Following Tuesday evening’s 3-1 win over West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side returned to fourth in the Premier League table—for how long remains to be seen, given Everton’s game in hand—and the north London acolytes were duly buoyed; however, look deeper and this latest win merely belies Arsenal’s top four complacency of late.
As per BBC Sport, Wenger recently admitted to his side’s shortcomings and referred them to having perhaps taken their position amongst the league’s most-celebrated for granted this season: “Maybe yes, we felt 'that is done'.”
This impressive, comprehensive victory over West Ham has launched the Gunners back into the top four, and it may serve as a timely reminder to a side that has slumped of late that—this season in particular, with a pair of resurgent Merseyside outfits running rampant in recent months—this much-vaunted position is one that requires hard work to obtain.
Unfortunately for Wenger’s men, Roberto Martinez’s Everton still have a game in hand—a home clash against Crystal Palace, to be played tonight—and the Toffees are on a great run of form, having won their last seven league games.
For a side who haven’t been without Champions League football for 16 years, this sudden competition for fourth place may come as a shock, and Arsenal have a lot of work to do before they secure their place amongst Europe’s elite once more.
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
Ever since goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny’s ill-advised "selfie" following Arsenal’s 1-0 north London derby win over Spurs at White Hart Lane in March, seen here via The Independent, the club’s fortunes have taken a serious nosedive.
A significant 6-0 loss away to then-title rivals Chelsea a week later, followed by draws at home to Swansea City and Manchester City and a 3-0 loss to now-top four rivals Everton, signalled a period of struggle for the Gunners.
A myriad of under-performing stars, losses in big games and an increasingly deflated-looking Wenger have all contributed to this sour resonance around the Emirates in recent weeks.
Two major factors underpin Arsenal’s disappointing close-season: a questionable calibre of signings—Mesut Ozil aside—courtesy of Wenger and injuries to many key players within his current squad.
Twenty-one-year-old French striker Yaya Sanogo has been the victim of a mentally-gruelling, injury-plagued campaign this season, and it is hard to blame the lofty forward for his side’s misgivings.
However, following pre-season rumours of Gonzalo Higuain, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez joining the Arsenal attack, another young player significantly affected by injury will grate on the most faithful of Gunners.
Another bemusing signing, Swedish midfielder Kim Kallstrom—who joined the club in January on a temporary deal—has only just returned to fitness having been signed with a back injury, as per BBC Sport.
Arguably out of Wenger’s hands, Arsenal have struggled with serious injuries to many key players this season, and this has no doubt contributed to their downfall this season.
Aaron Ramsey, Ozil, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere can all be counted amongst long-term injuries suffered this season, and they all can be considered genuine game-changers for the north London side.
This leaves a depleted squad striving for success on many fronts and in this sense it is easy to sympathise with Wenger’s charges.
Their manic celebrations following last weekend’s penalty shootout victory over Wigan Athletic in their FA Cup semi-final polarise this complacency somewhat.
BBC Sport’s Phil McNulty believes that these celebrations are a sign of the times, writing:
Arsenal's fall from trophy-winning grace ensured simply reaching the FA Cup final was the signal for ecstasy among players and fans…Are they good enough however, to take the final steps in league and cup?
Questioning their credentials, McNulty suggests that expectations have changed at the Emirates; perhaps this isn’t true complacency, however, for a club so used to Champions League football whether this is just is arguable.
Who’s to Blame?
Such are our modern societal mores that planting the blame onto a party is, unfortunately, due course; in the case of Arsenal’s failing ambitions in the Premier League, blame can be launched three ways.
Extending from McNulty’s criticism, it can be argued that a demanding fan-base—one so used to challenging amongst Europe’s elite—can be blamed for increasingly lofty expectations fostered through years of (moderate) success.
Elsewhere, as many sections are now questioning the position of Arsenal’s long-standing manager, blame can be placed at the feet of Wenger following a depreciation of quality over the years; exemplified by this season’s disappointing transfer activity, it can be argued that the Frenchman has taken his eye off the ball somewhat, ignoring—perhaps stubbornly—areas of his squad that are in dire need of refreshing.
However, perhaps most accurately, blame can be attributed to a lifeless and unmotivated squad.
For fans familiar with the days of the dominant, determined Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva—two captains who inspired success throughout the club—the limp performances of players such as Santi Cazorla, Lucas Podolski and, of late, Ozil will be a great disappointment.
Despite a two-goal haul against West Ham, Podolski can be far from described as having an impressive season, and it is big-name flops such as the German international that undermine the club’s expectations, a notion which suggests more than any other that the club have become complacent in their success.
A Problem Recognised
Wenger continues, via BBC Sport:
For many years I was sitting here and had to convince you that it was important that we were in the top four - now it is in a reverse position, you say to me 'you realise how important it is for us'…It is vital to me to do it. I want this club to play in the top-level competition, and for that you want to be in the Champions League.
This complacency is an issue that Wenger has now at least vocally addressed and, with his managerial tenure standing on a knife-edge in the weeks to come, it may be that a failure to proactively address failing areas could be his downfall.
A 3-1 victory at home to West Ham may be cause for celebration for some but whether it is enough for Arsenal’s ailing Champions League bid remains to be seen.