By Liam Twomey
Those of a mind to criticise Arsene Wenger can point to many things – his unwavering stubbornness, his tactical inflexibility and misguided trust in certain mediocre players, to name just three – but one could never accuse him of pandering to the wishes of the masses.
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The playmaker is seen in many quarters as the future of both the Arsenal and English national sides and will surely play a key part if the Gunners are to progress on Wednesday night. While Walcott is likely to lead matters from the front, Wilshere will undoubtedly pull the strings from midfield; the 21-year-old's ability to stay composed under pressure should be the guiding light for his side.
Swansea's top scorer in all competitions and a threat that the Gunners are no doubt already having nightmares about - the 25-year-old Spaniard will be a handful whenever he has the ball in the Arsenal half. If it is not his work-rate clinical finishing that catches the Gunners' backline out, it will be his penchant for trickery or ability to just as easily find the killer pass.
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“If you look at our squad, it is quite complete,” Wenger told reporters prior to his side’s comprehensive home defeat at the hands of Premier League champions Manchester City.
"You are always under pressure to buy in England and [the belief is] every problem has to be sorted out by buying people. But you have other ways to sort out the problems inside the club - it is about getting your injured players back, getting everybody focused and motivated.
“We still work on the transfer market as well, but we do not want to bring in average players. We only want to bring in an exceptional player, and at the moment we have not found him.”
Admittedly, when it comes to the buying culture which remains prevalent in England’s top tier, Wenger’s comments are underpinned by a fair degree of logic - particularly amid the frantic mid-season scramble for reinforcements which defines the January transfer window.
One needs only to utter the names of Fernando Torres or Andy Carroll to bring home the dangers of lucrative impulse spending, while QPR owner Tony Fernandes may live to regret dearly his reported decision to offer Marseille striker and Newcastle target Loic Remy a six-figure weekly salary to help his team avoid a likely relegation.
Compared to such madness, Wenger’s pragmatism is to be commended. But it is the Frenchman’s unbridled optimism on the capabilities of his own squad which will rightly worry Gunners fans as the club approaches a crucial final few months.
Quite simply, his insistence that the current Arsenal crop are sufficiently prepared to see through a campaign which still has them competing in three competitions without any January arrivals does not stand up to scrutiny.
For while it is not as dismally lacking in quality as some more hysterical Gunners fans would have you believe, Wenger’s squad is nevertheless alarmingly lacking in depth.
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The biggest area of concern is the midfield where, after a dazzling start to his first season in England, Santi Cazorla has faded badly. It is hard to argue against the idea that fatigue is behind his decline – this time last year, he had played 19 games for Malaga and Spain. This term, he has played 31 times for club and country, only 11 less than his total for last season.
Jack Wilshere, too, has played in 16 of Arsenal’s 19 matches since returning from a 16-month lay-off at the end of October, raising understandable fears of a recurrence of his injury nightmare. Mikel Arteta’s body has already given out, succumbing to a calf strain having featured in 26 of the Gunners’ 30 games prior to the City defeat.
All three might be considered to be in Wenger’s fitness ‘red zone’, but a lack of cover is forcing the Frenchman’s hand. Abou Diaby and Tomas Rosicky are too fragile to be of consistent use, Aaron Ramsey is plugging gaps on the wings and it seems Francis Coquelin is not yet fully trusted.
In years gone by, Arsenal’s astonishingly productive academy would have been asked to shoulder the burden of an FA Cup third round replay, even against a side as talented as Swansea. That Michael Laudrup is more likely to shuffle his pack for Wednesday’s clash is a striking sign of the times at the Emirates Stadium.
Even the likes of Serge Gnabry, Thomas Eisfeld, Ignasi Miquel and Jernade Meade do not seem to command the same level of faith as past youngsters. Perhaps Wenger also no longer feels confident enough in his position to treat the domestic cups with the perceived disdain of resting his big guns, with fans protesting ever more loudly against his rule.
Whatever the reasons and the public statements, though, quality January arrivals are a must. Confirmation of Theo Walcott’s renewed commitment to the club would be a good start, but successful moves for highly-rated targets Adrian and Wilfried Zaha would go a lot further towards reassuring Arsenal fans of their club’s continuing ambition.
Few managers are more keenly aware of the risks of bad spending than Wenger. But now he must recognise that dithering can be just as costly, if the gradual decline which has marred the second half of his Arsenal reign is not to ultimately bring it to a sad – if predictable – end.
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