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Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Arsenal's Annual Crumble

The rapidity with which Arsenal's trophy prospects deteriorate around the February/March period of the season has become an almost annual occurrence in English football.

In the 2010/11 season, a demoralising defeat to eventually-relegated Birmingham in the League Cup final on 27th February was followed by loss to Barcelona in the Champions League on 8th March. Exit from the FA Cup after being beaten by Manchester United came just four days later and the Gunners' season was effectively over. Last year, having being knocked out of the League Cup by Manchester City way back in November, a 4-0 thumping at Milan on 15th February and defeat to Sunderland in the FA Cup on the 18th all but silenced Arsenal's trophy hopes yet again. This season it was Bradford of all clubs that dumped Arsenal out of the League Cup in December and yet again, a period of just three days has left the club out of the FA Cup and clinging onto the Champions League by a thread.

The pattern that is emerging is not one of a team that is progressing or learning from its mistakes and the calls for Wenger to resign are possibly louder right now than at any other point in the last two tumultuous seasons. 
Looking back, I think the moment that Birmingham's fluke goal trickled in during the League Cup final in 2011 is a poignant one. The psychological impact of the unravelling that was triggered by just missing out on the best shot at a trophy the team has had in eight seasons seems to still be visible in the side, which has not even reached a semi-final since.

The truth of the matter is that this Arsenal squad has no idea what winning a trophy feels like. Most are youngsters that were still coming through the ranks at the club and elsewhere, looking with awe at the Arsenal team that last won silverware back in 2005. Not a single player from that trophy-winning team remains in the current group of players at Arsenal. The interim players dropped the baton and their successors are still struggling to pick it up.

By contrast Chelsea, who won the league that year and Manchester United still employ some of the players from their 2004/05 teams. Cech, Terry, Lampard, Ferdinand, Giggs, Scholes and Rooney all still remain at their respective clubs, which have been the two most successful sides in England since that year. Manchester United in fact epitomise both the view that success breeds success, and Alan Hansen's age-old epithet: "You can't win anything with kids." United did of course contradict Hansen that very season but by holding on to their experienced players and bringing in world class signings, they proved that both were necessary in order to succeed.

Arsenal on the other hand dismantled their victorious side too fast also failing to bring in adequate long-term replacements. Both these factors were not enforced but chosen as part of Wenger's financial policy of putting faith in his youth system as oppose to paying extortionate transfer fees and wages. It was an admirable attempt, and one that many in football probably wish had succeeded. But it appears that to compete at the very top level in the modern game, this strategy just doesn't pay off.

But still, even after a week like this one, it is not the end of the world or of Arsenal Football Club. Rumour has it that Wenger will have a much enlarged transfer budget at his disposal this summer. With his contract currently expiring in June 2014, it could be his last chance to go all out for success. By this stage, surely Arsenal must have enough financial stability to take a deep breath and pay out for a truly great player (or two) without the worry of bankrupting the club. The time for tentativeness has passed. Signing unproven Moroccans on free transfers will no longer cut it.

Depth is needed as an absolute must. The team has proved over the past three seasons that it is incapable of competing in four competitions at once, hence the inevitable collapse every spring, when injuries reduce their numbers and the busy schedule exhausts those who remain. On Monday a Manchester United team featuring just two first-team regulars comfortably beat a resilient Reading side in the FA Cup. Yet Arsenal have shown again that in resting just one or two of their current first team they dramatically weaken their side to the point that two lower league teams in one season are able to overcome them in the cup.

Against both Blackburn and Bayern, the team did not play terribly. In fact they showed again that in the middle of the park, they can play better football than Europe's finest. But it is at either end of the pitch that they are lacking in decisiveness, confidence and cutting edge.

If there is a positive to take from history it is that after defeat to Sunderland at this stage last season, Arsenal went on to end the season on a relative high, winning their next six and losing just two of their remaining fourteen fixtures of the season. This run of form included the almost-comeback in a 3-0 victory against AC Milan in the second leg of the Champions League tie. A 3-0 win in Munich next month, an ambitious aspiration to say the least, would put Arsenal through and hugely boost morale. People say lightning doesn't strike twice, but you try telling that to Roy Sullivan. Go on, try.

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