In keeping with the recent seasonal changes, the mood at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium has darkened considerably this last week. As the English Barclays Premiership enters the month of November, the Gunners lie in 4thplace in the table, and are struggling to silence the doubters who have begun dismissing their title challenge. On recent evidence it is hard not to agree with them. A devastating collapse at home to fierce North-London rivals Tottenham preceded a 2-1 reverse at newly-promoted Stoke last Saturday in which all the old failings from the 2007/8 season resurfaced; namely the lack of physical presence, tactical naivety and the lack of leadership.
Despite their early season brilliance in the past two seasons, led by the mercurial Cesc Fabregas and this term by the rapidly maturing Theo Walcott, their league aspirations have faded away on each occasion. Indeed many have already begun labelling the 4-4 draw with Spurs as ‘the Birmingham away’ of last season, in which they suffered the sickening loss of Croatian Eduardo to injury and capitulated in similar fashion to only draw 2-2. Although perhaps unfair to single out one player, Arsenal's woes would seem to be encapsulated by French left-back Gaël Clichy. Supremely talented, his lack of concentration and failure to resort to the more agricultural arts of defending resulted in Tottenham's third goal and Birmingham's equaliser.
Experienced and hardnosed premiership sides such as Manchester United and Chelsea have experienced similar setbacks in recent seasons, but what sets them apart is their ability to pick themselves up quickly and not let a small blip turn into a psychologically damaging series of bad results. In spite of Arsène Wenger’s stubborn public belief that his side are frequently the victim of poor refereeing and crude challenges (witness his outburst this week against Stoke’s bully-boy tactics), privately he will be fuming at his side’s inability to marry their undoubted technical quality with the necessary steel which would surely see them mount a formidable league campaign.
However, the blame must not lie only with the players. Although widely accepted that Arsenal teams of the past years have played a wonderfully inventive and slick brand of the game, Wenger’s managerial philosophy is now provoking murmurs of discontent even among some Gunners fans, who believe it to be an obstacle to claiming silverware. His unwillingness to retain players over 30 has seen such experienced performers as Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira moved on, and his reluctance to break the limited wage structure at the club resulted in the recent departures of Ashley Cole, Mathieu Flamini and Alex Hleb, all crucial squad members whose exits not only disrupted the harmony at the Emirates stadium, but left the team without a consistent backbone on which to shape a championship winning side.
One can never dispute the fact that Wenger has, as a result of his own acumen and formidable scouting network, acquired arguably the most talented squad of players in Arsenal’s history; however the structure created at the club is just not conducive to keeping a side together. Will gifted youngsters such as Carlos Vela and Jack Wilshere still be around when in their prime and capable of finding greater riches elsewhere? Equally, will Emmanuel Adebayor stay at the club on £60,000 when he knows that he could take home double that sum at Barcelona or Inter Milan? It is a sad indictment of modern-day football that money plays such a part, but it is a short career and admirable though Wenger’s refusal to pay ridiculous wages is, can he really blame players for wanting to maximise their earning potential?
Arsenal play Manchester United on Saturday in a game which could turn their season around. A win would signal a welcome boost to their sagging confidence and reenergise their title bid, while a loss would again raise questions about the club’s direction. Until Wenger can deliver significant silverware to the Emirates trophy room, the pressure on ‘the Arsenal way’ and on his tenure will continue to mount.