much his own doing, should the Frenchman’s stern words manage to generate some form out of his lacklustre stars, Wenger should be praised for his ability to motivate a squad that is all in all, not as good in comparison to the Gunners’ league rivals.
Then again, constantly whipping a slow horse in a bid to make him run faster will only do so much; should the Gunners fail to make it into the top four, it cannot be put down to poor individual performances, and Wenger must take full responsibility. It is him after all, who has been responsible for the signing of every player currently at the club.