|Lost weekend - Perry groves
This past weekend, weíve just seen the most outrageously talented Arsenal side in living memory do their very best to concede the league title, thereby failing, yet again, to win the consecutive titles that their detractors say is the mark of a truly great team. Only three months ago, Henry, Vieira and the rest of the team were sweeping aside all comers. They had not been beaten for the whole of the previous Premiership season; and indeed were only narrowly beaten in the Championís League and the FA Cup. The fans sang 'We are unbeatable' and for a while, people were seriously talking about them going another season without a league loss. This despite dark clouds on the horizon, from Wenger's lack of transfer action in the summer to a protracted and painful lack-of-transfer saga starring Arsenalís captain and Real Madrid.
And it's these two summertime paper-fillers that seem to now be the cause of Arsenal's current malaise. The first, a lack of signings, is on the surface the more obvious cause of the slump in form. Many questioned Lehmann's lack of composure with crosses and when running out his area, many more questioned Wenger's decision to buy an unknown Spanish goalkeeper busy kicking his heels in a first division Spanish club's reserves. Following some high-profile mistakes Lehmann was dropped, and Almunia took his place, and at first he rose to the occasion, only to begin to make the same mistakes that had done for his predecessor; the culmination being his terrible flap at a cross against Bolton that allowed them to score the only goal of the game; the goal that at the end of season may well be as decisive as the equaliser they scored two seasons ago to end all hope of an Arsenal revival against a resurgent Manchester United.
There were other areas of Arsenal's squad that looked decidedly thin. Central midfield was always a worry, and so it came to pass with only a 17-year old being able to fill in following injuries to both Edu and Gilberto. Cesc Fabregas stood up, took a look around him, and with astonishing maturity showed himself to be one of Wenger's most astute buys. But underneath his wonderful passing and composure on the ball, he also showed that he was too lightweight to be able to compete for 90 minutes at the highest level. For him, at least, there was a ray of hope; time and experience would no doubt fill in the gaps in his game. It wasn't possible to say the same for the support for Toure and Campbell in central defence. Cygan consistently looked outclassed, ponderous and at best a last-choice player, not the first player on the teamsheet when either of the usual two centre-halves were unavailable.
Even up front there were doubts. When Henry and Pires were injured, where would the goals come from? Indeed, when the French duo just didn't feel like it, where would the goals come from? These two together either score, or help to score, more than two-thirds of Arsenal's goals. Reyes and Van Persie were inexperienced; Bergkamp was getting old, Ljungberg too reliant on Bergkamp's through balls, and none of the midfielders and only Cole in the defence seemingly capable of scoring. Corners, that standby of the George Graham era, either hit the first defender or flew harmlessly into touch, no matter who was taking them.
But most critical of all, no-one in the first team seemed at all worried that their place was in danger. Van Persie aside, there was no fresh blood to make the older or more established players buck up their ideas. The only person who might be in that situation is Ashley Cole, for whom Clichy is a more than capable understudy and who performed out of his skin when many of his team-mates hadnít shown up. And worst of all, the captain seemed unwilling to demand extra effort from his team mates when it was most required.
Ah, Vieira. The best example of the maxim 'Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it'. During the summer, long-suffering Arsenal fans were yet again subjected to the undignified sight of Real Madrid courting Patrick Vieira. Now, there is the school of thought that players are merely employees of the club, and are free to at least consider alternative options. There is some truth in this and I for one wouldnít mind if Scunthorpe FC came in for a late transfer window bid for Pascal Cygan, but when the player approached is the club captain, the man whom the players look for inspiration and drive, the situation changes. And when said captain fails to make any comment to the press until the entire Arsenal fan base (and apparently Arsenal FC themselves) are convinced he's leaving, only to make the surprise announcement that he would indeed stay, because he was so happy at Arsenal and he wouldn't find that love elsewhere, one does begin to wonder what was going through his mind when he even began discussing terms with Real. Did he really think he'd be a Galactico? And once he'd gone through the disappointment of not signing for Real, would he give his all for the club he so nearly walked away from?
The answers seemed to be yes and no. Yes, he thought he would be a Galactico, and when told that he wouldn't, he decided to stay with Arsenal and merely jog his way through the remainder of his footballing career. The sight of such a talented defensive midfielder watch as balls flew just over his head, or pass to an opposition player more times that to his team-mates and then fail to track back and correct his mistakes, or to keep quiet when his team are losing their confidence and falling apart around him, have been horrible but all too commonplace this season. Worse, he seems to have lost the ability to charge through the opposition midfield, taking out a few players at once before releasing the ball to Bergkamp or Henry and allowing them to do the creative stuff. He only passes sideways or even back to the defence, leaving the wing players and Fabregas running into space for nothing. Such a shame for those who have sung their lungs out in support of a much-maligned player, even when he was at his lowest ebb following the Neil Ruddock incident.
