There are no two ways about it, Arsenal are not the Premier League power they once were.
As with the demise of any great empire, there are a number of contributing factors. The main reason, however, for the Gunners' slow collapse is the club's flawed transfer policy over the last nine seasons. This decade-long collapse is made harder to bear for all Arsenal fans after what the club achieved in the 2003-04 season.
In 2004, Arsenal won the Premier League after going the entire 38-game season unbeaten.
The difference between Arsene Wenger's 2004 side and his 2013 team could not be more pronounced.
The Gunners have been asset-stripped of their best players and have brought in inadequate replacements. Their chief rivals have expanded and improved their scouting networks. And the European football playing pool, which the Gunners had free rein to explore in years gone by, is now almost a small and barren void as far as Arsenal are concerned.
This has culminated in Arsenal's weakest team since before Arsene Wenger came to the club in 1996.
Ask the great man to pick his best team today and he would almost have to scratch his head in wonder.
Certain players are automatic choices.
But this is not down to the fact that they are world-class, far from it. They are merely the best of a bad bunch.
Here, Bleacher Report looks at Arsene Wenger and Arsenal's strongest team
Are any current Arsenal players good enough to play with this lot?
The defence and goalkeeper provide the very foundation needed to succeed, but Arsenal aren't exactly enamoured with world-class talent in the department. Especially when you consider the teams of yester-year.
Wojciech Szczesny, for example, would struggle to earn a place in any Champions League-chasing team based in England. He is, however, the best goalkeeper Wenger has at his disposal by a great margin. Neither Lukasz Fabianski nor Vito Mannone can match Szczesny, for current skill or potential, and should be moved on as soon as possible.
The situation is similar in defence where balance is all-important, but where Arsenal currently have none.
Bacary Sagna is easily the best defender at the club and has the right-back position nailed down, for the moment. Carl Jenkinson is a superb reserve, and given time he may replace the French international, but for now his best place is as Sagna's apprentice.
The problem at left-back is slightly more complicated, but only because Kieran Gibbs is the only viable left-back Wenger has at the club. In time, Jernade Meade may rival Gibbs but that is at least two seasons away for the 20-year-old.
Andre Santos as a potential left-back is not even worth discussing.
With two superb and automatic-choice full-backs to choose from, Wenger's hardest decision defensively is who is to partner club-captain Thomas Vermaelen.
Sebastien Squillaci is a poor player and really should be replaced in the first-team squad by the likes of Daniel Boateng. Squillaci's involvement is holding back Boateng's development while also costing the club an estimated £50,000 per week.
The Frenchman's removal from the equation essentially leaves Wenger with a choice between Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. Neither is the ideal partner for Vermaelen and have differing talents. Both would labour to get into any top-six Premier League team, maybe even top-eight.
Mertesacker lacks pace, struggles to deal with mobile opponents and is a typical German defender in that he is disciplined and deals with simple situations effectively. Koscielny, on the other hand, is more mobile and more adventurous going forward but is extremely indisciplined and plays far too much on instinct to be regarded as a top-class defender.
In this choice Mertesacker seems the obvious pick. However, his inclusion is complicated by what happens further up the pitch. Because Arsenal currently lack players with defensive abilities out wide, the two full-backs are expected to push on.
Mertesacker's extreme lack of pace naturally forces the Arsenal central partnership to play deeper than normal. Add it all together and all of a sudden the Gunners midfield is stretched to breaking point while leaving potential gaps on the flanks due to the full-backs pushing on.
This is the main reason Wenger has so may problems at the back this season and can be perfectly illustrated by the fact that Mertesacker has played 24 times compared to Koscielny's 17 and Vermaelen's 26 matches.
Given the fact that strikers win matches while defenders win leagues, Wenger would be best-suited choosing a back four that consists of Sagna, Gibbs, Mertesacker and Vermaelan with the full-backs being given clear instructions to defend first and attack second.
This would be going against Le Prof's own current attacking philosophy. But, in the 1997-98 season, his first full term in charge, Arsenal won the title. They conceded only 33 goals in the 38 matches by playing with a solid back five of David Seaman, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn in defence.
From 21 games this season, the Gunners have already conceded 24 goals.
Defence is always a manager’s priority, no matter how many good players he has across the rest of the team. Unfortunately, there will always be casualties
Wenger must employ four across the back at Arsenal for two clear reasons.
The first being the style of football employed across the Premier League. The speed and power of the Premier League makes the use of wing-backs and a three-at-the-back system impossible over a 38-game season. The second reason being the type of midfielders and attackers he has to choose from.
The current Arsenal squad does not possess any wide players capable of playing in a traditional 4-4-2 over the course of a season. This immediately brings attention to the fact that most of Wenger's attackers and midfielders are either central-centric or are wide players in the final third only.
