By Andrew Leci
I last wrote about Arsenal in this column less than a month ago.
It was ahead of the North London derby, and I may have talked about the pressure the respective managers of the two clubs were under.
Arsenal went on to beat Tottenham Hotspur 5-2, and Gunners fans toddled off down the Holloway Road as happy as a collective set of Larries. Some Arsenal supporters will aver that silverware is a secondary consideration to the two league games against arch rivals Spurs, and that if their side gets the better of those, then all is right with the world.
I would suggest that the majority of fans won’t be quite as sanguine when it comes to the current state of affairs. But then Arsenal fans are a demanding bunch, with sky-high expectations fuelled by past (increasingly distant past) glories.
Let us however, consider the facts.
Despite some indifferent league form, Arsenal are two points off a UEFA Champions League spot. Yes, that’s right, two points; less than one win.
Admittedly the club is already a full 15 points behind league leaders Manchester United, but did anyone expect Arsene Wenger’s men to be serious title contenders this season? Probably; but only the most myopic or delusional fans.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that Arsenal made their way through to the knockout rounds of the Champions League for a 13th successive season, comfortably. They fared a great deal better than Chelsea and Manchester City (although drawn in an easier group) but their European credentials remain very much in tact, and they’ll be looking for a favourable draw in the round of 16 – unlike Manchester City and Chelsea, two teams above them in the domestic league standings.
That’s the good news, here’s the bad; Arsenal are enduring their worst start to a league season since 1994; they haven’t added to the trophy cabinet at the Emirates Stadium since 2005; they’ve won one game out of their last 6 in all competitions (and that was facilitated by just about the dodgiest penalty decision we’ve seen in the BPL this season); the natives are restless, and the club has just been knocked out of the League Cup by a 4th tier team ranked 65 places below them in the league standings.
Arsene Wenger’s comments after the defeat against Bradford may be illuminating.
Asked the simple question, “How do you explain the defeat?” he countered with, “We lost on penalties.” Asked, “Is it humiliating?” he replied, “I don’t know what you call humiliating.”
Listen, all teams have bad days, and such is the nature of cup competition that upsets are not that uncommon – even minnows have teeth, after all.
But the nature of the setback against Bradford is what’s causing Arsenal fans so much grief. The team was as toothless, and let’s be brutally honest, feckless, as any Gunners side in living memory.
This may sound harsh, and do bear in mind that it’s just an opinion, but having watched much of the game, and monitored some of the ‘chatter’ from fans during it, I may even be understating the case.
Arsenal needed characters on Tuesday night at a freezing and inhospitable Valley Parade, in a starting 11 that was just about as strong as anything Wenger has ever fielded in a League Cup tie.
They needed a Tony Adams, or a Patrick Vieira (good heavens even a Lee Dixon would have done), someone who had the stomach for a fight and who would have been able to galvanise the side and rally teammates when it was clear they were underperforming and weren’t up for the battle.
With the possible exception of Jack Wilshere, who even at 20 years of age does seem to possess the necessary passion and leadership qualities, most of the Arsenal players looked, for most of the game, as though they would much rather be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
I am not one of those people who are calling for Arsene Wenger’s head. I don’t think that would serve any purpose at his juncture, and I have sympathy for a man who must be scratching that head to sleep at night, wondering why things are not going according to plan, and why his extremely talented group of players is not performing to the best of its ability.
Having said that, I have little doubt that Arsenal will be there or thereabouts come the end of the domestic season – they had a slow start in the last campaign, and still managed a 3rd place finish.
Some Gunners fans have already lost patience (and maybe even faith) in him, as well as in those who are controlling the club, suggesting that the coveted and much talked about ‘sound business footing’ is working to the detriment of everything else.
No one though should write off a man who has brought so much success to a football club, and very much moulded it in his own image (at least the way he would like it to be perceived).
Wenger might be, like many a Gunners fan, at his wit’s end. Let’s see how much longer that wit will stretch before it reaches snapping point. Something tells me that a turnaround will happen before it does.
Catch Andrew Leci on The Verdict at 8pm on ESPN, and during the live match presentation of the Barclays Premier League.