Arsenal FC…When I was growing up that was a club that was firmly rooted in the ‘Big Four’ of English football. The Premier League was guaranteed to have Arsenal contending for the top three, easily, with (normally) Liverpool making up that fourth and final Champions League spot.
It is not only Arsenal taking the plunge into the depths of the mid-table Premier League; Liverpool is not far behind the Gunners, who currently sit eighth – a position that is simply unacceptable for the North London side.
Manchester United also suffered some setbacks last year; I don’t think anyone will forget anytime soon that United finished in seventh position. But this is about the downfall of the mighty…the collapse of the invincibles…the demise of the once so fear-inducing Arsenal Football Club. I know, having watched enough Premier League matches to last me a lifetime and then some, that whenever Arsenal was hosting a match, whether that be at the Emirates or at the legendary Highbury, you could bet your house on seeing an Arsenal victory, or at the very least a dramatic draw.
Now I’m not going to say that the defeat at the Emirates against Manchester United is the definitive point in my thinking that Arsenal, and Arsène Wenger, have completely lost the plot. No, it goes far beyond that. I’m talking about nine years beyond Saturday’s 2-1 home defeat.
That’s right. Since the ‘Invincibles’ in 2004, and the subsequent rise of Chelsea and later Manchester City, Arsenal has been lost in the rubble. Can the Gunners faithful seriously keep blaming the aforementioned powerhouses for the money that they have brought to the table? Arsenal’s budget may not be able to rival that which is so generously provided by Roman Abramovich, but neither is Southampton’s, and we all know where they sit at the moment.
Second place by the end of November, after selling their core strength to Liverpool, is something to be highly commended of Southampton, regardless of where the club ends up in May. Second place for Arsenal seems like mission impossible; at this point, breaking into the top four seems like an uphill battle thanks to the apparent resurrection of Manchester United.
So what needs to change in January?
Defence. To use the cliché true to all sports: defence wins championships. It’s not a hard concept to grasp; José Mourinho’s 2004-2005 Chelsea were champions mainly because they mastered the ‘one-nil’ win. Coming under criticism for playing ‘ugly’ football was a side effect of that success, but at the end of the day, it was Chelsea lifting the Premier League trophy.
Now, of course, the Blues are mastering a new style of football, mixing class and flair with a rock solid defence. Arsenal has the former in attacking football, but the Gunners severely lack the latter in the back four. January is absolutely crucial for Wenger; it is the transfer window that will, in my opinion, define the rest of his Arsenal career, should he even make it to January. A strong, quick, and commanding centre back is needed to replace an ageing and increasingly slow Per Mertesacker. Seeing a centre back of Mats Hummels’s quality in the red and white would bring holiday joy to the Arsenal fans, but luring any top player to a club that does not have any true guarantee of Champions League football next season will be a tall order.
So too do Arsenal need a right back to fill the void left by Bacary Sagna. It must be a bit odd to see Carl Jenkinson, currently on loan from the Gunners at London rivals West Ham, sitting two places above Arsenal. The England international could prove to be like Kieran Gibbs and rise as an essential figure in the Arsenal setup.
Whatever happens in the January window, one thing is certain: attack is not the answer. Wenger has enough in the tank to provide a free-scoring attacking lineup with the likes of Sánchez (who has been clearly carrying the team), Welbeck, and the returning Giroud. Keeping the goals out is what Arsenal needs to focus on, and their current back four is not getting the job done.
Has Wenger run out of ideas? Is it time to let him go? He’s a brilliant coach; no one can deny that, but the time may have come for him to step down. Arsenal is meant to be a team fighting for the Premier League crown, not fighting for fourth place. You only need to watch any highlight reel to see the ‘Wenger Out’ signs, or read Piers Morgan’s constant anti-Wenger twitter tirades, to see that the fans have been, for the most part, lost. The second half of the season will be the definitive time for Wenger, but the question remains, how many more times will the Arsenal board allow scraping by in the top four to be the saving grace for the Frenchman before they finally hit the breaking point?