Arsenal FC: Who Is Most to Blame for Arsenal's Average Play?
Despite those who would blame Arsene Wenger for Arsenal's performances this season, it is lack of confidence and continuity that is the real culprit.
The Gunners are enduring a tempestuous season, with fate seemingly unwilling to offer them mercy. Their inconsistent form has been created by multiple factors, beginning this summer with the cynical, mercenary defection of Robin van Persie.
It grates this author every time a so-called Arsenal fan chides Wenger for supposedly "allowing" Van Persie to leave. "Allowing?" How any sane person could make this argument simply defies belief.
After all, it was Van Persie who ruthlessly engineered his exit. It was the Dutchman who released a public declaration of his intent to leave, all but forcing the club's hand.
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No matter goals he had scored, how could Arsenal as a club, never mind Wenger, justify keeping him after that? While Van Persie has continued to shine for that one true bastion of cynicism and self-importance in the modern game, Arsenal have been left impotent.
What Van Persie's cavalier defection did was call for the alteration of the whole structure and style of Wenger's squad. Justifiably feeling some pressure after seven trophy-less years, Wenger was reticent to allow more transition and tried to fight this change.
Just as he did when Cesc Fabregas departed in 2011, Wenger persisted in playing a system that was missing its key figure. He desperately tried to identify a striker who could offer what Van Persie did.
At the beginning of the season, this meant experimenting with both Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. When neither could make an instant impact, Gervinho was moved into the middle.
His decline after a promising start eventually let Theo Walcott have his long-awaited audition through the middle. This carousel inevitably led to inconsistency, as Arsenal's attack was missing a natural focal point.
The pressure on Wenger and his new signings has sometimes forced change. It has also meant that no striker has been given a long enough run to establish himself. In an environment where patience is dangerously short, Wenger hasn't found the right combination of players.
It is a pattern reminiscent of the 1999-00 campaign. That season saw Wenger experiment with a 4-3-3 model in an attempt to include combinations of Davor Suker, Nwankwo Kanu, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.
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Just think how many combinations have come and gone in attack for Wenger's squad this season. The Walcott/Podolski/Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain trio was abandoned as quickly as it was assembled once results dipped.
The original attacking trio of Giroud, Podolski and Gervinho showed some early potential, but was never given long enough. The midfield has lacked coherence while Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere switch roles.
In defense, Wenger still seems unsure about who best to partner Thomas Vermaelen. Every time Arsenal have struggled this season, the response has been to alter the structure of the team.
This indecision and revolving cast of characters have robbed Arsenal of the vital continuity any squad needs to consistently compete. The absence of continuity has also allowed shaky confidence to pervade the squad.
The result has been a squad that should have mounted a challenge for the league title after victory at West Ham but has imploded more often than not since. The recent 2-1 defeat at Chelsea provides the perfect illustration.
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Arsenal's brittle confidence was shaken by one of the most repugnant refereeing decisions that has ever blighted the game. That led to Chelsea's opening goal and swiftly prompted a limp surrender from a squad clearly feeling down on its luck.
Yet the second half brought a transformation so complete it was almost frightening. Clearly buoyed by whatever was said and changed at the break, Arsenal tore into Chelsea and played them off the pitch with a display of guts and quality.
So much for the diatribe that Wenger can't or won't light a fire under his players. However, the real question is, why wait so long to start playing? Why don't this squad realise they are every bit capable of winning at Chelsea, or of beating Manchester City?
The answer is because this is a team needing transition, but being denied the acceptance, patience and tolerance that usually goes with it. Increasingly intense fan pressure has become ingrained in the psyche of Wenger and his players.
Whether that pressure is merited or not is immaterial. The savage criticism of players like Giroud and Aaron Ramsey and the calls for Wenger to resign or be beaten with a bag of sticks after every dropped point have created an almost unbearable tension that is personified on the pitch.
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Players have become either too scared to take chances or too nervy to maintain discipline when holding a lead. Inevitably feeling the increased pressure, Wenger has become prone to knee-jerk reactions during the last two years.
However, Wenger must show the patience to find the right mix for his squad. His latest attempt, involving a midfield comprised of four true ball players, is probably the best. This structure must be given time to mature, despite the Chelsea defeat.
Without that time, Arsenal will never get first the continuity and then, by extension, the confidence they need to rescue their season.
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