Twelve years ago, in May 2004, Arsenal lifted their thirteenth league title, going the entire league season unbeaten for the second time in the history of English football after Preston North End’s 1888-1889 campaign. ‘One Arsene Wenger’ had never rung truer amongst the Highbury faithful, and the headlines had evolved from ‘Arsene Who’ to ‘Le Professeur’. Few therefore would have predicted after Patrick Vieria and Robert Pires’ famous White Hart Lane goals clinched mathematical superiority over Chelsea in 2nd that over a decade later and Arsenal would still be seeking that fourteenth title.
Yet this is the situation Arsenal and Arsene Wenger find themselves in. Arsenal appear static; the old adage of a ‘club in transition’ wearing off years ago with what’s left offering little but a feeble crawl into 2nd. Sneaking past Tottenham on the last day may have got Wenger off his feet but it only glosses over a season that ultimately never blossomed. Perhaps it was a harsh winter that doomed the Gunners, with a 4-0 away defeat to Southampton on Boxing Day and no wins in three games including home defeat to Chelsea in January leaving Arsenal’s title challenge buried in the soil.
It has become common folly to attribute the club’s struggles solely to the transfer market. Wenger’s frugal nature should certainly bear criticism, perhaps even the brunt of that criticism, yet the suggestion Wenger has achieved the maximum he could have with this Arsenal squad is naïve and short-sighted. This is no longer a club riddled with the debt the stunning Emirates Stadium generated, but a club willing and able to spend £42.5 million on Mesut Ozil three seasons ago and a further £35 on Alexis Sanchez in 2014. Wenger has admitted as much himself, revealing in April that
“Now the club is in a stronger position and we can compete again with our main opponents.”
The fact only Petr Cech strengthened the team in the summer of 2015 is unforgiveable but Leicester finished this Premier League season not only with the lowest points total for five years but also with a ten point margin of victory only matched twice in the last decade. When this is coupled with the combined failings of Arsenal’s main rivals it is far from unreasonable to suggest that this may have been Arsenal’s best shot at a title for ten years with a squad more than capable of ruining the Leicester party. With these rivals certain to strengthen in the summer Arsenal’s quest to return to the summit of English football will only grow more challenging.
It is therefore a necessity to look at Arsenal’s season with more scrutiny than the stereotypical transfer market obsessed modern football fan. This was a squad built for and was capable of a far stronger challenge. Dropping points at home to Crystal Palace, Swansea, Southampton, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and West Ham as well as exiting the FA Cup to a Watford side in free fall since Christmas is not good enough even without the shiny new striker fans crave. Mesut Ozil seems to agree, saying in March that Arsenal ‘mucked it up ourselves’ and “did not play to our potential in the games against the so-called smaller teams.” Wenger said in a subsequent press conference that he would be speaking to Ozil about these comments, but maybe he could do better looking at his own role in this calamity.
Over the last few seasons Arsenal have found completely different ways in which to disintegrate their season. Previously it was the big games in which the players failed to impose themselves, with the 6-0 defeat to Chelsea in the 2013/14 season perhaps offering the worst example of this, and Wenger’s failure to find a tactic that adapts to each individual game means Arsenal have appeared one dimensional since the heartbeat of the Invincible side left the club. Wenger’s fixation with possession football is perhaps admiral but ultimately has cost Arsenal. The club registered a 58% and 56% possession rate in the 2015/16 and 2013/14 seasons respectively, the highest in the league in both of these seasons and considerably higher than league winners Leicester’s 43.7%. However there are examples of Wenger turning on his beloved possession superiority. Perhaps the turning point in Arsenal’s poor fortunes against larger clubs came in a 2-0 win over Manchester City in 2015 in which the side registered just 35% possession. Yet this did not become the norm and Arsenal returned to the laboured build up play that saw them struggle against so many smaller sides this season.
This incredibly talented Arsenal side thus appear as a conglomeration of confused players under a tactical setup that hasn’t been successful for many years and clearly was not effective enough all season. If Arsene Wenger is to stay at Arsenal, which he certainly will in the near future therefore rendering any in or out debate useless, then change is needed. Not only do Arsenal need an injection of strength on the field from the transfer market but they also need a moral lift. Yet should Arsenal not begin to approach games differently, and Wenger discover a way of making this side a cohesive unit, then Le Professeur shall be saying Au Revoir next May.
By George Sadler