It’s been a strange season so far, with no one team looking that convincing. After a fantastic start, Chelsea have begun to show what they are - still a great team but getting past their prime with their most important players like Terry, Lampard, Drogba and Cole all in their thirties. While it’s too early to write off their chances of winning the league and they have more than a decent chance of success in Europe, they’re beginning to look their age although the signing of Torres and Luiz suggests Abramovich is willing to turn things around for next season and beyond. Following Ronaldo’s departure Manchester United were carried in 2009/10 by Rooney, but gladly this season his off-field problems have possibly contributed to stopping him consistently showing the form he’s capable of. Nevertheless, they had a long unbeaten run and continue to grind out results, despite their current team not really matching the best sides produced by Ferguson. Liverpool declined last season and were if anything getting worse this time. The appointment of Dalglish has improved them but they are out of this season’s title race. Manchester City have accumulated lots of very fine players but presently look short of being a title winning outfit, similar to Tottenham. So what about Arsenal this season? For the reasons outlined above regarding the relative weaknesses of our main challengers, it’s probably fair to say this is a better chance to win the domestic league than we’ve had for a number of years. Moreover, if those other clubs strengthen this summer, it could be the best opportunity Arsenal get for some while in the future. At the time of writing (after the draw at West Brom) we trail Manchester United by five points with a game in
Bernard Dowling however, doubts the chance will be taken hand, although our game in hand is at Tottenham, one of the hardest matches of the season. On the face of it, it’s not that bad a position to be in nearing late March. Not so good is that a weaker Manchester United appear the likelier title winners, which is frustrating because things could and should have been so much better for Arsenal. Home defeats against two of the promoted sides, Newcastle and relegation candidates West Brom represent six wasted points in anyone’s language. Losing at home to Tottenham after leading 2-0 at half time was another dire result, as was conceding a late equaliser to drop two points at struggling Wigan. Most recently we dropped two points at West Bromwich with defeat only avoided because of a fightback after going 2-0 down. But for pure incompetence dropping another two points after leading 0-4 at Newcastle is hard to equal. Those games add up to fifteen points carelessly thrown away. Now everyone has off days, which makes it unfair to expect no bad results. Yet just holding on for a win at Newcastle and avoiding defeat at home to West Brom and Tottenham would have been worth another four points and changed the complexion of the title race completely. But throwing away advantages hasn’t been limited to the league campaign. Arsenal have not won anything since 2005 and surely will not have a better opportunity to stop five seasons without a trophy becoming six than a Wembley cup final against relegation strugglers Birmingham. Well we all know what happened. Not only did Birmingham win, they deserved to win. On the day, Arsenal just didn’t turn up. Then there’s the utter mess we made of the Champions League. Many see Barcelona as the best club side in world football so it was no surprise they beat us. Yet we should never have had to play them in the first knockout round. It was arguably one of the weakest Champions League groups Arsenal have ever been fortunate enough to be drawn in, an impression supported by easy victories in the first three games against what appeared poor opposition. So Wenger decides to play second string sides in the away matches against Shakhtar Donesk and Braga, and both were lost. As a result we finished the group as runners up meaning we had a one in two chance of getting
6 drawn against Barcelona or Real Madrid. We drew the short straw and despite winning the home leg, in the Nou Camp we were outclassed more than I’ve ever seen an Arsenal side outplayed before. Staggering statistics from that game include the fact we didn’t have a single shot over the whole match, and Arsenal only touched the ball twice in the Barcelona penalty area over the entire ninety minutes. Playing a little over half an hour with ten men doesn’t change the fact that Crawley gave Manchester United a far tougher test at Old Trafford than we gave Barcelona. So what are the problems? One is that our squad may not be as strong as some people, most notably Wenger, seem to think. As long as the opposition aren’t that great we can sometimes just about get away with a smallish number from Eboue, Denilson, Almunia, Bendtner, Rosicky and Diaby playing the same match. The problems come when quite a few of them play together. Even Huddersfield and Leyton Orient away were able to give us difficult games while facing a number of those players, let alone Wigan. Then there’s our style of play. Too often we have loads of possession and do little with it. Playing lots of short passes to make pretty triangles, with no end product near the opposition penalty area, just doesn’t do it for me. Too often a cutting edge seems to be missing, particularly when Fabregas isn’t playing which is a warning for what might happen if he leaves anytime soon. I’ve heard Arsenal referred to as ‘Barcelona lite'. I reckon a higher standard Blackpool may be nearer the truth, making us ‘Blackpool heavy’. But for me there’s another critical factor where we fall short, and it’s an important difference between us and Manchester United: we lack their winning mentality. Ferguson seems to crave winning trophies more than Wenger these days and sets his teams up to win rather than play nice passing patterns. Moreover, each team reflects their manager’s personality and philosophy. Hence Ferguson has filled Manchester United’s side with winners. Arsenal seem to have players scared of winning, as was shown in the Birmingham final, who are only too happy to stay in their own comfort zones while Wenger frequently praises their work rate and mental strength despite yet another dismal performance. I actually cringe
Ferguson seems to crave winning trophies more than Wenger these days and sets his teams up to win rather than play nice passing patterns when he drones on about their mental strength, as it’s something they clearly lack when we freeze so often in big games. This coincides with another impression I get of some of our players. They are bottle jobs and chokers. If somehow we go into the last match of the season at Craven Cottage one point ahead, so needing a win to confirm claiming the league, my money will be on us dropping points at Fulham, letting Manchester United in by winning their last game. The title of this article reflects an old television programme called Opportunity Knocks, a sort of early X Factor with various acts performing in the hope of becoming big stars. Opportunity did knock for Arsenal this season, but my guess is the manager and players will bottle it by choking more than any nervous act on Opportunity Knocks ever did.