No matter who you support – the start of the 2011/12 Barclays Premier League season has been eventful. From Wolves’ superb starting form, to the sheer excitement of watching a new-look Liverpool side play the game with a verve and style they have lacked for many years, the fledgling campaign seems to have something for most fans to get excited about. Even new boys Swansea and Norwich City, while both only on two points, have shown an early adaption that suggests good things to come – especially from one of the more impressive signings of the summer, Swan’s keeper Michel Vorm.
Yes, it seems that the early signs show at least some hope to cling on to. That is unless you’re an Arsenal fan. Like the Gunners’ great ‘Invincibles’ side that won so many plaudits, Arsenal’s beginning has seen them break records. Unfortunately for Wenger’s side, and in a depressing contrast to that wonderful campaign, these records include the worst start to a campaign in decades, the first time the Reds have failed to score in either of their opening games in over ten years and, after Sunday’s bewildering defeat to Manchester United, the worst result the club has suffered in 115 years. Most of the early season talk, aside from those waxing lyrical over Manchesters United and City, has been about the extraordinary plight of Arsenal, in a campaign which has seen the club lose two of their greatest players, end 3 consecutive matches with ten men and ship ten goals in two games. I feel, after the sheer amount of analysing and re-analysing our beginning to the season to anyone who’ll listen, the time has come to get all my thoughts down in one place. At least this way, like a love-struck sufferer of a horrendously failing relationship, I might feel a little bit less empty.
For a start, things could be worse. Yes, shocking but true. Ultimately, although we have had a terrible start we have had some things go our way. Most importantly, after an impressive performance in Udine, Arsenal qualified for the Champions League group stage. If Arsenal had lost in Italy as well, then who knows how much pressure Wenger would be under now. The performance was enough to give some hope, despite the fact that the fleeting satisfaction was destroyed so mercilessly by United on Sunday. It was a performance of real quality – Song, Gervinho and Frimpong all impressive. Walcott took his chance well. Rosicky came from the bench to find some dedication and passion from somewhere. All this, and I haven’t even mentioned thatpenalty save by the impressive Szczesny.
Then came Sunday. Bloody sunday. There are almost too many issues to mention, but like everyone who witnessed what occured i’ll have an attempt. As Sir Alex Ferguson’s youthful United side (it has been widely pointed out that the average age of the United starting XI was younger than Arsenal’s) ran rings around Wenger’s, Arsenal fans were subjected to a display to demonstrate the gaping chasm between the two teams in the most brutal fashion. Put simply, there is no comparison between the two, who for years have provided tense, tight football matches that have gone down as some of the best in the Premier League’s two decades. The gap between Manchester United and Arsenal is bigger now, I would argue, than it has ever been under Arsene Wenger; the strength in depth of United is completely polar opposite to the skeletal Gunners, who barely had enough players to field a full team on Sunday let alone one to compete with the Champions. Most importantly, the quality of the full-strength first teams perfectly illustrates the difference between the two. The vast majority of Manchester United’s first eleven would walk in to Arsenal’s side, while I believe you could count on one hand the Arsenal players who could do the opposite.
With such a thread-bare squad, it is baffling that Arsenal approached Sunday’s game with the same system they always do. It has long been said that we are only capable of playing one way, and Sunday was one of the best illustrations of the accuracy of that statement. Frankly, for Wenger to send out his team set up as it was, there was only ever going to be one result. The approach was completely ridiculous, and led to the lowest-quality Arsenal performance I have ever witness in my 14 years as a fan – the midfield trio of Rosicky, Ramsey and Coquelin offering nothing at all; not enough attacking flair to get anything close to penetration, and massively short of the kind of defensive capabilities a side needs to avoid such an embarrassing defeat against United. Andrei Arshavin is famously reluctant to get back and help his full back – a reputation he more than justified with a poor display. Theo Walcott must have felt like he was pushing treacle up a hill, and while he received some assistance from the hard-working Jenkinson, the winger was never able to produce anything more than a sub-standard display. Once again away from home, Van Persie was scarily isolated and consequently unable to do much else than make ill-fated runs in an attempt to create something, anything.
With his poor tactical preparation a given, one of the most frustrating aspects of the performance against United for Arsene Wenger must be the performance given by his more experienced players. Djourou’s defending for the vital first goal was ludicrous, Rosicky gave the ball away time and time again in vital areas, while Van Persie’s crucial penalty miss is, although perhaps unlucky, a poor error. Between them, these three have accumulated enough experience, international caps and Premier League minutes to do better. Given the pressures of the atmosphere and the context of the game, it is more understandable to see such errors from Jenkinson, Coquelin or the inexperienced Traore. To see them from the elder heads is incredibly frustrating.
Unsurprisingly for such a landmark defeat, there were questions after the game over Wenger’s future as Arsenal manager. The question was quickly dismissed by the Frenchman, although the pertinence remains. Personally, I believe it would be a mistake for Wenger to leave now. While I don’t think he’ll ever be sacked, it would be a shame to see the club’s greatest ever manager resign after the poor beginning his side has suffered. While he has been found wanting tactically, and obvious questions remain over his transfer dealings, I doubt there is any other coach who would do better in the current climate. I don’t however, want to miss the opportunity to air my main criticisms of a manager who I have always defended vehemently, so often reminding others that ‘Arsene knows’. While i’ve not quite lost my faith, i’ll try and establish the niggling doubts that have crept in over the beginning of the season.
My main frustration, like most Arsenal fans’, is the apparent ineptitude in the transfer market. In a simple comparison of the players the club has seen depart to those that have come in, the results are quite worrying for the future of the club this campaign. While, of course, Fabregas and Nasri have both left without adequate replacement, we have also lost Clichy, Eboue and Denilson, while Bendtner and Almunia have been apparently imminent departures since July. While Jenkinson has been recruited, I fully believe that Wenger’s intention was not to play him straight away. Since Eboue’s departure and Gibbs’ persistent injury, however, he has started all four games so far. While Denilson was by no means my favourite player during his time at the Emirates, how we miss even a player of his stature now. When the manager is including players such as Lansbury, Coquelin, Ozyakup and Miquel, there is clearly room for an experienced first team player such as Denilson or Eboue in the squad.
Wenger’s recruitment has been poor this season, there can be little argument. While the professor has repeated his mantra ‘quality over quantity’, while reiterating that he is ‘not scared’ to spend money, Chelsea have signed Juan Manuel Mata, Liverpool Jose Enrique, Manchester United Ashley Young. All of those players would have been easily affordable for us, and indisputably would have added something to the squad. Why, then, is there not even an attempt from the club to land such talent? Another case in point is battling midfielder Scott Parker, who is apparently Tottenham-bound for the measley sum of around £7m. Why has Wenger not got involved? The biggest mistake the club has made in terms of transfers must be how long they have taken to do anything. Now, with two days left to secure the three players that Wenger has only just revealed he is desperate to capture, the only thing Arsenal have achieved is to push up the price of every player they bid for. Why would Bolton chairman Phil Gartside do anything but ask for £5m more than he would have done a month ago, at least? It is unfortunately symptomatic of the naivety that has hindered Arsenal’s progress for a few years.
The worst it is going to get for Arsenal FC is a 6th or 7th placed finish, with the latter being nearly unthinkable. In order to sustain our wonderful record of consistent Champions League football, change must come to the Emirates. Not a change of manager, but a change of attitude, policy and awareness. The time has come not for Wenger to step down, but to wake up and face the reality of what his beloved club is becoming. The manager must realise that, especially in terms of transfers, the one thing worse than rushing in to change system, or recruit players, would be inaction. If something isn’t done, then it will certainly be a long, long season.