Yes, it’s confirmed. For the eighth year running, Arsene Wenger and his men find themselves staring down a long, dark alley, which has nothing but an empty trophy cabinet at the end of it. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re officially into ‘Arsenal time’ of the season.
Wenger has some thinking and tinkering to do. (Getty Images)
(Side note: Arsenal time i.e. that part of the Premier League season where Arsenal find themselves knocked out of every possible tournament. A time when the Champions League qualification seems like a deluded dream, a time when experienced players begin to question the club’s ambitions and their respective futures at the club; a time when everything from club’s transfer policy to the length of manager’s toe nail comes under severe scrutiny; a time when when even the most level-headed fans decide to roll back the years, watch the ‘Invincibles‘ season in infinite loop and demand ‘the old Arsenal‘ back. A club in crisis, anyone?)
Glad we got that out of the way, let’s get down to business then.
After a toothless 3-1 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich in the first leg, few would have predicted the grit and determination that Wenger’s men managed to conjure up to beat one of the competition favourites; a very fluent Bavarian side in their own backyard. All in all, this is the third season in a row (Barcelona, A.C. Milan and now Bayern Munich) when Arsenal have been left to lament their performance in the first leg; three seasons in a row when they have bowed out of the competition with their heads held high, a ‘glorious failure’ in all respects. The fact that they were one Nicklas Bendtner toe poke away from knocking out the ‘best’ team in the world despite being down to ten men should say enough about the margins involved. If only there were extra brownie points for a valiant effort:
“Unfortunately, we have to go out of the Champions League, but the positive is, of course, the performance and the spirit.”– Wenger in his post- Bayern interview.
Arsenal have been far from consistent this season. 8 draws and 7 losses in 29 games in the Premier league speaks of a team, which can be ruthless on its day but runs out of ideas on others. 28 of their 55 goals this season have come in just five of their games (via OptaJoe), which is a testament to the fact that an attack, which possesses the ability to run riot also has a tendency to hit a brick wall in front of teams, which play with a sterner organisation policy. Add defensive fragility, individual errors and tactical inflexibility to the fray and you have all the ingredients of a stop-start season. To add insult to injury, Arsenal, who would have fancied a decent cup run to end the trophy drought ended up exiting both cup competitions, courtesy setbacks against lower league teams (Bradford and Blackburn Rovers ), the F.A. Cup defeat being the first of it’s kind since Wenger took charge in 1996.
“It is very painful and disappointing to lose a game like that, but what is important now is to get that behind us and focus on the next one.”- Wenger, post the Blackburn game.
Jack Wilshere cuts a lone figure after Arsenal’s defeat to Blackburn. (Getty Images).
‘Change’ is the need of the hour at this club. A change in mindset, a change in personnel, a change in tactics. The worst part about those two shock defeats was that both of them seemed so inevitable. Don’t get me wrong, fans were angry and disappointed due to embarrassment caused, they had a complete right to be so but the fact that it it all managed to sink in so conveniently and passively validates the lack of belief and the absence of winning mentality in and around the club. The magnificent stadium, the beaming balance sheets, the world class youth academy, it is all so promisingly set up and Arsene can’t be given enough credit for what he has done at the club. The only thing missing in this puzzle is a piece of silverware and the ‘Wenger out’ brigade needs to comprehend that.
On a positive note, there are a few things that just might work in Arsenal’s favour, come this summer. After a few tumultuous transfer windows which has seen some of the most decorated stars leave the club for one or the other reason, apart from the Bacary Sagna situation, this will be the first season when Arsenal won’t be expecting to be involved in a tug of war marathon involving any of their ‘settled’ players. Secondly, the following transfer should see the likes of Arshavin, Squillaci, Fabianski (despite his recent ‘heroics’), Djourou, Bendtner, Park Chu Young and Denilson leave the club on a permanent basis freeing up space on the wage bill. Add to that, the cash reserves announced in the latest financial results and Wenger should have a cool £70- £80 million to his disposal consequently, making the acquisition of world-class players like Jovetic and Villa, sound a bit more realistic.
Arsene has shown the instincts of a ‘changed’ man lately, his team selections, his substitutions, his pre/post-match interviews, everything reeks of a manager who is hungrier than ever to answer his critics. Dropping your team’s captain and your first choice keeper for a crucial night in Europe is not the easiest decision to make, when the odds are already against you. With Chelsea and Tottenham still caught up in their respective European adventures, Arsenal perhaps, have the easiest run-in till the end of the season. They have to go into every remaining match with the tenacity of a cup final or in their case, the second leg against Bayern and who knows, maybe even the second or third spot will be up for grabs, come May, 2013.
Chin-up: Arsenal should take every game as a cup final. (Getty Images)
“I always said that it is more down to belief because the solidarity and the commitment is there – I see that every day. We are ready for a fight on what we have shown today.”- Wenger, after the Swansea win.
The time is now for Arsene and his Arsenal. Secure a coveted Champions League spot, invest over the summer, come back with an enhanced squad next season and his obsession for doing things ‘the Arsenal way’ might just pay off. Arsenal miss a Lehmann in goal, an Adams in defence, a Vieira in midfield and an Henry in attack but most of all, they miss a Wenger on the sidelines with a smile on his face, a trophy in his hands, conquering British football like he used to.