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The class has gone: now what?

As we move into March and the headlong rush towards spring, it’s been a depressing month if you’re an Arsenal fan.

On the one hand, the team is unbeaten in 15 games, including six consecutive clean sheets. On the other, we have drawn five straight league games – the last four 0-0 – and it took two unlikely Stoke goals in the final five minutes yesterday to restrict the gap to the top four (and the all-important Champions League place that goes with it) to six points.

After the past two home games against Sunderland and Fulham, the players have been booed off by an Emirates Stadium crowd which has clearly run out of patience with the lack of penetration, confidence and – dare I say it – quality on display.

A lack of form – temporary and transient as it is – is one thing. It is the lack of class – one of the great constants of the Wenger era – that is the real cause of concern for Arsenal fans.

There are mitigating circumstances for our desperately disappointing season so far, of course there are. The threat of a hostile takeover is slowly growing. The twin drag of the £260m loan arranged to finance the Emirates Stadium and delayed revenue from the redevelopment of the old Highbury site continues to impact Arsenal’s ability to compete in the transfer market. The summer loss of Mathieu Flamini and Alex Hleb deprived the squad of two key starters. And long-term injuries to key attacking players – Fabregas, Eduardo, Walcott, Rosicky – has regularly forced Arsene Wenger to field sides which have been not so much callow as acne-ridden.

Having said that, there are no excuses. Backroom politics are also affecting Liverpool and Chelsea, both of whom are nine points clear of Arsenal. While the club cannot compete financially with the deep pockets of Man City, Man U, Liverpool or even Aston Villa, the club is hardly impoverished either. And injuries are part and parcel of the game; even at full strength, few Gooners would argue the squad doesn’t urgently need experienced reinforcements in, at least, the centre of both midfield and defence.

Theories abound. Wenger is stuck in a rut. He is too caught up in his policy of bringing through young players. Or he has too much of a laissez-faire outlook and needs to give some of his players the hairdryer treatment. Adebayor doesn’t have last season’s desire. Eboue is a diving, talentless hothead who should never be allowed near a red shirt again. Denilson simply isn’t good enough. There isn’t enough ‘bite’ in midfield.

For sure, this is not the ‘Invincibles’ side which, only five years ago, went through an entire Premier League campaign undefeated. Denilson, Song, Nasri and Bendtner do not strike fear into the hearts of opponents in the way that Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry did. Equally, the prospect of Wenger presiding over a full season which does not lead to Champions League qualification – it would be a first in his 12½ years at the club – looms ever larger.

As many other clubs have amply demonstrated, a knee-jerk reaction is not the solution. I don’t think any sane commentator or fan would suggest the club should sack Wenger. (His track record, after all, is quite good.) However, while poor form is an annoyance, it is only a symptom rather than the root cause. The fact is, precious few of the 2008/09 class would merit a place in the 2003/04 ‘Invincibles’: Cesc Fabregas certainly, Robin van Persie and Gael Clichy arguably, but that’s about it. We can debate the multitude of different factors which have contributed to this decline, but we are where we are and there’s no getting away from it.

Wenger can – and I believe will – be able to rescue Arsenal’s form (although I am increasingly of the view it is too little too late as far as this season is concerned). Whether he will be able to revive the high level of class which has underpinned all his previous Arsenal sides is the greater question – and the greater challenge.

Of such feats are the truly great managers made. Despite the host of factors working against him, I still back him to turn things around. We may just have to be happy with winning next season’s Europa League (the soon-to-be-renamed UEFA Cup) first.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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