So here we are, nearing the end of another season which has careened from the sublime to the ridiculous. A season where Arsenal has flattered to deceive, and deceive it has for most parts. Sadly, we are only in March, and it will be another season without a trophy.
Frustration has been rife for most part of the season, and a large part of it has been directed towards Wenger, a manager who historically has had loyal support from the fans.
It all boils down to two basic questions at this juncture: How did we get here, and where do we go from here.
Much has been written on the first question, and I will only touch upon it by mentioning two anecdotes which for me are prime examples of Arsenal’s decline.
The first one is that rather infamous tirade Patrick Viera threw at Wenger in the summer of 2001 (http://www.arsenal-mad.co.uk/news/tmnw/vieira_fires_major_gunners_salvo_11449/index.shtml), comparing Wenger’s dealings to shopping at Harrod’s. Funnily enough, Patrick wanted to leave because he wanted to win the Champions League, not just any trophy and claimed that the team at the time (including Henry and Wiltord) was not even going to finish fourth. We know how that ended.
But back then, our team comprised of world class players who could walk into any team. We were formidable, and yes, we weren’t perfect; we had our share of bad luck and Achilles heals, but yet we’d fight and win more often than not.
The second anecdote is a recent conversation with a friend. During the early part of the season when we were struggling (heck, we still are) he put to me that Arsenal no longer has world class players in the same vein as a Suarez, RVP, Ronaldo etc. He was referring to players who could change games. My immediate reaction was to deny it, but then he asked me to name our players who could do that for us and that’s where the conversation floundered.
We used to have RVP, and he’s truly world class. But currently, who else can be classified as a game changer? Cazorla? Podolski? Varmaelen? Wilshere? Walcott? How many of these players can you rely to change games? How many of these would fit into a European ‘big’ team? How many of these players have actually changed BIG games for us this season?
At the time, when I was having that conversation with my friend (incidentally a Man U fan, which doesn’t really help)I had picked Cazorla and Poldi. After all both had world class pedigrees and Cazorla was having a good spell. Wilshire was injured at the time. Interestingly my friend suggested Arsharvin, and I had to agree. Unfortunately Arsharvin despite being world class, never quite worked for us.
If I were to have a go again today at the same question, I’d only pick Wilshere. He’s the only big-game changer that we have. He’s the only one who can be relied upon to have a full go in a big game.
The rest? They may be fantastic players with fantastic pedigrees, but they haven’t shown consistency or been big game changers. Poldi, Cazorla and Arteta have popped up to score crucial match winning goals (3 each) for us this season, but there’s still something missing (incidentally, RVP has got 5, while Bale has got 6 winning goals). Cazorla looks brilliant, but quite often struggles to impact games against big opposition. Walcott can be fabulous, but has also struggled in games where you’d think he’d assert himself. In fact the last big performance (in an important match) from him was that 5-2 vs Spurs last season. Verm I adore, but something’s gone wrong. He’s not a bad defender, but he’s having a crisis of confidence for sure.
So… we have moved from a team with world class players who wanted to win the Champions League, to a team of good players who want to win ANY trophy. Perhaps it has to do with some bad buys (Squillaci, Park)… perhaps it has to do with players with potential not returning Wenger’s trust as much as they should (Arsharvin, Poldi, Verm, Cazorla, Walcott, Gervinho, Diaby), perhaps it’s just a transitional season where we are still discovering our best system with the players still trying to gel with each other, or perhaps it’s because Wenger buys all round players and plays them in THE system, rather than in their best positions leading to their potential loss in form (Arsharvin, Ramsey, even Cazorla to a certain extent). Whatever the reason, and I’d say it’s probably a bit of all of the above plus more, we are where we are.
We are no longer a formidable European team with a fortress for a home. We are at best a good mercurial team, a top 6 team.
So where do we go from here?
In the longer term, I think it’s important for us to take stock and count our blessings. We finally have a team that’s likely to stay together for a couple of seasons at least. We have a good solid core group of midfielders, even if we lack in defense and attack. We have Wilshere, arguably one of the best of his generation (touch wood). We have Cazorla, Giroud, Poldi and Walcott, who hopefully will have gotten to know each other better and also improve individually as the new season arrives. We have good support staff in Ramsey, Gibbs and to a certain extent Gervinho. We have potentially good defenders (even if most of them are out of form) and for the first time in two seasons, we have the makings of a squad.
To transform this into a great squad, dead wood would have to be let go, and possibly three new players brought in: a world class striker (Villa perhaps), a world class goal keeper and world class central defender. I would certainly like for us to keep the Verm, he may be struggling, but to me he embodies the Arsenal spirit. I would be sad to see him go.
So we are in relatively good shape if the right additions are made, to be able to launch a campaign in which we can realistically hope for a trophy, if not the premiership.
In the shorter term, we need to keep faith in Wenger and in what he’s doing. He has been unlucky at times and he has made rather odd decisions at other times, but I have complete faith in the fact that he lives for Arsenal and believes in us returning to glory. At the same time, I’d be surprised if a new manager can come in and help us to win titles, while simultaneously retaining our football philosophy. Pep would have been one, but he’s off to Bayern, against whom we had an almost massive night in the second leg. It was a performance of grit, character and solid defense, and it makes me proud to be a supporter of this club. If only we had let in one goal less in the first leg!
Most importantly in the short term, we have to capitalize on Spurs’ dropped points by winning our next game at Swansea, which will not be an easy one, but This 2-0 away win vs. Munich with a side lacking in Wilshere and Poldi should give the team immense confidence, belief and faith that we’ll be able to get through to the EPL top four.
Wilshere is likely to be missing for Swansea as well so the onus will be on the other players to step up their game. I’d really like to see Diaby get back into some solid form, for Walcott and Giroud to score goals, for Cazorla and Poldi to pull strings from midfield and finally for our defense to return to saner footing.
Our club crest says it best, Victory through Harmony, and we need to regain our internal and external harmony, as players and fans both, in order to meet our short term and long terms objectives.
Written by: Umair Naeem.
Umair Naeem is a Karachi-based writer and the author of the novel Drowning Shadows, a spiritual thriller set in Karachi that revolves around man’s inherent desire for control.
He is currently balancing his time working on his second novel all the while rooting for Arsenal to return to glory!