With Arsenal still effectively in the Premier League title race, still in the FA Cup and still in the UEFA Champions League, it probably seems a little misguided and somewhat pre-emptive to suggest that things are going “wrong.”
But you can just sense things are about to unravel, can’t you? It seems inevitable, and given the previous eight campaigns that have been scarce of silverware, a capitulation at this juncture would be certainly be true to current form for the Gunners.
For those of an Arsenal allegiance, it’s a shame for this season things promised to be different. The Gunners brought in a big name in Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey realized (maybe even exceeded) his potential, Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker clicked superbly as a centre back duo, and the team were grinding out results when it mattered, most notably the 1-0 away at an in-form Newcastle United side.
But after the Gunners meekly surrendered to a typically robust Stoke City side at the Britannia stadium last weekend, their season is teetering on the brink of oblivion.
The momentum they manufactured at the back-end of 2013 has been sapped on the domestic front, whilst it’ll take a miracle to overhaul a 2-0 deficit to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Now, they stand on the cusp of a well-documented horrendous run of fixtures with the FA Cup the only realistic chance of silverware.
But why has the North London club — a footballing institution that has success engrained into its very being — come up short so often as of late? And in the short-term, why is it set to happen to them once again, in a campaign that had tempted us with so much for so long?
The natural place to start is with the current playing staff. Certainly, the injuries to Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott have robbed this Arsenal squad of two unique stylistic dimensions.
Ramsey, in particular, has been a big miss. Prior to his injury, the Welshman was blossoming into the league’s most complete midfield player; making tackles, playing passes, driving forward, creating chances and scoring goals. Without him, Arsenal lack a dynamism from central areas. The likes of Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta are all fine manipulators of the ball. But that industry and impetus in the middle of the park is sorely missed.
Factor in Walcott’s injury too, and the XI starts to look increasingly one dimensional. Without the England forward, there is nobody to stretch the opposition laterally by hugging the touchline or vertically, with a direct threat capable of running in behind. It makes it easy for opposition defenses to set up against Arsenal, and whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can offer a blistering presence on the flanks, he is still young, somewhat raw and returning from a major injury layoff.
These injuries are unfortunate but inevitable for any team, and a man of Arsene Wenger’s experience is well aware of that. Naturally, it begs the question as to why didn’t Arsenal boss bolster the squad in January and indulge after his team’s excellent start?
Granted, it is difficult to make signings in January given the nature of the mid-season window, but the flaws in this squad were there for all to see: most notably the aforementioned stylistic deficiencies and obvious notion that Olivier Giroud cannot lead the line by himself for the entirety of this campaign.
Instead of bringing in a couple of new faces to revitalize and bolster the squad ahead of a title tilt, Wenger drafted in an injured, aging midfield player who has yet to play a game for the club.
Subsequently, the group looks increasingly jaded. Ozil is clearly toiling having played an unprecedented amount of minutes in an unfamiliarly intense league, whilst Giroud seems incapable of putting in consecutive performances of an intensity comparable to his early season efforts.
It’s also a squad that is scarred by capitulations from years gone by and one that subsequently lacks a winning instinct in those crucial moments.
Just look at some of the poor decisions made in recent weeks made by Gunners’ players: Ozil walking up to that penalty against Bayern, Wojciech Szczesny charging out of his goal to fell Arjen Robben in the same game and Koscielny’s rash defending in the penalty area against Stoke. There was also the recent game against Liverpool, when Lukas Podolski and then Oxlade-Chamberlain needlessly clattered Luis Suarez in the penalty area in the FA Cup fifth round tie.
Aside from the FA Cup game, in which they were lucky to progress, these bad choices made in vital moments have conspired to damage their chances significantly in two competitions. They are self-defeating, avoidable instances, but at this point of the campaign, these moments have become all too commonplace for Arsenal down the years.
So, what next? Well, whilst there is nothing Wenger can do about his squad at this juncture, they need to rediscover what it’s like to go all the way in a tournament. And with the FA Cup the most attainable trophy on their radar, Saturday’s quarterfinal against Everton takes on added significance.
It’s a tournament that may not hold clout comparable to a Premier League or Champions League win. But it’s a trophy nonetheless, and one that could certainly pave the way for a stronger mentality and a belief in competitions to come they have what it takes to make it to the final knockings.