Wednesday, 12 December 2012

End of the world?

According to the Mayan calendar, the world may well end on 21/12/12, in just over a week's time. However, judging by some of the reactions on Arsenal blogs and forums across the interweb after last night's loss to Bradford, it already has.

It was a painful way to go out of what, realistically, was our best chance of ending the Gunners' so-called 'trophy drought'. In the past, Arsene Wenger used the League Cup as a chance to blood young players. Yesterday, he played almost a full-strength first team. He'd intimated that this would be the case, given that we don't play again until Monday night, but nevertheless it was perhaps a gesture from the manager that there was a genuine desire to win this competition. A cup would also go some way to appease some of the more antagonistic fans, who shout ever more noisily about Wenger's deficiencies.

Indeed, the anti-Wenger brigade had made themselves heard in recent weeks, most notably at the home game against Swansea the weekend before last, when the atmosphere as the final whistle blew was perhaps the most hostile that I have heard at the Emirates. There is certainly discontent with the manager, but it is far from universal among fans. Others direct their anger elsewhere, such as the Black Scarf Movement, who are angry at the board. Some fans continue to support Arsene to the hilt, while others are ambivalent, recognising that a fallow patch is not unusual in the historical context of football clubs in general or Arsenal in particular.

Last night however, the vitriol was directed at a further source – the players. Gervinho in particular came in for strong criticism, as did Chamakh and Ramsey. Like many, I too have doubts whether these players should be in the team given the standard of their recent showings. But if there are concerns about their abilities, there surely cannot be any about Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen. They are quality players, and a confident, functioning Arsenal team containing those players should be able to win a game like the Bradford tie.

Unfortunately, at the moment Arsenal are not convincing. They lack confidence, incision, inspiration and often (inexplicably) this season they have also looked, to use an annoying Wengerism – 'jaded'. This is evident in our recent record. We were poor against Swansea, poor in Greece against Olympiakos, better – but lucky – against West Brom, and in all honesty pretty poor against Bradford.

At the moment Arsene is not getting the best out of the players, and it is neither unsurprising nor unreasonable for fans to question why not. Similarly, if the quality of the squad is deficient, then there are further questions to be asked of the manager – ultimately, he bought them. But while Wenger will be criticised when the team falls short, the real concern is that unless he acknowledges that there is a problem and does something to address it, Arsenal will continue to lose ground all the time.

Even the most vocal, proactive supporters do not really have the power to force change. Most supporters' noise can easily be filtered out. Ultimately, the power lies with an owner and Chief Executive who both seem largely passive and in accord with Arsene's policies and 'vision' for the club. That perhaps, is because neither Stan Kroenke nor Ivan Gazidis predates Wenger – they have never seen an Arsenal without Arsene, and cannot envisage a future without him.

So are Arsenal – the manager, the board and the players – just too comfortable? Paradoxically, this is a situation that has been created and exacerbated by the commendable achievements of the Wenger era; never out of the top four, consecutive seasons in the Champions League. Such success should not to be discounted or belittled. But fans still find it frustrating. The root, I think, is that there is a sense that we haven't done as well as we might have. We've been close, only to have the rug pulled from under our feet, which can be attributed to more than bad luck. Big losses and smaller ones – from Champions League final defeat against Barca to League Cup final defeat against Birmingham – have combined with an increasingly regular cycle of building and stripping away squads that seem to be perpetually on the cusp of achieving something great.

Here, the obvious cases in point are of players leaving – Nasri, Cesc, Song, van Persie. Their replacements are generally not of the same calibre. They're still good, but the tragedy is that they have to plug the new gaps in the squad instead of adding an extra dimension. Then again, the great unanswered question is, what are the financial restrictions at Arsenal? If Wenger has been tasked by the board to balance the books at the expense of the team, then he is working with his hands tied and deserves far more credit than he has been given. If it is a self-imposed restriction, then the perception changes again. This uncertainty is compounded by the shadowy half-information that emanates from lots of different sources at the heart of the club and means that in the end, I do not feel Arsenal fans have the facts they need to truly be able to judge Wenger's abilities in 2012/13.

We have to make do with what we can see, and that is what happens on the pitch. Last night, even in the League Cup, that performance was not good enough. Improvement is needed fast if we are not to fall behind in the competitions that really matter. And at the moment, the only quick fix on the horizon looks to be the January transfer window. If he has the money that is reputed to be available, then Wenger must buy players to improve and enhance the squad, without losing existing assets like Theo Walcott.