The Cannons have gone quiet. The confidence has been beaten to a pulp. The enthusiasm amongst the fans distilled. The Arsenal squad at his disposal significantly depleted.
That’s the situation Arsene Wenger finds himself in. In what has been a tumultuous week for the Frenchman, he witnessed his ‘B’ side get knocked out of the FA Cup by Championship opposition and then in midweek torn to shreds by a clinical Bayern Munich side that has all but dumped the Gunners out of the UEFA Champions League as well. Victory over Aston Villa has provided precious respite but the performance was unconvincing.
It has been 16 years since Wenger’s arrival at Arsenal from Monaco and this season is reminiscent of the situation that prevailed when he took over. Arsenal were a club in the dumps under then caretaker manager Stewart Houston.
Arsenal currently lie 5th in the Premier League, still in contention for Champions League football next season, but have been knocked out of the two domestic cup competitions by lower league opponents and are teetering on the brink of a last-16 exit against Bayern in the Champions League.
The club is heading for a 8th successive season without a trophy barring a miracle of some sorts that sees the whole Bayern squad suffer a bout of food poisoning before their return leg in Munich to give the struggling Gunners a walkover through to the next round.
In between the two losses, Wenger lost his cool at a press conference before the Champions League game, going off on a verbal tirade against a journalist. Yes, this season truly has been a frustrating one for Arsenal fans the world over and the pressure looks to be getting to their manager.
5th in the League, one point behind Spurs, to outsiders it would appear to be a decent position for a club that finished third last season. But, if we were to look at some of the stats from this season, one would see how poorly Arsenal have fared.
Arsenal's back-to-back home losses have crippled their season - and they seem to do it every year at this time of the campaign. They have recorded the highest number of home losses this season under Wenger. They lost to lower league opposition for the first time in the club’s cup history under Wenger when they lost on penalties to League Two outfit Bradford City in the League Cup.
To analyse how they’ve fared this season, I believe we need to look at the club’s realistic ambitions before the season. A top four finish in the league, winning one or both of the domestic cups, quarterfinals of the Champions League. Whether Arsenal fans like it or not, the truth is the primary priority these days inside the Arsenal boardroom is Champions League football.
The revenue that comes in by virtue of qualifying for Europe is significant and thus a top 4 finish, not the title, is imperative. Arsenal Football Club continues to be one of the biggest European clubs, but they are no longer amongst the elite. The squad is depleted of quality and the gulf between them and Bayern, who now truly belong to the elite, was evident on Tuesday night. Surely, if Wenger was asked before the season began where he saw his side finish their Champions League campaign; he would have shot ‘Quarterfinals’ right out. And that’s the reality because he knows that Arsenal can no longer compete with the big boys in the Continent.
Which brings us to the domestic cups. Here is where most, if not all the heartburn lies. The FA Cup and the League Cup are two competitions where fans and Wenger himself would have liked to progress to the very end - lifting one if not both titles. The FA Cup as a matter of fact was the last trophy that Arsenal won in 2005 beating Manchester United in the final on penalties. Their exits to lower league opponents will hurt bad and apart from allowing another chance at silverware to go begging, the defeats have badly hit the confidence of the team.
So why do Arsenal and their manager find themselves in this situation? It begins and ends with their squad. Ever since their last trophy, there has been a constant exodus of talent from the club. So much so, that at times they have come to resemble a feeder club for the likes of Manchester City and Barcelona.
When a top player leaves, it is crucial that a suitable replacement is found. That has not happened and as is Wenger’s philosophy, he does not like to buy talent preferring to bring a player through the ranks in-house. Arsenal until a few seasons back had the debt of their new stadium to account for and hence could not apportion much funds to Wenger to bolster the squad. The last three years however, the club has been reporting profits and the directors have sought to reassure the fans that funds are being made available for the manager’s use if he chooses to use it.
That, “if he chooses to use it”, is the key right there. Arsene Wenger believes in developing youth players rather than flashing the cheque book to sign superstars. In fact, it was a disagreement over precisely such a philosophy that led to his exit from Monaco.
Finally, his tactics and strategy of late have been raising more eyebrows than usual; none more so than midweek in the Champions League. Arsenal were very much the underdog going into the game against a superior Bayern side full of confidence. As if the match up weren’t tough enough already, Wenger’s team selection possibly took away whatever little chance they had. He opted for Aaron Ramsey in a 3 man midfield, putting Mikel Arteta in a deeper role and Santi Cazorla out wide. This was a recipe for disaster and the imbalance in the side meant that Arsenal just could not cope with the quality of the Germans’ midfield as the likes of Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez had a field day.
The situation has now reached a point where there exists two groups amongst the Arsenal faithful – one that continues to believe in Wenger because of the history and what he’s done with the club during his tenure, while another is convinced that it is time for him to go as they feel he is not the man equipped to lead them out of this quagmire.
His immediate priority for the season would be getting Arsenal to that 4th spot - that would take care of European aspirations for next season, and satisfy the board and the shareholder’s primary objective. The second is to inject some quality into the squad.
None of the players in the Gunners squad has any experience of lifting a major trophy and as such lack the big match experience. In contrast, the players that have left have collected 46 trophies between them. Players and leaders of the calibre of Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry are needed and Wenger must spend come summer to ease the situation.
Arsene Wenger has run this club for 16 years and he is right when he questions the intentions of journalists and casual observers who seem to be calling for his head.
But, time for him is running out as the ground under his feet is caving in at a rapid pace, and he finds himself in the eye of a storm that is threatening to engulf the Emirates Stadium and leave Arsenal in the doldrums when it comes to future direction and success.
It is up to him to help his team get through the stormy weather and restore the club to its former glory.
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