It’s difficult to know where to start this week’s column. On the face of it, a compelling comeback from two goals down to keep our FA Cup hopes alive, followed by a point and a clean sheet away from home should constitute a reasonably good week. Yet it doesn’t feel like that at all. For a start, we’ve put ourselves in a position now where, effectively, any draw represents two points dropped.
But something really struck me at the Reebok on Wednesday night. With about 25 minutes remaining, with the score 0-0 and Arsenal needing to win, ordinarily I would be hunched with nerves. My fingernails (though heavily gloved in the Lancashire cold) would have been drawn pensively to my teeth, shuffling from foot to foot, excitedly imploring into the ether for a winner. But I wasn’t.
Like most others, I think I’m settled on the impression in nearly every game that, unless van Persie produces something, we will toil. I guess my lack of gusto in the second half was evidence of resignation with regards our chances of a top four finish. I had subconsciously accepted that we won’t and therefore, it just didn’t feel much like the result was in aid of anything. Even as Bolton went close in the dying minutes, neither my heart nor stomach convulsed as it usually would in such circumstances.
And that’s why I have struggled to forge any kind of snappy introduction to this article. The whole club just permeates a massive lack of urgency. Goonerholic’s latest piece really struck a chord with me with regard our January business – or lack thereof. I realise the winter market is difficult, but we handled the thriving summer one so badly, that another goalscorer was a necessity.
The manager is not totally blind to his lack of attacking options either. 34 year old Thierry Henry – who is only with us a further fortnight – is persistently seen as a superior option from the bench over Benayoun, Arshavin and Park. It’s an admission clear as day that the manager is not taken with the more permanent resources at his disposal. Why then was it impossible to rectify this in January?
I get the line about it being difficult to find “super, super quality”. Really I do. But when you’ve got the best part of four offensive players in your squad kicking their heels behind an ageing temp; you’ve constructed your squad badly. I think the majority of people realise that we can’t compete with Chelsea or Manchester City in the market, but we appear to be wilfully handicapping ourselves by not utilising the resources we do have.
That’s the crux of the issue. We built the stadium and pursued the quite correct self sustaining policy in order to organically grow our resources. We have done that now and our resources are growing year on year. Whilst not as flush as other steroid injected clubs, we do have money. Yet having been so well run to put ourselves in a position of material wealth, we have struggled to escape the frugal mentality that we were trying to outgrow in the first place.
That lack of urgency seeps from every corner of the club. We are still in a period of transition from Kroenke’s takeover. So the gentlemen behind me at The Reebok that sang “back the players, sack the board” are wide of the mark I think. The board are locked down until April – after which Kroenke will surely get his own men in. In essence, we have something of a lame duck board anyway, so sacking it won’t make one iota of difference. In fact, that possibly informs the air of ‘drifting along’ behind the scenes. There’s just no way I think that the Directors are handcuffing the manager with regards to resources, but I don’t get the impression there’s much constructive discussion either.
Not being privy to what goes on behind the scenes, it’s pure conjecture of course, but it’s just a feeling I get. I don’t hold that we’re going to hell in a handcart as some clearly do, more the sense that we’re trying to drift along. To make do and mend and cross our fingers and hope it works out. Hope that our injured players come back and have faith that no others will be crocked. Of course, due to his gift for self promotion, many champion David Dein as the gaping hole in the jigsaw.
Yet the current set up is chided for over rewarding players too early with big contracts. This is because under Dein’s stewardship, expensive contracts belonging to the likes of Wiltord, Edu and Kanu were allowed to run down. Flamini played that game too, Hleb was able to threaten to invoke the Webster clause to force his move. The mishandling of Cashley’s contract was rather camouflaged by the player’s endless bellendery. Our current contract policy is borne rather out of caution given mistakes made under Dein’s stewardship (Lest we forget that those prohibitive commercial deals everyone complains about were made when he was vice-Chairman too).
It’s fair to say we’re still searching for a middle ground. But ultimately, you have to reward players early or lose them. That’s where the manager comes in. It’s down to him to assess whether the benefits realised of giving a young player a good deal is going to reap rewards. It’s a tight rope. On one hand we’re criticised for losing Flamini on a free, just as he was blossoming at the age of 24. On the other, handing Diaby an expensive, long term deal at 22 is derided. This might also go some way to explaining Wenger’s loyalty to players, much is invested in them financially as well as emotionally.
The same principle applies with young players. With Jack Wilshere suffering another setback on his road to recovery, fingers are pointed at the manager for overplaying him last season. Presumably by the same people that continually boo his decision to substitute 18 year old Oxlade Chamberlain. His substitution was again jeered on Wednesday, despite clear evidence that he was fading. They’re fine lines that exist at the top level and no manager gets them all correct. But you just get the feeling Arsenal don’t have the urgency to make contingency plans to offset any fallout from borderline calls.
To close, I wanted to address the rumours around Arshavin departing for Russia. Understandably, the pocket sized Russian has attracted criticism for more than a year of indifferent form. I’ve read many theories as to why this undeniably talented individual has sunk into such a slump. Chief amongst them appears to be that he has been too often utilised out of position on the flank. It’s an argument I don’t buy. Arshavin has nearly always played in the same position for Arsenal.
When he arrived and he was considered the darling of Goonerdom, he was starting games from the left. He had and still has license to roam inside and affect the game. Pires and Ljungberg played in a system with only two central midfielders, yet neither left the field with much chalk on their boots come full time. He hasn’t suddenly become lazy and disinterested either.
He was always mercurial even when playing well. Sadly, I think he just came and tested himself in a competitive league too late in life to adapt. Back in September, he and Chamberlain were rather similar in their lack of attention to defensive detail. But The Ox has improved in that respect because it’s easier to teach an 18 year old than it is a 29 year old who has had the liberty of being a talented stroller his whole career.
I think that’s as much maudlin discourse as I can manage for this week. Till next time. LD.
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