Sunday, May 10, 2009

Where to Next for Arsenal? Will the Gunners Ever Challenge Again?

Arsenal have suffered another humiliating loss at home.

After Tuesday's debacle against Manchester United, Chelsea inflicted further damage to the fragile minds of Arsene Wenger's Gunners with a comprehensive 4-1 defeat.

The question now on most Gooner's minds now is, where do we go from here?

Before the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Manchester United, Arsenal were the form team in the league.

But two abject performances against their bitter rivals seems to have shredded their fragile confidence, and now the manner of the defeat against Chelsea has just compounded matters.

But where to point the finger of blame?

As always there will be a number of places to start.

1. Arsene Wenger

Le Prof has been with the club for 12 years now. The first eight were glorious. Four League titles and three FA Cups, including two doubles had confirmed the Frenchman as the club's best manager in decades, certainly since Bertie Mee.

But the last four seasons have left the trophy cabinets at the Emirates vacant. Is the manager to blame?

The buck always stops with the manager, so Wenger must take his fair share of the blame; after all he did take some of the credit for the glory, did he not?

This season has seen Wenger make some strange decisions. The oddest of formations away to Sunderland, poor substitutions in the last 15 minutes in the 4-4 draw with Spurs, the defensive set up in the FA Cup against Chelsea...

These are just a few of Wenger's bad decision making this season, but equally he has overseen the team qualify for the semi finals of two major cups, comeback from the dead to draw 4-4 with Liverpool and beat Manchester United in probably the best footballing match this season.

There's also the widely publicised fact that his contract will run out soon. And although he has as recently as last week turned down Bayern Munich, many Gooners feel he'll end up at the helm there later rather than sooner.

Maybe Wenger's problem is that he does like confrontations where his authority could be questioned. Senior players have always been allowed to leave, and have only ever been replaced with youth. And Wenger has never gone to the board demanding a huge transfer purse.

Time to toughen up and get money from the board to sign senior players...

2. The Board

Wenger has never spent money.

Arsenal are one of the richest clubs in the world, have the fourth highest wage bill in the EPL, and have a stadium that can hold upward of 70,000.

So money coming in is not the factor.

Over his 12 years in charge, Wenger has spent roughly £220 million, so money has been available-ish.

The board have always worried about Wenger spending big. Francis Jeffers and Antonio Reyes were both unmitigated disasters while players like Robert Pires, Patrick Viera, and Emmanuel Petit have all been huge successes.

There's no getting away from it, though. The board have been stingy. Xabi Alonso had agreed terms last year, but the board wouldn't budge from £13m when Liverpool wanted £15m. Flamini wanted £60k a week, the board offered £50k.

Ashley Cole wanted £60k, when the board offered £50k, he went halfway and offered £55k, the board wouldn't budge.

So add the stingy board to an unpushy manager and you get players leaving who shouldn't and a lack of proven players not coming in.

3. The current squad

There is little doubt that the current squad is short on the right materials to challenge for the league.

The sheer lack of a physical presence in the team is easy to point out. One stat that jumps out at you is the average height of the current squad. It's 5-foot-9. The average height of the invincibles was 6-foot-2. You do the math.

There is also a real lack of guile in the team. If Fabregas or Arshavin don't play, there is little or no imagination. Walcott tears down the wing like it's a tunnel, van Persie flutes around thinking he's Bergkamp and Song and Denilson just don't have it.

Add these inadequacies to the lack of bite and determination to the team and you have a squad threatening to fall out of the top four.

But that will only happen if City spend £300m, Aston Villa treble their wage bill, and Spurs finally get the car started...

4. The Fans

Yes the fans. They too must take a little bit of the blame. Half the stadium leaving with almost half an hour to go over the last two matches sends out it's own message.

Of course, the fans have paid good money and are entitled to vote with their feet, but it does make a team who are low on confidence get ever lower.

The booing that echoes around after poor performances will eventually take it's toll on the weaker members of the squad, and there is a growing section of "Wenger out."

One things this section of fans should realise, is that success is not guaranteed. And that the four seasons without a trophy we have at the moment could grow to six or seven seasons if a new manager is brought in.

5. The Carling Cup

Too often has Wenger disregarded England's second cup. Using it as a training ground for younger players, the Gunners have never won the cup during the Frenchman's reign.

Now is the time to take it seriously. When Brian Clough took over at Nottingham Forest, the second cup of the day was an absolute joke, a mishmash of a competition with English and Scottish teams.

No one took it seriously.

Except Clough.

He puts that Cup win down as the start of all things great about the early days of Forest, and the Anglo Scottish Cup win was the springboard that propelled his team to a league title and two European Cups.

You see, it was the first silverware his players had ever won. And then they wanted more.

Think about it. Your career at the top level lasts what, 10 years if you're lucky. That's only 40 trophies that you can win. By Wenger disregarding the League Cup, that total is down to 30. Take the league away for the moment, as well as the Champions League which Arsenal have never won and you're left with the FA Cup.

Players want to win trophies. They don't care what it looks like, or whether it's supposedly inferior. It's a professional trophy. It means something.

Then when they get the taste in their mouth, they'll want more...

6. The lack of Leadership

Every team has a leader on the pitch, great sides have many. Just look at Liverpool and you have Gerrard and Carragher. Chelsea have Lampard and Terry. United have Vidic, Ferdinand, Giggs, Rooney, and Scholes.

Who do Arsenal have that you would consider a leader of men?

These are just some of the major problems that Arsenal have to endure at the moment. It will be interesting to see if any of these change for the better in the Summer.

If not, next season could be tougher than this one...

twitter / WillieGannon