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Breaking Down Who Is to Blame for Arsenal's Continued Premier League Failure

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 08:  Arsene Wenger of Arsenal looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium on May 8, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
James McNicholasFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2016

This season, Arsenal failed to win the Premier League for the 12th consecutive campaign. This year feels particularly disappointing, given the opportunity that was clearly presented to the Gunners.

With so many other challengers falling by the wayside, the path ought to have been clear for them to snatch the league for themselves. Instead, the prize was ultimately claimed by unlikely heroes Leicester City.

There are a number of factors that explain why Arsenal fell short. However, the uncomfortable reality is that the focus always comes back to their long-serving manager, Arsene Wenger.

One of the problems that Arsenal have suffered with since the departure of Robin van Persie in 2012 is the lack of a top-class goalscorer.

Olivier Giroud has tried manfully to fill the void, but he appears to have hit a wall this season. The France international recently ended a four-month Premier League goal drought, going between early January and May without finding the net.

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Olivier Giroud of Arsenal lies on the pitch after colliding with Sebastien Bassong of Norwich City during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016 in London, E
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Perhaps the manager should have done more to improve Arsenal’s firepower. Although he could not have anticipated such a prolonged barren spell, Wenger has been aware of Giroud’s limitations for some time.

The Gunners boss recently lamented to Sky Sports: "We don’t have anybody with 20 goals in the league, so that is a handicap."

It’s a good point—title-winning sides typically have a prolific goalscorer as their spearhead. However, Giroud has never hit 20 Premier League goals. Rather than gamble on him reaching that landmark this term, the Gunners boss could have moved to bring in a more reliable finisher.

Similarly, he should not have put quite so much faith in Theo Walcott as the alternative to Giroud. A flurry of goals at the back end of last season convinced Wenger to give Walcott a new deal and a new position as a central striker.

Per Vaishali Bhardwaj of the Evening Standard, Wenger boasted earlier in the season that Walcott could become a "prolific goalscorer" and that he had to potential to get "around 20 goals without any problem."

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 17:  Theo Walcott of Arsenal warms up ahead of the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Crystal Palace at the Emirates Stadium on April 17, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

How foolish that prophecy appears now. Walcott has just nine goals in all competitions, and he has followed Giroud’s lead in enduring a hugely difficult second half of the season.

Had Wenger splashed out to sign a superior forward last summer, Arsenal’s chances would have been significantly improved.

They simply haven’t been clinical enough. According to Squawka, Mesut Ozil has created a ludicrous 141 goalscoring chances in the Premier League this season. The fact that only 18 of those have been converted to assists tells you something about the problems the Gunners have had in front of goal.

Wenger has admitted that Arsenal haven’t done enough to break teams down, per Tony Stenson of the Daily Star Sunday:

We had a problem at home and dropped too many points against teams that played deep. We didn’t score enough goals and our deficit is there.

Not that attack is where all their issues lie. Wenger conceded there have also been problems at the back, per Stenson:

Our defensive record is strange because we had 15 clean sheets, which is good – but when we conceded we really conceded.

In the big games away from home we conceded three at Liverpool, United and West Ham – and nearly always from leading positions, which then makes it difficult to win the league. We have to add something defensively as a team and be more ruthless,” he said.

When you are two-up up and you finish 3-3 you question the team defensively. We gave cheap goals away and were punished.

The problem here is less one of personnel—although the uncertainty over who exactly comprises Wenger’s first-choice defensive pairing hasn’t helped. The main issue is organisational.

While experienced players like Per Mertesacker and Petr Cech should shoulder some of the blame for the chaotic elements of Arsenal’s defending, the main chunk of responsibility must lie squarely at the feet of the manager. Wenger does not seem able to drill a reliable back four.

Defensive coaching has never been his strength. He is at his best when coaxing moments of collective inspiration out of attacking players.

However, Wenger is surely self-aware enough to be aware of that and correct the situation with the appropriate coaching appointment. Instead, he entered the season with the same staff as ever. Arsenal have duly paid the price.

After all, this is an Arsenal team with the same failings it has had for several seasons. One of those problems is that they seem to struggle against the same teams year on year.

After the recent win over Manchester City, Wenger defended his side’s record against the top-four teams. Per the Evening Standard, he said:

We slipped up too much against so-called lesser teams. Why? I don’t know. We have had strong concentration in recent games and our character has been questioned a few times this season. 

We gave the right response today on the pitch, but you have to say if you look we have the best results against the top-four teams. That doesn’t come without character.

Wenger is technically correct in his assertion. Arsenal have claimed 12 points from their six matches against the current top four this season— that’s three more than Tottenham Hotspur, four more than Leicester and a huge 10 points more than Manuel Pellegrini’s team.

However, this is an unusual top four, with some of the Premier League’s more traditional big clubs residing in mid-table. Arsenal failed to beat either Chelsea or Liverpool in any of their Premier League encounters.

What’s more, they also struggled against the likes of Swansea City and Southampton. These are the teams that have given the Gunners problems for several seasons in succession—and Wenger does not yet seem to have identified a way to cope.

Arsenal fans hold up signs calling for the resignation of Arsenal's French manager Arsene Wenger after the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Arsenal at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, north west England, on May 8, 2016. /
PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Whichever way you slice it, the blame always ends up coming back to the manager. These are his players, deployed according to his tactical plan. It’s tempting to say Arsenal’s problems stem from last summer, when he neglected to sign a single outfield player. However, the truth is that the fundamental issues run far deeper than that.

The problems with the modern Arsenal side—including a lack of appropriate investment, defensive disorganisation and wasteful attacking play—have all become unfortunate hallmarks of the latter part of Wenger’s reign. 

The players aren't blameless. Giroud could have been better. Mertesacker has underperformed. Even the likes of Alexis Sanchez would admit to having had a below-par campaign.

However, the ultimate responsibility is with the man who buys, selects and coaches those players. It is his job to motivate and manage them through the season, and ultimately he has not delivered.

At any other club, Wenger might pay the price with his job. At Arsenal, he is certain to be given next year to try and redeem himself.

If Arsenal are to challenge next year, it will require a vastly improved performance from the man at the top.

 

James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and is following the club from a London base throughout 2015/16. Follow him on Twitter here.

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