Arsenal lacking the va-va-voom of yesteryear

“I want to be in a club that is able to win the big titles year after year,” were the words of former Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas during a recent “interview” with Sport magazine. The Spaniard denied making the comments on his Twitter account but even though the words may be fake, is there a hint of truth shrouded in the, apparent, wording of the Barcelona midfielder?

The Gunners have made their worst start to a Premiership campaign since the competitions inception in 1992 and, following the 4-3 defeat to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, many have been speculating as to the future of not only Arsene Wenger, but the club as well. Struggling to overcome a plucky Swansea City outfit at home, drawing away at Newcastle United and losing to, what should be, title rivals Liverpool and Manchester United have compounded Arsenal to a miserable start to the season.

Starters Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy departing over the summer wouldn’t have helped the cause but in replacing them with Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun and Andre Santos, Wenger was at least able to add some Premier League and international experience to his squad, while the addition of Per Mertesacker was supposed to help plug a leaky defence but his apparent lack of pace has been exploited already.

By bringing in Gervinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Park Chu-Young, the French tactician at least strengthened the depth of the front-line at the acquisition of Ivory Coast international Gervinho looks to be a shrewd one. However, Oxlade-Chamberlain, like Theo Walcott, will take time to settle and develop and Chu-Young won’t adjust to the pace and physicality of the English game instantaneously.

It is almost eight years since Arsenal completed the impressive ‘Invincible’ season, a campaign which Wenger described as ‘immortality’. He wasn’t far wrong with his statement as the North London side picked up an impressive 26 wins over the 38 games. However, since that famous season, the club have only managed to pick an FA Cup for their troubles and tribulations and while they may have been a consistent force in the Premiership, often finding themselves in or around the top four come May, it is worrying that the lack of silverware is beginning to become a curse on the team.

In comparison to today the modern day, the Gunners are failing to pick up the points that they were in seasons past. I’m not talking about the 8-2 thrashing at the hands of Manchester United, but rather the defeats to Liverpool and Blackburn coupled with the draw at Newcastle. Arsenal have usually been the dominant force when it comes to three sides respective head-to-head records. For example, Liverpool’s win at the Emirates last month was their first win away at Arsenal in over ten years, the defeat to Blackburn at the weekend was their first in ten encounters between the two sides and they have usually come out trumps against Newcastle in recent years, bar the 1-0 loss and 4-4 draw of last season and the 0-0 draw in this one.

Such results have seen the Gunners written off as top four contenders, let alone title challengers, this stage in the season and it’s only September. Yet despite the frailties at the back, the season is only 5 games old, four if you are Everton and Tottenham fans, and to write any team off before Christmas is just sacrilege. They still find themselves in the Champions League and, judging by their rivals; they have the ability to at least qualify from the group and should do so as winners. Having taken a point against, arguably, their hardest opponents away from home in the first game will surely stand them in good stead for the remaining five group games.

Yet, as successful as any team is in the initial six matches, great teams are remembered by how they the play over the 13 games of the entire competition, not how they performed in the last 16, quarter-finals or semi-finals. Some believe Arsenal have become perennial under-achievers due to the inability to successfully land the trophy that has eluded many teams during its illustrious history.

Don’t get me wrong, qualifying for Europe’s grandest competition while juggling the demands of the Premiership year after year is a tremendous feat but, having only battled their way to the final once in the competition coupled with two final appearances against Chelsea and Birmingham City in the Carling Cup, only to lose all three of the matches, the only three finals they have reached since the ‘Invincibles’ season.

Such performances have seen the club lose their ‘star power’, if you will, and Arsenal aren’t such a draw for the big players as they once were. In years gone by, their ability to snare the games superstars has diminished at an exponential rate. Players no longer see the club as a means of winning trophies, often snubbing them in favour of a move to, say, Premier League rivals Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, or to ply their trade abroad with a number of the continents big guns.

Examples are in the signings of Arteta and Benayoun, two players who may be good enough to grace teams in the upper echelons of the Premiership but are hardly in the same league as the players they were brought in to replace; Fabregas and Nasri. Looking at the squad list now, the team have three genuinely great players left on their books; Robin Van Persie, Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny. Some may argue that Thomas Vermaelen should also be included but the Belgian international has spent more time in the physio room than on the pitch in recent months.

In comparison to the set of players from the 03/04 season, a majority of the current crop wouldn’t be fit to lace the boots of the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira or Robert Pires, to name a few. It’s a worrying trend that the Gunners seem to find themselves set upon. They lost two of their star names over the summer and failed to replace them with players of similar ilk, how long will it be until the rest begin to realise that without serious investment, they are stuck on a ship that instead of sailing to glory, is sinking into deep, murky waters.

Much was made about the lack of spending by Wenger over the summer and it took until the final days of the transfer window for the former Monaco coach to dip into his pocket and spend the funds culminated from the Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy sales. Yet, while Santos, Arteta and Benayoun helped plug the gaps left by their previous incumbents, some feel they aren’t good enough to replicate the form and their ability isn’t up to the standard of the players, whose role they are now being asked to fill.

In defence, as I previously mentioned, Mertesacker’s lack of pace has already been capitalised upon during the 1-0 win over Swansea and the 4-3 defeat to Blackburn. Against faster moving teams, such as Manchester United and City, Barcelona and Napoli who all rely on pace in the attacking third, the former Werder Bremen’s deficiencies will be underlined further by players such as Javier Hernandez, Sergio Aguero, Lionel Messi and Edinson Cavani. Some expected the giant German to become a formidable part of the Arsenal back four, and he will be once Vermaelen is back from injury, but until then, fans will have to hope that the 26-year-old can adjust to the speed of the Premiership sooner rather than later.

Up-front, Wenger can rely on both Van Persie and Gervinho to provide the goals, and in Marouane Chamakh, he has a decent back-up and a player who can be utilised should Arsenal need to revert to ‘plan B’. But, without Van Persie, Arsenal don’t have a world class striker at their disposal which is worrying problem for a club of their stature. I’m sure Wenger attempted to bring in another front-man to help support Van Persie and Gervinho but was thwarted by some of the bigger clubs around Europe and was forced to settle with Chu-Young.

These are worrying times for the Gunners and even though it is impossible to write them off so early on in the season, the state of the club must be a cause for concern for even the most hardened of Arsenal fans. “He didn’t suddenly become a bad manager. To have him portrayed as some kind of idiot who is out of touch is profoundly damaging, not simply for Arsenal nor particularly for Arsene, but for football,” were the words of chief executive Ivan Gazidis earlier today as reports surfaced that his position as manager was under threat. The resounding defence by Gazidis will surely boost Wenger’s diminishing confidence and he must have the support of the dressing room if he is to right the wrongs that has seen the club make a less than impressive start to the season.

However, the bad results have got to be corrected as quickly as possible otherwise Arsenal may soon find themselves struggling to replicate the form that has seen them achieve top four finishes for the best part of a decade now.

Ben McAleer @BenMcAleer1

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