It has been two months and one day since Arsenal entered their defining period of the season, a run of extremely tough fixtures which would judge exactly how well they would do this campaign, fighting for trophies on three fronts and sat on top of the Premier League to begin it all.
All was positive, rosy and upward-looking for the Gunners—but that run of games started with a 5-1 defeat at Liverpool, and it hasn't gotten much better since.
In their 13 games including that Anfield defeat, Arsenal have won just five. They exited the Champions League. They sit fourth in the Premier League, 10 points off the pace and battling just to stay ahead of Everton now. Only the FA Cup remains, though even that has a poisoned chalice look about it.
The best team won the game. Well done Everton. 4th position really look under threat for Arsenal— fabrice muamba (@fmuamba) April 6, 2014
This has become a horribly familiar scenario for Arsenal's supporters to watch unfold around this time of year and it all points to big changes being accepted and needed within the club—even if manager Arsene Wenger remains in place.
Win the Cup, and Then...
Arsenal haven't won a trophy since 2005. Forget fourth place being silverware—they don't inscribe memories of that around the inside of the Emirates for it, do they?—Arsenal have to end that run now. There really isn't any excuse for that this year.
The thing is, if he does it, Wenger has ended the trophy drought against the weakest final four in a cup competition in living memory: Arsenal face holders Wigan Athletic, of the Championship, while the other semi-final sees Hull City—a first last-four FA Cup appearance since 1930 for them—play League One outfit Sheffield United.
If he doesn't win the cup against that opposition...well, it would certainly be in keeping with Arsenal's choking image, but that's about all that could be said about it.
Plenty of Arsenal fans feel that Wenger should now be leaving in the summer regardless, but a cup win would of course be the best way for him to bow out.
However, the Telegraph report that he won't be leaving this summer—even if the FA Cup is not won and Arsenal finish outside the top four.
Alter the Midfield
Wenger's midfield has undergone plenty of changes in his time at the club, so there should be no logical reason to think he won't do it again. Surely, he'll need to see this year that his team's shape, layout and positioning is not of a level to compete with rivals' play.
Quite simply, Arsenal used to sweep all before them by being better than everybody else on the ball, but those days have gone. At least four teams in the Premier League play better football than Arsenal now; they get beaten at their own old game to an extent.
Add in that other teams have evolved and changed their style over the past few years while Wenger has largely kept his midfield shape the same, and it's clear that his 4-2-3-1, both in terms of shape and personnel, is not benefiting his team enough to be the only shape he uses, regardless of opponent, team selection or form.
It needs changing. Whether to a 1-2 shape in the centre to protect the defence against counters and transitions, to having two ferocious, controlling players constantly patrolling in front of the back four, or something entirely different, is what Wenger has to decide.
But it needs changing.
Enough of the Same Type
Arsenal used to play with a hard-working wide man, two solid central runners and a goalscoring, creative wide man. There have been out-and-out wingers, inside forwards, second strikers instead of a real No. 10 and two destroyers in the centre.
Now, though, there is a plethora of technical, creative, drop-deep-to-receive-in-space midfielders all vying for similar roles in different positions.
Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Mesut Ozil all come into this category, yet there have been matches when all four are used in the same five-man midfield. This offers good possession and composure on the ball, sure, but it means Arsenal lose out significantly in other areas—other areas of paramount importance to a balanced midfield.
There are no runners beyond the forward in that group. There is marked lack of pace. There is little aggression or real desire to track back consistently with a view to actually win the ball, rather than fulfil a positional obligation.
When Arsenal were linked with the likes of Yohan Cabaye of Newcastle United last season, jokes of "that will solve all Arsenal's problems then" could be heard within seconds.
I like cabaye, but he wasn’t the answer for arsenal, he’s deep-lying playmaker rather a DM, wenger would have turned him into another arteta— Arsenal (@arsenal1886com) April 8, 2014
Mathieu Flamini might not be the world's best holding midfielder, but he was Arsenal's most important signing of the summer, even on a free transfer. He's defensive, physical, aggressive and provides a balance to others in the centre. It hasn't been a perfect match, partly because of the central-midfield tactics Arsenal employ, but it's a start.
Which playmaker should Arsenal sacrifice?
If Wenger was to leave this summer, any incoming boss would make changes anyway, that's the nature of football management, but they'd certainly have a very good squad base to work with. The big decision would be which players of the same type to keep on, build from, utilise properly, and which to sacrifice to make room for those who could change the dynamic of the side.
That is the challenge which faces Wenger: Can he make those tough decisions about his own players?
If he can, Arsenal can still expect to be near the top next year and actually make it through March still being talked about as a trophy contender. If not...well, more of the same means more of the same. Nobody—outside the club's support base—particularly sees them as a threat for honours any more.
Another iteration of Wenger's Arsenal is required. This summer could be a pivotal one for the team's future, and for his own legacy—if it doesn't end here anyway.