Arsenal are becoming a very hard team to fathom. After a roaring start to the season, going 15 games unbeaten and top of the league, it could turn out to be another dud. At the start of the campaign many had tipped them to slide beneath the Champions League places and no one expected a title surge from Arsene Wenger’s men, except the Frenchman himself perhaps.
Since taking over the club over a decade ago, Wenger has rebranded Arsenal as a free flowing, attacking team. Appealing to the eye and scoring for fun, watching the Gunners is sometimes close to viewing a leather booted ballet. The vestiges of their unbeaten season of 2004 are now all but disappeared within their personnel, having only 3 players from that team in their current squad but the classy style in which they played has transferred itself to the new breed.
Since that title winning season the silverware has dried up. A Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in 2006 is their only notable achievement. In that same season their Champions League status was almost relinquished to their North London rivals Tottenham but they scrambled into fourth spot on the last day of the season. A new stadium, the loss of Thierry Henry - their talisman for so many years -and investment in youth and athleticism has given the club a new look but still success has eluded them, despite the verve and zeal of their play remaining.
When they started the season at a canter, the belief within Wenger’s young squad seemed to over flow. Emmanuel Adebayor, who previously had been much maligned for his inconsistency in front of goal, topped the scoring charts, followed closely by Robin Van Persie. Despite a minor set back, an away defeat to Middlesbrough that ended their unblemished start to the campaign, the run up to Christmas left few believing that they couldn’t win the title.
The 5-1 hammering at the hands of Spurs in the Carling Cup semi final, will have knocked some confidence out the players - despite the competition being a low priority for the Gunners - and was followed soon after by a 4-0 loss to Manchester United in the FA Cup. They then suffered a terrible blow to morale. Just a few days after a credible draw at the Emirates against AC Milan in the Champions League and a week after their mauling away to United, Croatian striker Eduardo suffered a horrific broken leg in a game against Birmingham. With players visibly shaken it was a surprise to some that they could continue and fight back to a 2-1 lead after going behind. In the final minute of the game, a clumsy challenge from Gael Clichy handed the midlanders a penalty which James McFadden duly dispatched. Robbed of three vital points and losing a key player was too much to take for their captain William Gallas, who spent 10 minutes after the final whistle sat on his own on the St Andrews turf refusing to move.
The draw began of a run that saw them claim only 4 points in five games, and slip behind United and Chelsea in the title running. In the middle of this league malaise, a monumental display against Milan in the second leg at the San Siro saw Wenger’s men claim a 2-0 win and a place in the quarter finals of the Champions League. The potential achievement of a League and European Cup double was still very much alive to Arsenal and with the ability of the side; a late push in the league and cup was not out of the question. This was certainly evident in their comeback against Bolton. 2-0 down and with only ten men, the Gunners fought back and claimed a victory, which had seemed unlikely.
A treble header against Liverpool – two Champions League games and a Premiership clash – began with two 1-1 draws and saw Arsenal, for much of the first leg, and the league encounter, dominating possession and creating chances. A theme indicative of Arsenal of late is their lack of thrust in the final third that should come from the amount of possession they enjoy.
Injuries have played their part of course and their squad has been pushed to its limits. Wenger’s unwillingness to splash the cash and to pick up unknown quantities has meant many, though talented, are too young and untried. With the new stadium came a drying out of the coffers and moves to increase the size of the squad were not able to be made. The amount of cash that Chelsea and United have at their disposal has seen them swell their ranks with good quality and has accounted for their ability to stay the distance in the league.
Tuesday's game at Liverpool in the second leg was really the defining moment for their season that had promised so much. Early domination, superb passing and a well worked Abou Diaby goal was then followed by some poor set piece defending and an equaliser from Sammi Hyypia. When Fernando Torres took the lead, Wenger’s response to bring on Theo Walcott and Robin Van Persie brought immediate results with the young Englishman creating an equaliser with a storming run.
With only 7 minutes to hold on to an away goal advantage Arsenal again failed to react when it mattered. Much of the season has seen them play without a real leader on the field. Gallas, the captain has had patchy performances but his outbursts on and off the pitch have left questions over his temperament. Midfileder Cesc Fabregas is their most important player but is not yet a leader and despite another good display, Mathieu Flamini’s early departure through injury, left a lot for him to do and looking for leadership in the middle of the park when it was needed was asking too much of the young Spaniard.
Liverpool surged up the field from the restart and newly introduced Ryan Babel burst into the box and was felled by Kolo Toure - one of few experienced heads on the pitch and the only remaining first teamer from their unbeaten season. Gerrard’s penalty conversion left Arsenal with just five minutes to save their season but again it was Liverpool who strode forward to kill the tie with a fourth goal - showing all their own experience and belief.
With an away trip to Manchester United to come and a six point deficit to make up, Arsenal’s season is essentially over and empty of silverware again. While they still play the most attractive style of football in the Premier League, and perhaps in Europe, they lack that cutting edge and leadership that the more successful teams show. Their squad is not big enough to cope with absences of important players with Van Persie, Toure, Eduardo, Bacary Sagna, and Tomas Rosicky all spending long periods on the sidelines. For all the talent they exhibit, Arsenal are noticeably missing several aspects of a top side - a true leader, a prolific striker and depth of squad. Not all can be purchased and it doesn’t come cheap when it can be but it is unlikely that Wenger will start spending big now in any case.
Can Arsenal push on and fulfil their potential? All signs say that they can as they have over achieved somewhat this season and many of their talents are yet to fully mature. Questions will still remain however over their transfer policy and tactics if they continue to fail at the vital moment. Winning ugly is something great teams do but with the Gunners playing some of the prettiest football around, do they have it in them to sacrifice style for results?