After a season in which Arsene Wenger spent much time telling the press, the fans and indeed his own players that they were good enough, the past few weeks have shown that they are not. The Champions League semi finals saw them completely outplayed by Man Utd in the first leg but somehow get away with just a 1-0 defeat. All the talk was of a majestic comeback in the second leg where they could score two goals with no trouble and keep the clean sheet that would get them through. That talk lasted all of about 7 minutes before Ji Sung Park scored after a defensive mistake. Not impossible you thought, Arsenal are more than capable of scoring three goals and they still have 80 odd minutes to do it in.
Wrong. Four minutes later, Ronaldo won a cheap free kick 40 yards out, blasted it at goal, Almunia did one of his infuriating camera dives where he doesn’t actually dive properly and just flops instead, and suddenly it’s 2-0 Man Utd and the tie is dead. The rest of the game was a lesson in how to control a game. Arsenal couldn’t get anywhere near Man Utd, with only a debatable penalty to show for their efforts, having already conceded another. This was followed by the biggest home defeat in years last weekend, Chelsea destroying them 4-1 at the Emirates. If anything this match brought home even greater truths as for much of the first half Arsenal were the better side but as has been usual over the Wenger era, missed a hatful of chances before succumbing to a well flighted free kick that Alex headed in. Anelka, Toure (og) and Malouda all added goals which could have been prevented by a proper defence. Some semblance of pride was salvaged with a creditable 0-0 draw yesterday against United but the game mattered little.
As frustrated as we are.
I have never seen Wenger so down after a game as he was after that second leg. Most of his answers were one or two words and he was visibly upset at what had happened that night. We saw for the first time some admission that attempting to build a team completely with young players may not be the best way to go. He acknowledged that in the games that mattered there was something lacking, and that some ‘distance’ would be needed to assess what changes were required at the end of the season.
The January signing of Russian superstar Andrey Arshavin showed what playing for ready-made quality can do. He has been a revelation, seamlessly slotting in despite being played out of position and has yet to taste defeat. I do admire the fact Wenger is trying to win it all with kids but I feel at some point he lost track of the fact that for young players to improve, they need older players to learn from. When we previewed the semi finals last month, it was noted that from the side which reached the Champions League final in 2006, only three players remained. Campbell, Lehmann, Flamini, Hleb, Cole, Henry, Pires, Reyes, Ljungberg, and Gilberto all gone. The number of players released or sold on has been phenomenal and it seems as if even late 20s is now too old let alone thirties. Last summer, Hleb, Flamini and Gilberto left. That was half the first choice midfield and a World Cup winner. Only Nasri and Ramsey came in (I refuse to count Silvestre as a replacement for anyone).
You have to pay for quality.
The belief that by signing a top midfielder like Alonso you would be ‘killing’ Diaby, Song and Denilson is misguided. I would say that it’s actually the opposite. By not signing him, they have no one to push them in training, no one to push their automatic place in the first team, no one who can tell them what it takes to win major trophies. I realise that a lot of improvement is done by playing first team football against top opposition, but at the same time that goes hand in hand with improvement on the training pitch, something Wenger is an expert at. If you have no competition within your colleagues, you’re less likely to try harder and subsequently get found out when playing against the big clubs in league and Europe.
Compare Man Utd’s central options to Arsenal’s. Fergie can pick from Anderson (21), Carrick (27), Hargreaves (28), Scholes (34) and Fletcher (25). Throw in Giggs and Gibson and you have a nice blend of youth and experience which has seen the previously unheralded Fletcher improve to an extent where he is a first choice pick. In north London you have Fabregas as the senior figure at the grand age of 22. He is joined by Denilson (21), Diaby (23), Song (21), Ramsey (18) and a few others. All very young and inexperienced, despite many already being internationals.
Not the new Cesc, and not the new Vieira.
Take for example Alex Song. He is someone who has actually become pretty good this season (though considering how poor he was, any improvement would have been significant) but surely if you’re a developing defensive midfielder, it would be quite useful to have some like Gilberto around to give you handy pointers. Brazil perhaps aren’t noted for their defensive players but at the same time you don’t win a World Cup if you’re rubbish (though I suppose Roque Junior was in that squad too). Anyway the point is that Song could have learnt from him and if good enough over the course of the season, usurped him on merit. The ideal turnover is a young player replacing an older one over the course of the season and then you can get rid of the older player in the summer. You can’t dump a bunch of experience and go into a campaign blind and hope that a youngster proves himself – the Fabregas’ of this world are the exception not the rule.
You'll get found out against the best.
Also, I don’t see how it’s one rule for the midfielders and one rule for the attackers. Why can the chances of Diaby, Denilson and Song not be harmed by signing an experienced central player but signing Arshavin doesn’t block the young wingers/strikers. Is it not suddenly infinitely more difficult for the likes of Bendtner, Vela and others to grab one of the four wide/striking slots? He has always been very clinical in getting rid of players he feels can no longer offer anything and to be fair you can count on one hand the players who have more success once leaving the Gunners. Here’s hoping the underachievement (or playing to their level depending on your viewpoint) of this season’s squad means Wenger ends his policy of youth only and realises it’s time to be clinical with some of the current players too. I feel Arsenal are not far off challenging properly and the signing of a quality centre back and defensive midfielder would go a long way. The likes of Denilson can still become good players, but not without a helping hand. Ultimately, Wenger’s priority should be the welfare of Arsenal Football Club not individual players and this summer will be the time to re-address that.