What a surreal situation Arsenal find themselves in. Nine matches to play this season, one of those away to Spurs, one at home to Manchester United. The team do not necessarily have to win them all, but what they must do is match United’s results and beat them at home (with Alex Ferguson’s side playing at least two more matches than Arsenal and possibly five, due to prolonged interest in other competitions, and suffering real injury problems at the back). Oh, and Arsenal must guard against a late run from Chelsea. The bottom line is that their fate is very much in their own hands, and under normal circumstances, Gooners, at least, would have a feeling they could land the title from such a position at the beginning of April. And yet, looking at the results of one of our online polls, more than two out of every three Arsenal fans think United will win the title. This was conducted before and after the West Brom match and inevitably the result at the Hawthorns, and the preceding series of results, have influenced the outlook of Gooners. You could certainly make an argument for poor luck against Sunderland. A key offside decision that went against the Gunners and a blatant penalty not given. However, you could equally point to Nicklas Bendtner’s handball for the assist that created the equaliser at West Brom. It’s swings and roundabouts, but the bottom line in each game was that – against opposition that champions in waiting should be expected to beat – fortune played a key role in deciding the outcome. By the time of the decisions that went against them in the Sunderland game, a lead should really have been established. And yet there seemed a lack of urgency about the performance, belying what was at stake. The team rarely shifted out of second gear, which is fine if you are 3-0 up, but inexcusable when yet to register a goal. What the crowd love about a player like Jack Wilshere is that he seems such a contrast to his team-mates. Over recent seasons, we have gradually witnessed the team become slower in their build-up and play with less cut and thrust than previous Wenger teams. In the days of Henry and Pires, you could see three passes from the edge of the Gunners’ own penalty box, and an opportunity would be created with the opposition defence totally exposed. Now they are given time to get back in number and regroup. There are occasional exceptions that show the players are capable of
getting the ball forward quickly, such as the winning goal against Barcelona in the first leg of the recent tie. However, they are all too rare. And it is this drop in the pace of getting the ball forward that has meant the team has made hard work of too many games in recent times, and frequently dropped points against teams that Arsenal would have beaten in the days they played under Wenger at Highbury. As for West Brom, the paucity of the defending for both goals is probably what put the nail in the coffin of optimism for the majority of fans. Everyone makes mistakes. Even United and Chelsea leak the odd soft goal. However, it is the frequency that they are suffered by Arsenal that really hurts. The winner in the Carling Cup Final; Fabregas’ gift of a backheel to his future team mates in the Nou Camp; Almunia’s walkabout in West Bromwich. Where will it end? The situation isn’t helped when you field a player as a defensive midfielder who hasn’t got a clue how to either execute the basics of a tackle nor play the position. As some of these mistakes were committed by players regarded as amongst our best by the supporters, it’s beyond the simple matter of bemoaning the back up options for not being worth their wages. It seems to me that there is a mental problem. The manager talks about the players’ ‘mental strength’ to such a degree that it makes many, including me, see red. I see exactly the opposite of mental strength: a lack of focus to go with a lack of team discipline. And yet, on occasion, the side have demonstrated that they are capable of being fully switched on and performing as an outstanding unit. Why they are only able to reach such heights once in a blue moon is beyond me. I wonder, if by some chance Arsenal do manage to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity to win the Premier League, how we will look back on this campaign. I’d suggest with utter bewilderment. You would have difficulty believing a side that have played so poorly so often could actually be the best in the country. The question now is whether or not, for a grand total of nine matches, Wenger’s players can perform consistently enough to overtake United and remain there. Of course, the fans will remember the all too frequent collapses when in sight of glory in the previous three seasons. And this is what has led to the lack of belief in the team. Naturally, we want the players to prove our doubts wrong more than anything, but their recent results have proved hauntingly familiar. The succession of cup exits, the cheap league points dropped against so-called weaker opponents. If Arsène Wenger can get enough of his key men on the field at the same time, there is definitely hope. Whether or not they then have the requisite character and knowhow will ultimately determine whether Project Wenger has a happy ending or proves a waste of the last five years, except for the major shareholders who have seen the value of their investment rise. By the time of the next issue, we will have a much better idea. I’d finish by saying ‘keep the faith’ but, for a good number, it’s too late for that. So instead I’ll leave it at this message to Wenger and his squad: ‘surprise me’.
- Kevin Whitcher
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CONTRIBUTORS Kevin Whitcher, Mike Francis, Phil Wall, Steve Ashford, Mike Slaughter, Brian Dawes, Warren Swaine, Simon Rose, Robert Exley, Charlie Ashmore, Bernard Dowling, Peter Le Beau, David O’Brien, Nadim Naaman, Andreas Kokkinos, Nick Kelsall, Damian Hall, Dave Carver, David Williams, Stuart Watson, Deb Bunt, Jamie Sanderson, Matt Woods, Colin Riggs, Fozzy, Alex Laidman, Tom Hall, Tony Huegdon, Son of Fozzy, Dr Robert, Kevin O’Connor, Paul Regan, Steve Harris, Phil Venton & Tony Porter ARTWORK Darren Rackham, Ron Hill, Mike Murphy, Tony Eagle & The X-Man PHOTOS Offside Sports Photography & Professional Sport MATCHDAY SELLERS Dave, Mrs B, Andrew, Rich, Frank, Alex, PJ, Marc, David, Paul, Pete, James & Simon PRINTERS Regal Litho 01908 270 400,
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