Now, Wenger is left with a captain who rarely performs even as well as a 17-year old, who fails to motivate his team, who stands by when he loses the ball, and allows the midfield of teams such as Southampton, Bolton, Manchester City and Crystal Palace run rings around him. A few seasons ago, he was worth two players and as long as teams that played five across midfield also didn't defend too deep, there was always a way to release the forwards onto through balls. Now, a player like Joey Barton can steal the ball from Vieira and pass the ball to Ian Wright's stepson, who scores a wonder goal. How Arsenal fans laughed at the irony.
Worse, his attitude appears to have crept through much of the rest of the team. There are players who act as though challenging for a 50/50 ball is against their religion (Pires), that giving 100% for at least half the game just isn't the done thing (Henry and Pires again), and that signing a new contract for the club that has supported them through thick and thin just won't do (Edu, and now most disturbingly Campbell). Players seem unwilling to back each other up, or to run into space, or to even take a risk and shoot. Defending is just left to the defence (and poor Freddie, whose work rate on the right wing is often forgotten); God forbid that the world's best defensive midfielder should track back, harry the opposition, and win the ball back. Six seasons ago, after a shocking 3-1 defeat to Blackburn, the old Arsenal defence tore strips out of Petit and Vieira, telling them that their job was not to swan about near the half-way line but to help defend. A club record 12 match unbeaten run and the league title followed. Has the same happened yet? Did Lauren try after the embarrassing (if ultimately unimportant) draw against Rosenborg? Did Lehmann say something? Has Sol Campbell said anything? Is this the cause of the current listlessness around the team at the moment?
Whatever it is, it's making the team play like they only have to jog onto the pitch to win games. The loss to Manchester United didn't exactly break Arsenal's spirit and the problems in the team were plain to see by then, as the lack of shots on goal during the game testify, and the results against Panathanaikos and Bolton demonstrated - but by the time the Liverpool game reared its ugly head, with quite possibly the worst first-half performance of any Arsenal team since the mid-80's, the rot had set in. Of course there have been some good performances recently; tough games against Newcastle, and a Chelsea game during which Henry rivalled the Ryan Giggs classic miss for sheer 'My nan could have scored that, and she's dead' astonishment.
So what is required to make Arsenal play like the fantastic team we know they can be? I think three things need to change.
1. A new captain
Vieira doesn't act like a captain, or play like one. Look at what Gerrard does for Liverpool, or Lampard for Chelsea, or even Keane still manages for Manchester Utd. They drive the team on. They work harder, for longer, for greater effect, than anyone else. When things go bad they get the team playing (though admittedly Gerrard has rather less to work with than the others). My choice would be Sol Campbell; he has consistently performed and was the person who invented the 'Together' mantra. Ashley Cole is too much of a hothead, despite his obvious love and passion for the club and the game. Getting Henry to be a good captain would be like getting a cat to guard your house.
2. A plan B
So many times, teams put five men in midfield and sit four men deep, deep in defence, and for the life of us we can't break through with our magical, high-speed game. We need to get dirty, to get lucky, and most of all, to take chances with shots and corners. Not being able to score from corners is killing us, a goal every couple of games would do us wonders, and if we could still beat teams that played 10 men behind the ball, then maybe they might try and be brave against us and try and attack. At which point we revert to plan A. And how difficult can a good corner be for a man who can score such wonderful free-kicks?
3. Hard work
The most frustrating aspect of watching Arsenal play, having gone through my late teenage years and early twenties watching George Graham's sides battle, fight and claw their way to victory, is seeing this current side not bother. Sure, there are exceptions - Ashley Cole always gives as much as possible, the young guns try hard, often to no avail, and Freddie's work-rate on the wing is an example to his opposite number but too often players just donít try. Five men in midfield? One of the forwards should drop back and get stuck in. Opposition defence knocking it around? Chase them down, make them make a mistake. Don't let teams rest. Don't let teams think they can play against us. Chase them, harry them, and as soon as we win the ball run hell for leather at their defence. We've done it in the past. We've done it this season.
Let's do it again and show that overhauling a ten point lead, just like winning in Italy, is not impossible.