Why Arsenal Are Chasing the Pack in the Dash for Top-4 Finish

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Why Arsenal Are Chasing the Pack in the Dash for Top-4 Finish
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Arsenal fans are rallying together to cheer their team on in the final dash for top-four finish.

The expression "Come on You Gunners" is often on their lips, and for those who are geographically situated in North London, this isn't merely sport fanaticism  (which by the way is normal within reasonable parameters), but a matter of old-fashioned tribal rivalry.

As we know, football (and sport in generally) has as much to do with community as anything else: Cue the Olympics, for example, and the pride they brought to the British people last year. But even for those who are not so lucky to live in London, pride, still, is at stake.

All Gooners want to believe that despite the problems, the Gunners still have it in them. Accordingly, they want to put aside the apparent internal problems and pull together in the interest of success—whatever of it there still is left to be had. 

Although this passion from Gooners is welcome, a big "if" lurks underneath all of this. Given the fact that Arsenal faced a similar problem last year, one would have expected better this time.

After all, are we not supposed to learn from our mistakes? And are we not taught that experience makes us wiser? 

The fact that Arsenal's season has followed a similar trajectory as last year's testifies rather unfavorably to the fact that the club did not learn any lessons from last season, the reason why the fans are once again subjected to a situation where they are hoping against hope.

Julian Finney/Getty Images
Gooners continue to cheer and hope.

But what are the lessons that the club refused to learn from last season?

First of all, you cannot hope to achieve anything very tangible if at the beginning of the season you are scrambling to build a new team. This singular fact has undermined Arsenal's quest for silverware in the last seven years, a period within which Arsene Wenger has had to rebuild the team at least three times.

First, there was the big rebuilding after the disbandment of the Invincibles, a great deal of which had to do with moving to a new ground and finding ways to live within modest means.

This project—the focus on youth and building within rather than buying big-name stars—would ultimately collapse due to the Manchester City factor. Within a few years, City would lure away a number of Arsenal players on the promise of better wages. Out went Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy and one may add Kolo Toure to the list.

And what's more, Cesc Fabregas, around whom the new rebuilding project had centered, got homesick and left for his home country, and Just like that, the team’s big potential had dissipated like mist.

The loss of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri on the eve of last season dealt a severe blow at once to the Arsenal project, to Wenger's hope and aspiration and to Arsenal's chances for silverware. The 8-2 mauling at Manchester United, the 4-3 loss at Blackburn Rovers and the 2-1 loss at Tottenham Hotspur were just a few of the immediate symptoms of the problem.

If ever a man was undercut, what happened to Wenger last year in the loss of these players is a prime example.

This massive setback constrained Wenger to rush into the transfer market to make last-minute purchases (the delay in buying players was largely Wenger's) and to build a new team on the fly. The fact that he succeeded in guiding the team to a third-place finish is a massive achievement, something his detractors have failed to appreciate.

This was the second rebuilding project—the heart of the midfield, having been torn out, needed to be replaced. This, unfortunately, happened in the middle of the campaign, severely hampering Arsenal's chances at a trophy.

The fact that Arsenal had experienced this problem would tempt one into thinking that the club would struggle hard to avoid a repeat of the same problem in successive seasons.

Alas, this wouldn't be the case.

As though to give the impression they had enjoyed the traumatic experience of the season before, Arsenal sold the next two of their most important players, Robin Van Persie and Alex Song, prompting a new rebuilding project on the fly.

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Robin Van Persie's discontent unbalanced Arsenal.

While most objective persons might be reluctant to blame Arsenal for the loss of Van Persie, the sale of Alex Song, a player they had groomed for about six years, a player who was just then coming into form and a player who contributed the most (barring Van Persie's outstanding season) to enable the third-place finish was inexplicable.

Arsenal are yet to recover from this blunder.

Many of Arsenal's problems this season have stemmed from imbalance in the midfield caused in part by the loss of Song, a loss that still makes my bile rise. I see this as symptomatic of Arsenal's lack of a balanced approach to their financial and footballing projects. You do not spend huge resources in grooming a player, only to lose him so feebly.

If there are disciplinary problems, then sort them out rather than hand over one of your best players on the cheap, a player you've brought up to understand the way you play.

It is as though Barcelona were to sell Xavi Hernandez or Andre Iniesta at the first sign of discontent. These players were (and have been) groomed in the Barcelona way and while Barcelona might get replacements for the Eto'os, the Ibrahimovichs or the Henrys, it is very difficult to find replacements for players that have painstakingly been brought up to play a certain way.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Losing important players in recent seasons has cost Arsenal dearly.

When the Van Persie saga was at its height, it was my opinion that Arsenal should not sell. My rationale was that were he to rekindle the goal-scoring form that had brought him to sudden prominence, this would only aid Arsenal, probably help them to a trophy, a reward that would more than make up for losing him for free.

I also reasoned that Van Persie's chances of securing a good move after the current season would be incumbent upon his rekindling that form. As such, I thought that he would have no choice than to give his all to the club.

Now imagine that Van Persie had been required to stay and fulfill the terms of his contract, and imagine that the goals he has scored for Manchester United and the points he has earned for them have been for Arsenal. Where would the team be right now on the Premiership table?

Most pundits think that without Van Persie's goal for United and the points these have brought to the team, United would nowhere be near where they are right now on the table.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
A star player can be the difference for a team.

By keeping him, Arsenal would have been making a different sort of bargain; certainly a bargain that would have made their season easier, and probably a bargain that might have ended their trophy drought.

Another example is Gareth Bale, who has played the Van Persie role for Spurs. Subtract his goals and the points they have earned and Spurs would be languishing beneath Arsenal.

The point is that star players matter. Constraining Van Persie to stay and leaving for free afterward might probably have been worth it in the end. Now even though the club got the liquid cash, they might end up losing much more in the end if they fail to make top-four.

And even if they make top-four, they still would be losing out on some solid cash. The higher you finish on the Premiership table, the more money you get, and, of course, the more prestige you retain, which gives you more bargaining power in the publicity market.

Again, lack of such calculation and the tendency to look only at the immediate cash are major reasons why Arsenal are in the bind they are right now.

Other factors, such as not having a consistent back line (compare this Manchester United) and senior players in the squad (again compare this to United and even Chelsea), have cost Arsenal dearly in recent seasons.

Age matters in football, but it isn't just young age.

People above 30 bring a different sort of balance to a team. Imagine Chelsea last year without the likes of Didier Drogba, John Terry, Frank Lampard and even Solomon Kalou. Would they have salvaged their season the way they did, managing to win a double in one of their supposedly worst seasons?

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Not retaining senior players hasn't helped Arsenal either.

I doubt they would.

To summarize: An eye on liquid cash has led Arsenal into the current situation.

Additionally, lack of consistency in terms of retaining a few senior players in the squad, especially in defense and the midfield, hasn't help Arsenal's cause at all. And constant rebuilding has become a frustrating fact at Arsenal, a fact that has resulted in the return of last season's problem.

Now, only too eager to get rid of Bacary Sagna (as the signs seem to indicate) means Arsenal will continue their tradition of getting rid of experienced players, thereby ensuring that lack of continuity will remain a factor that undermines the team.

And I don't have to be cynical to know that come summer, Arsenal will suddenly find that there's no "quality" out there to sign.

I remain a Wenger fan, and I think the move to the Stadium has done the club a world of good; I also understand that this factor has contributed to the club's trophy drought.

This said, I expect a tangible change in the coming season. Without this, next season will only be a repeat of the current one, where frustration will build on frustration.

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