Arsenal Struggle Again, Qualify for Champions League Knockout: Panic Time Yet?
Arsenal are on top of the Barclays Premier League table, have qualified for the semifinals of the Carling Cup and have finally qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League—albeit considerably later, and disappointingly, after finishing in second place.
Yet, it is no exaggeration to say that Gooners all over the world are disappointed, even upset, at Arsenal's performances these past few months and their opponents are chomping at the bit, waiting for their chance to face the Gunners.
But should everyone really be that worried for Arsene Wenger's side?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is no.
Short-Term Reasons To Worry
These past few months have exposed many of Arsenal's weaknesses.
One of these glaring problems lies in the heart of defence, with the centre backs.
Thomas Vermaelen, unquestionably the leader of the defensive unit and arguably its best player, has been sidelined by injury for most of the season and there are no signs of him returning until at least the New Year. One of his replacements, Johan Djourou, is coming back from a long layoff from last season and continues to be in and out of the side with nagging injuries.
Time to Panic?
Who knows how long it is until he falls to another long-term injury?
Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny, who both started against Partizan Belgrade yesterday, are still learning to play with their teammates and play in the Premier League. Though they show a lot of promise and can only get better, they are still way behind the curve against Premier League players and show a lot of inconsistency, especially against more physical sides.
Another weakness lies in midfield. Though sometimes considered the strength of this Arsenal team, the unit as a whole has shown that it is truly lacking a midfield general with the creativity, inventiveness and assured presence that an in-form Cesc Fabregas brings to the side.
Tomas Rosicky has shown flashes of brilliance, but has not scored in a long time; Jack Wilshere has matured quickly, but would still be hard-pressed to orchestrate the whole team; and Samir Nasri, arguably the best player in the league this year and definitely the best player on the team, is being deployed as a wide man and has excelled in that role.
So, the link that ties these perceived weaknesses is the dreaded "I" word: Injuries.
The team has suffered an abnormally large number of serious injuries in the past and, despite not yet suffering a truly season-ending injury yet, Arsenal has faced numerous injuries in key areas this season.
Thomas Vermaelen, Manuel Almunia, Theo Walcott, Robin Van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner and Cesc Fabregas have all spent prolonged spells on the sidelines, often right when they were heating up.
But more than talent, what the team missed during these absences was leadership. Without Vermaelen and Almunia, there is no leader at the back holding everyone accountable for their actions.
In midfield, the team misses Fabregas, and up front, until recently, the team sorely lacked Van Persie's brilliance and ability to create something out of nothing.
Without these key players playing consistently, the team often seemed lost.
And with Kieran Gibbs joining the walking wounded, it appears the Arsenal injury curse has not ended.
Long-Term Reasons Not To Worry
But why shouldn't everyone push the panic button just yet? Because even after all the bad that's happened, Arsenal are still sitting pretty.
With imminent returns for Fabregas and Vermaelen, and the timely returns of the formerly walking wounded, Arsenal will soon be replete in every area of the field.
One of the problems with having Squillaci and Koscielny in defence together is both are similar players: A little on the slower side, not as commanding in the air and are both still learning the ropes in the Premier League. But both are great at reading the game and both are on the more experienced side, so as they get more comfortable on the field against more physical players, they will improve exponentially.
And even more importantly, the pacier and more aggressive Vermaelen is the perfect complement to their styles of play and his return to fitness should shore up the defensive deficiencies.
If nothing else, this year can be considered a great year for experience before these new CBs bulk up and get ready for next year.
Furthermore, these injuries have forced younger players to step up and play to their full potential. Wilshere has been a true revelation this year and has shown that he has what it takes to be a part of Arsenal's midfield for years to come. Though it has taken a few years, Nasri is finally showing his brilliance, showing the world why he was so highly rated as a youngster. Johan Djourou has also stepped up with a few brilliant performances—albeit with a few bad showings here and there.
And with the production line of brilliant players coming through, the future looks bright for Wenger's boys.
This highlights an important distinction for the future: Arsenal is a young team full of promise.
While the team goes through growing pains to blood the youngsters, their opponents are going through terrible patches of form while growing old pretty quickly.
Chelsea are showing their age and vulnerability, especially recently; Manchester United are in the same boat.
As the golden age of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville (as well as Edwin van der Sar and Rio Ferdinand) break down and fade away, their youngsters still don't look ready to assume those important leadership roles. And the only other team with a great academy is Manchester City, who buy many expensive individuals but still can't create that great "team."
Arsenal have not had a great start to the year. With already four losses on the books, shaky wins coming left and right and one of the worst point totals at this point in recent seasons, it hasn't been pretty.
Fortunately, everyone else in the league is having their own nightmare seasons.
Does that mean Arsenal will win the league? Not necessarily, but a combination of factors has kept Arsenal near (or at) the top of the league, and as long as the team stays around there, there will be a chance.
After all, as the injury worries subside and the team leaders return, the team will return to its fluid and assured best and hopefully that, along with the youngsters' development, lead the team to greater things, culminating in a trophy (or a few) this season—and hopefully many more for the future.
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