I don’t want this to be another negative, doom-and-gloom reaction to the Man City game, full of hyperbolic rage and knee-jerk reactions. Sack Wenger. Sack the board. Sell every player that misplaced a pass, bring back Chamakh and Djourou from loan and pair them with a £50bn mega-signing from Peru that’s just started trending on Twitter. I know I’m exaggerating other peoples’ use of hyperbole and that’s very ironic and quite unfair, really, especially when I know most people are fully justified in their criticisms and frustrations, frustrations that I myself share. Of course I do, it’s hard not to – another loss, another performance without fight in the first half and then, even once we started to give a damn, no quality to back it up. Another transfer window seemingly going begging, despite not only having clear deficiencies before the window opened but actually having let players go in crucial positions once it began. Chamakh may be next to useless but we’re still worse off without him and, in my opinion, Djourou is more than decent enough to be our fourth choice CB – I can’t see us doing any better for the price he’d bring in.
So to avoid a negative reaction to the City game, only this single paragraph of the piece is going to be about it. The positives? A show of a modicum of effort and commitment in the second half, the fact that City didn’t destroy us the way we were probably expecting, and the Koscielny sending off being just controversial enough we can still feasibly call Mike Dean a ****. Even though he was probably right, you have no idea how much I want to uncensor that word. The negatives are a bit more lengthy: Koscielny made an appalling mistake that, although there are various arguments against it (tackles like that occur all the time at corners, it didn’t look like Dzeko would reach the ball anyway etc), almost definitely merited the punishment he got from a ref that always seems to enjoy dishing it out against us. Walcott was almost non-existent and provided no out ball, meaning City kept coming back at us and this, along with Arteta’s absence, prevented us from ever getting a grip on the game even without that red card sending us reeling, whilst throwing Diaby in half-fit shows our lack of depth. We lacked any sort of belief we could turn it around until the second half, where Giroud again showed that, for all his qualities, clinical finishing is not one of them as he missed another close-range header, and finally, there were of course more incredibly poor defensive mistakes that lead to both goals.
But that isn’t what irritates me. What irritates me is that even before the game kicked off there were many fans fearing the worse. We are the Arsenal, a few years ago we could have gone toe-to-toe with Barca, Madrid, United, Bayern without batting an eyelid. Think about it, in the Invincibles season, or the run to the Champions League final, did we ever have the sort of feeling we get before big names now, the certain feeling we were second best, with any faith we could win down to desperate optimism? I definitely didn’t. Sure, against the likes of United in the Prem and Madrid in the CL I still felt those big match butterflies, but the key difference is that even in the absolute worst occasions we weren’t underdogs, it’s just the opposition were the favourites: it’s an important distinction to make. Now these feelings of despair aren’t even reserved for the top clubs, they swamp us almost every game. If Patrick Viera had ever heard an Arsenal fan sounding as nervous and pessimistic about a game against Swansea during his days as we have been the last few seasons, he’d walk up and kick you in the head. Twice.
The problem is we’re moving more and more away from being a big club. Ignore the legacy of Arsene Wenger, the legacy of Arsenal itself is fading. No matter how many statues we build, the likes of Adams and Henry are drifting away, replaced by Giroud and Mertresacker. Top quality players I know, I rate both hugely and think they’re sorely hard done by by the press and opposition fans, but they’re just not at the same level. It’s the same throughout the team: Podolski, Arteta, Vermaelen, Walcott are all good players, but when you compare them to Henry, Bergkamp, Pires, Viera it’s like comparing Real Madrid to Schalke – they may be a good team and a challenge to play against but one’s a word class club and the other’s a big step down. If you take the top clubs in the world right now you’d pick Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea and Bayern Munich, with Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus a hair’s breadth away. Arsenal arguably are still part of that group but we’re more on the Dortmund/Juventus level and even they would be favourites in a match against us. We’re threatening to become Schalke.
Unfortunately, this attitude is building throughout the club. You can see it in Wenger’s quotes that ‘we can’t compete with the ‘top clubs’ financially’. He almost certainly means the other top clubs, or at least is referring to a solely monetary basis, but the implications are there on a subconscious level. We’ve developed a second-best mentality that Viera and co would never have accepted, and it shows. When we play the top teams we look lacklustre, when we play badly there’s no spark, no drive to push us on and seal the win regardless and, most importantly, when we go a goal down or suffer from a game-changing decision which, at the time, had more than a hint of injustice about it, we lose faith and let our shoulders slump rather than fostering that siege mentality that served the Arsenal of old so well.
It shows in the players as well. I’ve already listed some of our better players and compared them to the Invincibles. That isn’t fair; the Invincibles were by far the best team this league has ever seen and none of our PL rivals compare to them either. But the fact is that whereas before Arteta or Podolski would simply be a good, solid player in the team, now they’re key players we can’t do without. We can see it at United – whilst Arteta is far superior to Carrick, the fact remains that if the Spaniard was in United’s midfield he would be treated the same way as the Englishman by the media; as a solid, underrated player that helps the better players (Rooney etc) perform, not as the midfield linchpin as he is for us. Even Santi Cazorla, our best player and easily one of the best in the league, if not the world, suffers from the second-best mentality we are cultivating. When Cazorla plays well, he is sublime, there’s no denying it. Words cannot describe his class. But when have you seen him lift a team? Against City the other day he disappeared. Against United he disappeared. Even against Southampton he disappeared. When the team plays badly, Cazorla plays badly, it’s as simple as that. He’s a world class player and of course it could be the other way round – the team could play badly when Cazorla doesn’t play well. Whenever he’s been on form so have Arsenal, with Liverpool, Newcastle and Reading among others finding this out to their cost, but he’s been too easily neutralized.
