Sunday, March 13, 2011

Where Next For Arsene Wenger and Arsenal?

Within the space of just 14 days, Arsene Wenger has seen his Arsenal side's chances of a historical quadruple devastated by the boys from Birmingham, Barcelona, and Brazil.

The Gunners' season is now in real danger of being fruitless yet again, and if it does, questions will be asked about the great Frenchman like never before.

The manner of Arsenal's defeats to Birmingham, Barcelona, and Manchester United speak volumes about the lack of character running through Arsene Wenger's current squad.

The Carling Cup Final was seen by many as mere formality, that this was to be the game when Arsene's young guns finally got over their hump and won that elusive trophy.

Unfortunately, neither Birmingham nor Wojeich Szecesny or Laurent Koscielny read that particular script.

Alex McLeish's side gave as good as they got while Szecesny and Koscielny combined to make one of the great howlers of cup football when they conspired to leave Obafemi Martins with an open goal to score the winner in the last minute.

A half-hearted inquisition took place after that game with many in the red of Arsenal feeling that it was just one of those days and that they had been unlucky.

However, as any footballer or manager will tell you; there is no such thing as luck in football. 90 minutes is more than enough time to right the wrongs of injustice or mistakes made during the game.

On the day, Ben Foster made numerous saves, but only made one that he had to sweat for and that was a late deflected effort from Bendtner.

While Szecesny made a huge schoolboy error in calling late and not collecting the ball for the winning goal.

The young Polish 'keeper was duly aided by Koscielny, who has made more contributions to the minus goal tally conceded by Arsenal than any other player this season.

Questions must also be asked about the defensive signings as well as the lack of a major goalkeeper signing.

Paul Merson, an ex-Arsenal player and pundit said after the game that "if Roger Johnsen and Ben Foster were in red, then Arsenal would have won by a cricket score."

Perhaps Wenger's talk of having an "extreme desire" to lift the Carling Cup while saying that it would be a stepping stone to greater things put his team under too much pressure.

Certain players' comments suggesting that the match was a formailty also only served to psyche Birmingham up for what was their first final appearance in almost 50 years.

Then came a disjointed performance against Sunderland where their fragile psyche took another battering as they battered the Black Cats for 90 minutes but couldn't find a way past Simon Mignolet in the Sunderland goal.

That meant that an unusually nervous Arsenal side travelled to the church that is the Camp Nou, the last footballing basilica in the world where you want to be questioning one's own faith.

The Gunners were soundly beaten 3-1 by what can only be described as a rampant Barcelona team. The statistics released by Opta following the game were frightening to say the least.

They told the story of a team who were soundly beaten and outplayed to such an extent that hindsight would suggest that they were suffering from an inferiority complex going into the game and in need of a full psychological analysis upon leaving it.

Barcelona passed the ball 790 times compared to Arsenal's 199. Xavi and Iniesta alone completed more passes, some 208, than the entire Gunners team put together with Xavi completing 108 of those. His nearest Arsenal rival was Jack Wilshire with just 25 passes.

The Gunners only touched the ball twice in Barcelona's box during the entire game, and only managed 41 touches in Barca's half during the 90 while La Blaugrana managed a whopping 310 touches in Arsenal's half and 47 in their box.

In his 56 minutes on the pitch, Robin van Persie only managed eight passes.

The most damning statistic of all is that Arsenal failed to have one single shot during the match, and in doing so the Gunners became the first team to register zero shots in a Champions League match since Opta started recording statistics.

The manner of the defeat suggests that the sending off of Robin van Persie only gave Arsene Wenger an excuse to mask his own team's shortcomings. His over zealous attack on UEFA would definitely suggest so.

The problem with Wenger in this aspect is that he cries wolf so often now that his words are falling upon deaf ears and only serve to make him look bitter.

With questions now being asked about Wenger's fundamentalist approach to football like never before the Gunners travelled to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United.

In the 2008 season, Arsenal was hammered 4-0 by United in the fifth round after fielding a weakened team.

The result effectively destroyed their confidence and despite being top of the table at the time, their season was over by April as United steamrolled to the title.

"I'll play my strongest team," Wenger said in the build up to the game while dealing with questions on how they will get over that devastating defeat to Barcelona.

"My intention is always to put out a strong team who I believe have a good chance to play. Ourselves and United are two teams with disappointing results recently, and it is about who deals the best with that.

"We need it [a psychological boost], I must say, because we need help. We have been touched severely recently and we are chasing a win of this type. We want to deal well with the psychological blows we have had."