This basically forces Le Prof to go with hybrid 4-3-3 formations where the full-backs push on to provide much of the width needed to break teams down at the highest level. This season, Arsenal inadequacies at the back have been magnified by their lack of wide options.
Santi Cazorla, Arsenal's most outstanding creative player, is best positioned as an attacking midfielder in the final third. Push him wide, most naturally to the left, and he becomes isolated, and his effect on the game becomes negligible. Move him to the right and he would become non-existent.
The very same can be said of Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta, the Gunners' two other outstanding midfielders. When these three players are compared to the other players Wenger has for central midfield there is no comparison, even though they all bring different attributes to the table.
Abou Diaby is a big and powerful French international but is as inconsistent as he is injury prone. Since joining the Gunners in 2006 he has only averaged a paltry 14 games per season. On his day he can be brilliant, but all too often he is outplayed and outsmarted.
Aaron Ramsey is the next and only other real option in central midfield for Arsenal. Possessing a good touch and a good engine, Ramsey can be a positive influence on the game. He does, however, make poor decisions on and off the ball and is, at this stage of his career, little more than cover for Wilshere and Arteta.
The other options available to Wenger in midfield are instantly discarded because they are so far behind Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla in terms of quality. Francis Coquelin, Tomas Rosicky and Emmanuel Frimpong have not developed in the way most Arsenal fans or Wenger would have hoped.
They are squad players at best and will remain squad players until they can be moved on.
With Cazorla demanding the central attacking midfield berth ahead of, his only real rival for this position, Andrei Arshavin. Jack Wilshere is an obvious rival for Cazorla. However, he is easily the Gunners' best player and most complete midfielder and should not be pigeon-holed into an advanced position, especially when Cazorla is not as good defensively.
That leaves the wide and centre-forward positions to consider.
For this, Wenger has to consider the disaster zone that is Gervinho, then Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski and the misfiring Olivier Giroud.
As Podolski is the only natural left-sided player of the group, he is instantly elected to the left side of a 4-2-3-1 for balance reasons. This, though, has its own knock-on effect in that the German international is a forward without a shred of defensive duty or positioning to him. In turn, Kieran Gibbs is then placed under more pressure than would normally be expected at left-back.
Choosing Podolski on the left comes with the positive outlook that he can also play as a lone striker if Wenger needs to reshuffle mid-match for tactical reasons. With that in mind, it instantly becomes apparent that Walcott is the best choice for the centre-forward role, while Oxlade-Chamberlain comes in on the right.
Choosing these adaptable England internationals gives Wenger the option of dropping Walcott deep beside Cazorla and behind Podolski who pushes on. Then with Oxlade-Chamberlain or possibly Ramsey dropping deep to line up beside Arteta and Wilshere in a reshuffled christmas-tree formation.
The ability to shift between these two distinctive shapes would give Arsenal the ability to open up lesser teams while compacting midfield and defence against better sides.
Take your pick...
In the long run, Wenger needs to buy a top-class centre-back to partner Vermaelen, and he must be physically powerful and quick to compliment the club captain. The lack of defensive width also causes problems and exposes players in unnatural situations. This, too, must be addressed and quickly.
All too often, Wenger insists upon a player being an Arsenal-style player before he is signed.
In an ideal world and with an ideal team this philosophy is perfect. However, Arsenal are so far from perfect and natural balance that they will never challenge for the Premier League again unless this issue is tackled.
This is the best team Arsene Wenger has to choose from. It basically picks itself because the players are so superior to many of the reserves it is almost beyond belief. The days of Wenger being able to field two teams capable of doing well in the Premier League are long gone.
His first XI will hold their own against most teams but will inevitably fall well short of being considered title contenders. His second XI would probably battle relegation.
Arsenal's season now hinges on their next 12 games.
First up is Chelsea (Away) on Jan. 20, then West Ham (Home) Jan. 23, Brighton (A) Feb. 26, Liverpool (H) Jan. 30, Stoke (H) Feb. 2, Sunderland (A) Feb. 9, Bayern Munich (H) Feb 19, Aston Villa (H) Feb. 23, Tottenham Hotspur (A) Mar. 2, Everton (H) Mar. 9, Bayern Munich (A) Mar. 13, Swansea (A) Mar. 16.
The Gunners’ season will be determined before St. Patrick’s Day on March 17.
Will they have the luck of the Irish and still be contending for a top-four finish and be in the last-eight of the Champions League?
Only time will tell.
One thing is for sure, Arsene Wenger must get his team and tactics perfect if Arsenal are to achieve anything.
Statistics provided by www.soccerbase.com and www.premierleague.com.
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