Otherwise, how does one explain Arsenal's lucky escape on Sunday when both Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur squandered their chances to dump Arsenal out of Champions League position on the table, having squandered its own chances on Saturday to seal third place on the table for good?
History of Underachievement and Mediocrity
After a jaded performance at the San Siro in Milan, an event that turns a lot of its fans against it, Arsenal, the team, realized a wake-up call was in order.
It prompted them to apply themselves in the most serious of manners, and this yielded impressive dividends—5-3 defeat of Spurs, 2-1 victory away at Liverpool, 3-0 revenge over AC Milan at the Emirates, 2-1 defeat of Newcastle, 1-0 victory away at Everton and 3-0 defeat of Aston Villa.
If the defeat at QPR was rather disappointing and surprising, a return to winning ways against Manchester City through a lone goal and a 3-0 victory at Wolves suggested that that lost was a blip—a fluke. But no sooner had this been uttered by staunch supporters of the team than the team's wonted inertia set it.
The long trophy-less seven years have not been so much a result of lack of potential to clinch a title or two—after all the team has been to three finals in that period—as they have been a product from a penchant to collapse when it mattered must.
This season, one thought things would be different. The team seemed to show a newfound resilience that apparently belied the clichéd mental fragility, which has become a salient part of the narrative about Arsenal.
Lack of concentration in the early part of the match against Wigan Athletic meant Arsenal squandered the opportunity to advance their cause on the table.
Things became only worse against a disjointed and an unambitious Chelsea side whose only saving grace was in the fact that they played a team equally as disjointed and unambitious. The performance at Stoke City, while surely an improvement on the one against Chelsea, was hardly anything one would write the figurative home about.
Then came the most exasperating performance in this series—the draw against Norwich on Saturday in the final match of the season, an indifferent a performance as one can find anywhere, calculated, it seemed, to answer the defeat to Aston Villa last season when Arsenal lost its final home game in the most disappointing of fashions.
Darren Bent's two goals at the Emirates for Aston Villa sank Arsenal last season.
West Brom the Heartbreaker
In the light of all this, should the reader blame me if I say I'm hardly inspired to say Arsenal will clinch third place even when the odds have favored the team in the last six weeks? What part of this narrative indicates that Arsenal will win their final game against West Brom?
After the draw on Saturday—which as far as I'm concerned was a loss—I had the strange feeling that if by any chance Arsenal are given a lifeline the next day via disappointing results by Newcastle and Spurs themselves, then Arsenal would win at West Brom.
As I write this, I do not think this will happen. The team we saw against Chelsea and against Norwich City is a team without zeal, ambition or confidence. It isn't the kind of team one wants to put his or her money on.
Third place this season will be down to the ineptitude of Spurs.
A word about criticism: That there's potential in this team is without doubt. It is why I refuse to resort to mindless condemnation, despite this account of the team's recent disappointing run.
An examination of this kind is different from name-calling; it rejects unreasonable calls for the sack of the manager, which many resort to in situations like this, as though sacking managers is always the answer to footballing problems.
I now turn to the five things Wenger must do to turn things around.
1. Use the Stick More
Wenger's reaction to the disappointing lost at AC Milan became public. The Guardian reported the following at the time:
Arsène Wenger unleashed a tirade at his Arsenal players on Thursday which startled some of them in its severity, as he sought to refocus minds following the club's Champions League humiliation at Milan.
The manager bolted shut the doors of the dressing room at the training ground before the squad's warm-down session to turn the air blue. Having repeatedly employed the carrot, this represented the use of a large stick and the players could not remember seeing him so incensed.
I have little doubt that this was what jolted the team into action, resulting in the series of impressive wins recounted above.
Is Wenger too tolerant with the players? Is that what informs their nonchalant attitude at moments unfavorable for such an attitude?
I don't have good answers for these questions, which can only be answered satisfactory by a person with an inside access to the team. What I know from reports is that Wenger is no weakling; he can be quite firm about playing opportunity or lack thereof with player with whom he no longer trusts.
My opinion would be that he needs to wield the stick more, especially in the light of the following point.
Arsenal looking perplexed after conceding to West Brom at the Emirates last season. Julian Finney/Getty Images.
2. Be Conservative with Rewards
In the face of it, there's little wrong, if at all, with the following:
"Arsene Wenger is a coach who really understands his players. In the most hectic of times, he gives us days off. We really love that. He knows when we need a rest.”
It is a statement by Thomas Vermaelen in an interview in which he lauded Wenger's virtues as a manager.
When Arsenal were dumped out of the Champions League, having already been knocked out of the FA Cup by Sunderland, a near consensus among Gooners was that, well, now the team can get the needed rest and concentrate solely on the League. Many felt less matches was, in fact, an advantage.
The opposite has happened.
When Arsenal played Chelsea, they played a team so swamped with fixtures that it has to rotate almost the entire team to face Arsenal, and the fact that Arsenal had had a week break between its own fixtures was hardly evident in this match. The same was true against Wigan.
If Chelsea can finish the season strongly despite its glut of fixtures, what complaint has Arsenal who has had sufficient rests between fixtures?
I suspect a lax attitude in the camp and at training, an attitude that translates into matches. I put this down to Wenger's tolerant mindset, which normally would be laudable. But since it doesn't inspire commitment from the players, it may be time for him to change that mindset.
The players clearly don't deserve the extra rest since they don't repay the manager for this kindness.
3. Be More Mindful of the Present
I have never known a manager so loyal to his players. He shows immense trust and has shown incredible loyalty towards me.
I was sidelined for a long time with two nasty injuries. But it was under the orders of the manager that the board gave me a new contract until 2015. I can’t describe the joy that gave me.