"United always play against us with three tight in midfield," Wenger said. "They played only Wayne Rooney up front [in December], so I think they always set up against us to defend well.

"I wouldn't say they are scared but they always have a realistic approach to the game. Our problem will be not to be caught in midfield and maybe to attack on the flanks."

So with this in mind and with their season unraveling before his eyes Arsene Wenger chose to name a full strength team when taking on Sir Alex Ferguson's injury hit Red Devils.

Without any players capable of playing wide in a 4-4-2 or any supporting players capable of playing in a 4-2-3-1, Fergie pulled off something of a surprise by naming seven recognised defenders in his team including Brazilian twins Fabio and Rafael in the wide midfield positions.

The team were tight for the most part and broke from defence very quickly with Wayne Rooney pulling the strings and the young Brazilian twins impressing and showing that they may have a future in midfield as opposed to full back.

The retiring Edwin van der Sar may have been the busier 'keeper but the vast majority of the Dutchman's best work happened after his team had gone 2-0 up when the game was effectively over.

After the game, Arsene Wenger admitted that lifting his players would be a "massive task."

"You could see something has gone, not in our effort or attitude, but confidence-wise," he said

"Subconsciously, I feel the disappointment of Tuesday played a part in the game," before adding "We are used to being questioned. We have to show we are strong enough to deal with it. It is a massive task now."

The game may have only been an FA Cup quarterfinal, but the result could have far reaching ramifications for the rest of the season.

Arsene Wenger has been unable to teach this team how to win hugely important matches. He has seen his team eliminated from three major competitions in the space of two weeks and now he has the task of picking his side up for the final 10 games of the season.

The Gunners take on West Brom (Away Mar 19), Blackburn (Home Apr 2), and Blackpool (Away Apr 10) before two games in the space of three days that could effectively end their season.

First up is a tough game at home to a resurgent Liverpool (Home Apr 17) before an away trip to their arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur (Away Apr 20).

Then comes Bolton (Away April 24), and what could effectively be another cup final when Manchester United roll into town on May 1. The season is then rounded off with a trip to Stoke (Away May 7), Aston Villa (Home May 14) and then finally Fulham at Craven Cottage in the final game of the season on May 22.

Ever the optimist, Wenger said that the current blip in form could be used to their advantage.

"I believe it will strengthen our resolve, and if the Man United game is decisive I believe we can win it with our home games."

One month ago, Gunners fans were rejoicing at the ease of their run in and now all of a sudden the final 10 games have taken on a level of complexity not seen before.

A common misconception about football and sport in general is that it builds character, it doesn't; sport reveals character.

Arsenal's character has been questioned for the last couple of years and the games over the last couple of weeks have revealed a certain fragility that was always suspected.

In short, the current Arsenal team lack the character of past teams. Would any of the current crop find a way into the 1998 or 2004 sides? Perhaps one, Fabregas, two at a push if you include Nasri.

There is no doubt that the goalkeeping situation is less than what a title-chasing team would expect. None from Manuel Almunia, Wojeich Szcsesny, or Lukasz Fabianski are good enough for a top six team never mind a club with title winning expectations.

For an example of what difference a good goalkeeper can make to a team one only has to look at the Birmingham, Sunderland, and recent Manchester United games.

In all three opposition goalkeepers had a major say in the direction of the match while poor keeping by Szcsesny and Almunia gave away goals at their end.

The defensive situation has grown into becoming a major problem area. William Gallas was allowed to leave from free and was replaced with lesser players.

Ex-players like Paul Merson have gone on record by saying that Wenger has only signed one top class defender during his entire 13 years as manager and has yet to buy a good never mind top class defender.

Liam Brady, the current Head of Youth Development said on Irish television that he was disappointed with how Arsenal had approached the return leg against Barcelona and how the big occasion had once again gotten to the players.

The most disappointing thing for Brady was how the leaders in the team, Fabregas, van Persie, and Nasri all went missing when needed most.

The current situation leaves Arsenal at possibly the lowest ebb since Arsene Wenger took over in 1996.

Should the Gunners come up short for the Premiership title as many now expect then questions about his philosophy and policy will be interrogated as never before.

His cause is not helped by his open admission that getting into the Champions League is always the priority nor Ivan Gazidas, Arsenal's Chief Executive, saying that winning that winning wasn't the clubs only objective.

Try telling that to the fans who pay for the most expensive seats in the Premiership.

There is no doubt that Arsene Wenger is a great manager and that his teams are highly entertaining but there comes a time when brilliance and entertainment are not enough.