So then, Stoke City, away. An almost perennial nadir for Gooners. A tried and tested script that contains all the predictable tropes; like an old Bond film on the box during a Sunday afternoon…
– Ultra-defensive set up from the home side to counter the (non-existent) Arsenal attacking threat.
– Arsenal players spitefully kicked by a procession of opponents. Unpunished.
– Precious little shots on target. By both sides.
– Dubious refereeing decisions. Against Arsenal.
– The home side scoring more goals. Almost always.
Are Stoke City now a mental problem – a block if you will – for Arsene Wenger, and thus, Arsenal?
Or is it more likely that Arsenal still lack a coherent, cohesive Plan B, a Plan B which looked good earlier in the season when willing runners like Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere combining with the in-form Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil to break into the box for headers, volleys and tap-ins…but now, with Mesut Ozil lacking something and Olivier Giroud playing like he is lacking everything, there isn’t even a Plan A.
The loss at Stoke has, for me, left Arsenal very vulnerable to finishing outside of the top three. A position which looked nailed-on around Christmas time. The verve, the confidence and the wit of Arsenal’s attack has wilted like a desert flower at noon.
The FA Cup represents, after Arsenal’s losses against Bayern Munich and Stoke City, the best chance of silverware this season. It was, however, always thus. No one expected a sustained Arsenal title-challenge – why would they? There hasn’t been one that has lasted past March for the last nine years. There wouldn’t be one for as long as Wenger persisted with ‘Operation Run Giroud into the Ground’ and as for Europe, Arsenal lack the killer touch. It was missing against most of the opponents in the group stage in my opinion – Napoli away was, in hindsight, brutal foreshadowing – and was present against a Bayern Munich side that will punish such reluctance to do damage.
Am I upset? I am, purely because, come January 1st, Arsenal were for me only one/two signings away from sustaining their incredible momentum in the league. It looked like this season was the one that swept the monkey off of the back of this club. But, despite being cash-rich, and with no deal apparent, it just didn’t happen, fatally. Alas, as it has been and as it seems written, the Arsenal title charge was emasculated by March.
European progress looks dauntingly unlikely – although the game in Munich last season and their match at home to Manchester City this season has highlighted that this Bayern side aren’t invincible or impervious to complacency – and so, all eyes are on Arsenal’s response at home to Everton in the FA Cup.
Gooners are used to this. Gooners have seen promise crumble and drift away in the spring breeze many a time before now. It is the hope that kills you. Arsenal can’t compete with the billions of pounds spent at Manchester City and Chelsea, and don’t have an unplayable forward – Luis Suarez – that Liverpool can call upon to break down defences. Giroud doesn’t look like he could break out of a mime’s ‘glassbox’ at the moment. I sadly believe that come May, Arsenal’s season will look worryingly simple; flat-track bullies. Failure against their rivals. Failure against the sides who aren’t afraid of unleashing the dark arts. Failure to re-enforce when needed. I dare say Arsenal would have been hard pressed to achieve a top four slot this season without Manchester United’s inexplicable collapse.
So what is needed for next season (a question I’ve asked, each spring, since 2009, without failure)?
If Bacary Sagna leaves, a new right-back. Sebastien Corchia or Serge Aurier please.
If Lukas Podolski leaves, a new wide/inside forward. Julian Draxler or Andrei Yarmolenko please.
If Johan Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen leave, two new centre-backs please. Fabian Schar and Samuel Umtiti would do nicely.
When Nicklas Bendtner and Chu-Young Park leave, a back-up, third striker. Alvaro Morata would be ideal please. But a gamble on Danny Ings would be good – a rare up-and-coming English striker who deserves a shot at the top. Alternatively, bring Joel Campbell back instead of selling him without trying him as an option.
A world-class striker to rotate with Olivier Giroud. Mario Balotelli, Mario Mandzukic, Jackson Martinez, Edin Dzeko or Steven Jovetic would be the most realistic candidates.
A world-class defensive midfielder to replace Mikel Arteta and rotate with Mathieu Flamini. Lars Bender would be a versatile, dream signing.
A back-up goalkeeper who can keep Wojciech Szczesny on his toes. Maybe Rene Adler could provide valuable experience and nous.
So that is eight signings in, with up to seven players potentially leaving. Excessive?
Will Arsene Wenger be the man to lead Arsenal, bedecked in Puma shirts, into the 2014-15 season? Or will he leave, his legacy arguably tarnished by eight stubborn, unlucky and unprecedented seasons (the arrival of oil money)?
I would count an FA Cup being added to the trophy cabinet to be an undoubted success. I love the competition, I love the history and I think it would boost the club considerably. What I would hate to see is four breath-taking months, oozing with class and polish, get ruined by four months reeking of fatigue, nonchalance and complacency. I hate to sound negative, but after last weekend’s performance, it is very hard to feel anything different.
I hope Everton feel the brunt of an Arsenal backlash.
Thanks for reading.