These are the words of Thomas Vermaelen in the same interview referenced above. Wenger's fierce loyalty to players is in itself a virtue that should be lauded, but at the same time, it can be detrimental to his own goals and Arsenal's.
His patience is the reason Van Persie has remained at Arsenal, and the rewards Arsenal has reaped from it means few can fault this mindset.
The question that intrudes on this is whether this loyalty yields like loyalty from the players.
If it did, then there wouldn't be any question about Robin van Persie remaining at Arsenal. Again if it did, Samir Nasri would still be an Arsenal player.
This lack of like loyalty has been the lacuna in Wenger's attempt to build for the future—a plan that went up in flames last season when two of Arsenal's most promising players left the club for one reason or the other.
The danger of looking ahead is the obvious disadvantage this becomes for the present. For example, being optimistic means that Wenger might not buy any more midfielders because, of course, Abou Diaby and Wilshere will return from injury and Aaron Ramsey will recover his form.
I understand the reasoning, but the fact is, none can guarantee the fitness of either of these three next season, and although there's no guarantee that a new signing will settle down either, in the interest of the now, it'd behoove Wenger to think of buying a solid cover for this section of the team.
Thinking of what could be instead of what the reality really is right now is Wenger's major fault, even if at the same time it's one of his strengths.
The idea that any more purchases must be incumbent on whether the likes of Nicklas Bendtner and Carlos Vela secure moves or not appeals to common sense, but it may just as well guarantee that things will remain as they've been in the last seven years.
Wenger needs to think more of the now than of what will be. Right now, the team is not ready to win anything next season. It's short of three more solid signings.
Beside this, Wenger should not jeopardize the team's chances at winning titles by continuing to utilize inferior options such as players that are clearly out of form.
They can be retained and helped to recover their form, but to make them part of the team's nucleus, only invites results such as the ones that have befallen the team lately.
Still on this, being mindful of the now, means not leaving players on until the 60th minute when their presence on the pitch is more detrimental than helpful.
Arsenal played significantly better when the ineffective Aaron Ramsey was subbed and when Marouane Chamakh came on.
Aaron Ramsey was ineffective against Norwich City. Bryn Lennon/Getty Images.
4. Address the Leadership Problem
A major problem in the disappointing draw with Norwich City was the lack of leadership on the pitch. Everyone was leaving the chasing and the second ball to everyone else.
It also appears that players are so close in seniority that no one has the guts to shout at another person. The era of Patrick Vieira is clearly long gone.
Someone observed how Wenger was going mad on the sideline, screaming for the players to get back and remain in shape. This isn't necessary if there's leadership on the pitch. Leadership isn't necessarily the captain of the team.
It means having players experienced enough to know when the team needs to attack and when it needs to defend—players experienced enough to spur others into disciplined performance, into resilience. Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard are these kinds of players, and neither is the captain of his team.
It is for this very reason I have advocated the purchase of an experienced player or two this summer. These are the kinds of players who help you win matches in the difficult circumstances.
Someone observed that Arsenal players were more interested in celebrating their goals than in winning the match against Norwich. Bryn Lennon/Getty Images.
5. Be Brave and Ruthless
The 3-0 scintillating victory over a strong AC Milan side was a result of an approach informed by the fact that there was nothing to lose going into this match. What was to be lost was already lost; what remained was either to lie down and be humiliated more or try to redeem some of your pride.
Arsenal chose the latter.
And even with a decimated squad, Wenger rang the necessary changes, displaying remarkable bravery in doing so.
It paid off.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was played in the middle and did not disappoint. In the light of this, one wonders why Wenger persists in playing Ramsey in the middle when he's clearly burnt out.
Lack of appropriate personnel for particular matches would suggest a change of formation. For example, against Manchester City in the Carling Cup, Wenger played a 4-4-1-1 formation, using the double pivot of Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin in the middle. It worked.
Why then does Wenger not ring such changes when situations call for it? I put it down to fear of losing. But this fear does not stop Arsenal from losing anyway.
In a midfield where the only reliable box-to-box is out, why not revert to a formation that requires the use of just two midfielders and play the 4-4-1-1 formation with two strikers up front, with one of them dropping deeper (Van Persie presumably)?
Ruthlessness means making substitution promptly and benching disappointing players while giving others the chance to prove themselves. Isn't this what happened in the case of Oxlade-Chamberlain? Why persist with Ramsey, for example, when you easily could give Chamakh and Park Chu-Young the chance to prove themselves?
I understand Wenger's conservatism. What I recommend is the opposite of this from time to time.
I believe trust in certain players breeds complacency. Few will argue that Yossi Benayoun and Oxlade-Chamberlain may have pushed both Theo Walcott and Gervinho to work harder, or the early lack of opportunity pushed the former pair to work harder themselves.
The fact that he cannot be guaranteed a start in the team might just be the jolt Ramsey needs to recover his form. At the same time, the knowledge that they could get their opportunity in any match could be the extra incentive players like Chamakh and Park need.
Seeing as I possess no prophetic afflatus, I can’t say for sure that Arsenal will secure third place or that they will not. Recent signs from the team itself mean either of the two results could happen.
The fact that Spurs and Newcastle haven't taken any of the chances Arsenal has given them to claim the Champions League spots for themselves is simply an indication that the odds or the gods are in Arsenal's favor.
Arsenal, however, have been intent on squandering this chance. Do not be surprise if they try to do the same against West Brom. Besides, don't count on West Brom to give Arsenal that kind of chance.
And since, a draw isn't going to be enough for Arsenal to secure automatic qualification for next season's Champions League, Gooners’ best bet is to settle for fourth and pray vehemently that Chelsea don't pull off an upset against Bayern Munich in this season's Champion League final on May 19.
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