The same is true of Walcott. In Henry’s era he never would have had a chance of forcing a contract the way he’s doing so now, and yet he’s all but holding a gun to Wenger’s head demanding he count out the cash or he’ll have ‘crisis’ headlines swamping national newspapers and fan blogs alike. Again, he’s a good player, a valuable player and our top goalscorer this season, but we’re Arsenal! Bergkamp could hold us hostage, although he never would. Henry could and did hold us hostage. So did Viera. But these were huge, colossal players, legends and icons, titans in the game. Not Theo Walcott. If it weren’t for the contract situation we’d be bemoaning Wenger’s ‘Walcott as a striker’ experiment almost as vehemently as we do his ‘Ramsey as a winger’ gag, and yet here we are dependent on a player who’s still a long way from world class and showing little sign he’ll ever be at the very top. Now I’m all for him signing a new contract, I’m hoping he does and I’ll be gutted if he doesn’t, but it’s more down to the psychological effect of losing another big player than any actual playing ability, and the fact the Walcott is now considered a ‘big’ player for us perfectly illustrates my point. Our big players have descended from Henry/Bergkamp/Viera to Fabregas/Nasri/Van Persie to Walcott in a matter of years. My exact response to Sky Sports’ announcement in the summer that Walcott wouldn’t be sold then was ‘meh’ – I really didn’t care as long as we replaced him, and yet he’s still got a high enough profile compared to our other players that he can hold the club to ransom. I readily accept he’s developed into a key player for us – as worrying as that is – but he rarely scores deciding goals; they all come in 5-2 or 7-3 wins rather than a 2-1 or a 1-0. We’re too big a club to have a player who can only score in comfortable games as one of our leading stars.
As it stands, the only player I can see with true winning potential is Wilshere – he is the only one I can see us building a title winning side around. Now I know that sounds highly derogatory towards the other players, especially Cazorla who is sublime, and trust me I’m far from one of those ‘supporters’ that thinks the entire team’s poor, but Wilshere is the only one who I can see still standing out if he was surrounded by quality. Cazorla would be highlighted as a key player but doesn’t have that Viera-esque drive that makes a player truly integral to a side. Wilshere, on the other hand, has the ability to run Xavi and Iniesta ragged at the age of 19 and the passion to drive on a sorely lagging side; we saw it at Bradford especially but in countless games it’s been clear that Wilshere truly cares and he’s forced to team to at least try to meet his level on any number of occasions.
I’m not saying that every other player has to go, but we would need a fairly substantial restructuring of the team if we’re ever to reach the same heights as before and truly be put at the same level as the Spanish clubs. Szczesny has the drive to succeed and I can see him being the same as Lehman – not the best keeper in the world but still packing plenty of ability and making up the rest with his mentality – but if you offered me an alternative I wouldn’t instantly turn you down. Gibbs I can see equalling Ashley Cole minus the, erm, ‘personal deficiencies’, and Sagna is already one of the best in his position worldwide, as long as we can get him back to the same level of focus he’s previously had as he’s slipped a little this season, so there I think we’re sorted, but other than that all areas need improvement. Our centrebacks all have ability and I could see them all in a title-winning side but an Adams-esque centre half would make a huge difference to the side; I know they’re in fairly short supply these days but you only have to look at how much of a difference John Terry, for all his downfalls, makes for his team despite not actually being that good anymore to realise that passion, commitment and real blood-and-guts defending can win a trophy as surely as a world class striker. In midfield to say Jack and Santi would be acceptable is a cataclysmic understatement but Arteta, for all his quality, is a solid player in the wrong position – if we had a space free for him further up the pitch than his current defensive role he’d make the team but there isn’t one and so unfortunately he and Diaby should drop to the bench. They’re too good for bench players of course but they’d be outstanding options and allow us to properly rotate, plus as I’ve said before both are more suited to being solid players in a quality team rather than players to have a team built around, at least for a club as good as we aspire to be. On the wings both Walcott and Podolski, sadly, fall into the same category – good players that just aren’t at the level where they should be depended on to win a title. One in the side at a time would be more than fine but a top quality winger would be needed to put us firmly back towards the top end of the top tier, at least until Chamberlain fulfils his potential (if that doesn’t involve him moving central that is). The same goes for Giroud. I love him as a player and, aside from Wilshere, he seems to be the one that cares the most when the side’s playing poorly, but he isn’t world class and that is the one definite requirement for a top side – Chelsea struggle enough with Torres and that’s with the likes of Mata and Hazard behind him, give them Falcao to feed and it’s frightening to think what they could do.
This may all seem like wishful thinking, even a little over the top. It might seem like I’m undervaluing quality players like Arteta and especially Cazorla and that we don’t need as drastic a change as I might be suggesting. You’re right, we could probably win the title with less and if we started next season with Arteta, Podolski and Walcott still in the team I would be perfectly happy, whilst we probably don’t have the resources or even the intention to do anything drastic. But to reach the same level we were once at we’d need a real boost in class to push us out of the zone in between Schalke and Juventues and firmly into the company of Barcelona et al. We are the Arsenal and we should do more. We deserve it. Not because we’re entitled to it, or because we’re somehow morally superior, but because millions of gunners worldwide did not fall in love with Dennis Bergkamp only for a big-spending Russian, a selfish Dutchman and a slightly apathetic board to cast us back into the abyss of mediocrity. We are the Arsenal, and it’s time we remembered just what that means. It’s time to move Forward.------------
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