Column: What’s hurting Arsenal, again

Amidst the chaos that erupted at the away end of the Vitality Stadium late in the game, a cruel sense of realization lingered. Despite Olivier Giroud’s last ditch equalizer handing the Gunners one point, the fact of the matter was that they had lost out on two. The comeback was a commendable one indeed, but what had transpired before it took place must never had happened- three Bournemouth goals. Two in the first half and a Ryan Fraser strike had made sure that Arsenal had a mountain to climb in the game. Although, they did manage to scale the mountain, but Tottenham’s win over Chelsea meant that a title charge would be like scaling Mt. Everest, as the Gunners currently lie at the fifth position in the table.

And the time when it’s begun to go all wrong for Arsenal is a won that they always seem to dread before the season begins. The Christmas period has acted the scourge for disintegrating Arsenal’s title hopes and the fact it’s doing the same this season proves that it isn’t a mere coincidence. It’s a chain of events that everyone has become accustomed to witnessing, time and time again.

Gone are the times when an Arsenal side had characters who oozed authority and domination. The likes of Martin Keown, Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires and the likes were big, massive presences, whose intensity scared most of their opponents. And their hunger, urgency, and unwavering belief in their character that played a massive role in helping Arsenal to the Invincibles crown in 2004. In times of crisis, they knew how to lift the dressing room and bring about a major change, if things weren’t going right. This spirit made Arsenal a force to be reckoned with and a European superpower.

Without taking anything away from them and the success that Arsene Wenger had enjoyed, it would be fair to say that Arsenal is a team full of perfect son-in-law’s, whose attractive hair styles and looks would be enough to make them desirable for a lot of women. Although, we can’t justify the amount of time they would take to get their looks right, there are very few in the modern footballing world, who don’t do so. Apart from players like, say Thomas Muller or those like Andres Iniesta, if not the Invincibles, the presence of no-nonsense footballers is low and Arsenal don’t have them right now. They seem to lack the character that can pull them out of bad times and it’s a massive deficiency in the line-up, which has the quality to win games.

Since the good times, despite having a vault full of cash at the club, Wenger has never spent heavily. Although, it is good for the modern day football scenario to have someone like him in there, but failure to adapt to the changing environment has played a part in keeping Arsenal behind in the race. He has lagged behind in signing players who know how to put the team-mates into position and have the character to lift the dressing room, or in simple words are mentally strong to handle the side.

Wenger has managed to become the sole figure of inspiration in the backroom staff and has succeeded in shifting that focus to himself. No player in the current Arsenal side can act as the leader in there and although, one can admit that Wenger has taken maximum advantage of that, but it can be a deliberate ploy to make himself the boss of all the affairs at the club. Whether it’s the first reason or the second, it’s clear that Wenger must have signed a leader of men. After all, the sole absence of that one player has cost them a lot over the years.

Although, playing a side as ever-improving as Bournemouth away from home is never easy, but Arsenal fell well short of the confidence in front of a boisterous crowd, who were having none of their attractive style of play. Bournemouth ran them ragged before they could find a rhythm to their game and were probably dominating them in all parts of the play. Arsenal failed miserably in getting a grip over their flailing confidence and although, one can’t help but appreciate them for their comeback, but it was also because Bournemouth had dropped deeper than necessary while trying to keep them out. The presence of a mentally strong individual in there could have acted as a propellant to win the game, if not come up with an abject first half showing.

Arsenal and its lack of mental strength

Wenger did talk up the issue of ‘mentality’ and was completely right to do so, despite having himself to blame for it too. Surrendering a one-goal leads to Everton and Manchester City brings the issue to the fore. And the disastrous first half at the South Coast only re-establishing that belief. It’s not that Arsenal is a bad team, they have a mentality that is short of strong-headedness.

This always seems to persist when Arsenal come up against the bigger sides, say Chelsea  (not this season, though), Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City, and United. They’ve beaten only Chelsea out of them and this weak underbelly of not performing to their best is also one of the things Arsenal fans have used to being treated with. As specific as it sounds, it could probably be the reason why Arsenal are mocked for finishing fourth and why their long-held association with the fourth position never seems to go away. It has brought about a certain amount of, or rather an acceptable amount of mediocrity to the club that always aims for the title. But a certain degree of being satisfied with it has crept in at the club.

Injuries to the likes of Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla, and Shkodran Mustafi, apart from the recent health issues of Mesut Ozil have also affected the side. The inclusion of Olivier Giroud up front and the pushing of Alexis Sanchez wide in the absence of Ozil has reduced the fluidity in the side but has given them an attacking target-man, who knows how to get at the end of long balls and crosses. That does prove that Wenger has brought in an element of adaptability to the side, but the usage of players in almost repetitive fashion has brought about the injury problems. And sometimes, it does seem as if Arsenal players drop like flies. There could be an issue with the training regime too.

Mustafi may have become a key player for Wenger since joining from Valencia and Arsenal haven’t lost a single game with him in a game, but their problems have crept up when he hasn’t been there to help out. Arsenal has struggled defensively and the losses to Everton and City are a reflection of that. Mustafi is a one among the few who know how to organize the backline and the German has a bit of authority about him too, which is helping Arsenal form a more dependable back four than last season. And after some years of struggle at, it does seem as if Wenger is getting the defense sorted out.

But it is going to be a practice in vain, come the end of the season. The Frenchman may leave the reins for Eddie Howe to take over and Arsenal would finally have a new manager in-charge. The mutual respect that Wenger and Howe have for each other is well documented and Jack Wilshere’s loan deal was a mark of the trust that Wenger has in the former Burnley boss and Bournemouth player. Howe has the know-how of spending within his limits and has the reputation of plucking the likes of Harry Arter, Simon Francis, Matt Ritchie, Marc Pugh and the likes from small clubs and making them household names in England today. His side, as the game against the Gunners showed, has more hunger and desire to win games when compared to Arsenal. Above all, the Englishman has probably gone down as one of the best managers in the country over the past decade.

It may be too early to talk about Wenger’s replacement, with the business end of the season now well underway, but it is bound to happen someday. Although, the season is not over yet, but Arsenal don’t look like a side that can win the Premier League from here on. And considering the approach Wenger has been taking, they would never have won it under him.

Sadly, this great story may not have a great ending.

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