A tough sequence of matches for Arsenal ends with no surprises. A horror show by Fabianski against Porto in Champions League makes for an intriguing return leg. Earlier, comprehensive defeats at the hands of United and Chelsea brought another Premier League season built more on hope than ability to an abrupt end. Victory over Liverpool was expected and duly achieved, and much depends on how many points the other two, Man Utd and Chelsea, drop over the remaining games. But I, for one, believe this Arsenal team, like all the others in recent seasons, has far too many weaknesses to come anywhere close to a title challenge. That they are still in the top 3, and have Man Utd and Chelsea in their sights, is a testament to Wenger's managerial ability. But that is also where the problem lies.
The old adage 'Good is the worst enemy of great' comes to mind when describing the Arsenal sides of the past few years. They've been too good to become great. Built with a modest budget, which is dwarfed by that of most teams in the top half of the EPL, while servicing the debt of an expensive stadium, Arsenal have stuck to their policy of developing home-grown talent. Buying teenagers has been the modus operandi of Wenger, blooding them into the first team and sticking with them despite many failures. I can't count the number of players who, when they first played for Arsenal, seemed so horrendous, that it was incredible they could be playing professional football at all. Yet, in the past, this unique approach to building a team paid rich dividends, with players like Adebayor, Flamini, Hleb going from virtual unknowns to reputed performers at the highest level. Turning ordinary players into good ones is commendable, but a great team is not made of good players alone. It needs to have a few good ones that can develop into greats. Past Arsenal teams had these by the dozen. Viera, Henry, Pires were all good players with potential and went on to become Arsenal greats.
As I see it, Arsenal has problems in four areas. Forward, Midfield, Defense and Goalkeeping. Everything else is good. I'll start in the order of the place they take on the pitch, because I really can't judge which of the problems is more (de)pressing.
1. Forwards are needed in any football team
This basic axiom of football is being flouted with abandon by Wenger, with potentially disastrous consequences. His failure to bring in any sort of striker in the January window could be one of his most questionable ones in the recent past. How he felt the team could go on without a single striker playing up front, with the makeshift deployment of the talented yet diminutive Arshavin, to face title rivals and expect to win, is a mystery. Sure, Arshavin can score goals and very good ones at that. Yet, he is no match for the tall and bulky central defenders of any team and Arshavin himself said as much. In his spell as a striker, he scored less than he did from midfield and made a far lesser impact on the game in general. In addition, he got battered physically and now joins Van Persie on the treatment table.
So why didn't he buy someone to lead Arsenal's attack in January? Because of one Nicholas Bendtner.
You know you have a problem when Bendtner is called upon to save the day. The Dane has been on the fringes of the Arsenal first team for a long while, and his every performance has exposed his questionable technique and lack of composure in front of goal. Yet, it is he who is championed by Wenger as the man who can provide the goals. A bad first touch, inability to dribble and a tendency to sky every shot are too many faults for a striker to possess. Yet he is tall and strong and young. And these are qualities that form the basis on which Wenger hopes to turn this profligate player into a player worthy of wearing Arsenal colors. It is a feat he achieved with Adebayor, turning the giant with terrible technique into a fearsome striker capable of momentary brilliance. Alas, his lack of loyalty and greed eventually led him to richer pastures where one wonders if the excess of striking options will ever let him make the forward position in the team his own.
Outlook: Chamakh's move seems to be happening, and I am tempted to believe reports of his summer move especially because of a non-arrival this January. Why Wenger decided to sacrifice a perfectly good season, with a chance at silverware, so that he can get the player on the cheap for next season, beats me.
2. Weak little kids can't be defensive midfielders
Arsenal has plenty of attacking midfielders. Fabregas and Arshavin are world class, as is a fit Rosicky. Nasri, Walcott and Diaby though inconsistent, have potential. None, however, can fill the defensive midfielder slot left vacant by Flamini. Wenger shouldn't have let Diarra go as easily as he did. We are now left with baby-faced Denilson with strength of schoolboy to fill that crucial position that lets all the creative playmakers flourish. It is a job he does with considerable ineptitude. Weak in the tackle and a limited passing range, he is everything you don't expect in a Brazilian. Song is being groomed for the role, but as of now, he doesn't have the presence to ably perform in that role.
As a plus in the midfield, Rosicky has looked sharp after returning from his long injury. Strength, passing, vision and shot, all seem to be reaching top levels once again. He can only get better. Walcott is going to be a question mark, and he'll need more than a solitary good outing against mediocre opponents to convince me he is improving at a respectably trajectory.
3. Back from the grave defensive back-ups
I shudder to think what would happen if a day comes when Sol Campbell and Silvestre combine in the center of defense. The former was done and dusted, playing in not the Premier League, not the Championship, not the League One, but in League Two! And if you believe in miracles and the legend of the phoenix, he is back scoring goals in the Champions League for Arsenal. But soon enough, played a big role in the goal giveaway that followed.
While Vermaelen and Gallas are good together and have managed to stay fit (touchwood) for most of the season, there is urgent need for a solid back or two. Especially since Gallas can have only a season or two left in him.
4. Goalscoring goalkeepers
When your goalkeepers are more prolific than your forwards, something must seriously be wrong somewhere. First, Almunia set the example by pulling in Nani's harmless cross into the goal. Then Fabianski, eager to impress and outdo Almunia to become the Arsenal number one, scored much more emphatically against Porto. And if any doubts were left about his ability to create a goal from a non-threatening situation, he proved it by eagerly picking up Sol's backpass. But the blame for the error, for putting an underprepared goalkeeper lacking temperament into a pressure Champions League match must lie with Wenger. Goalkeepers have the ability to work behind the scenes, never hog the limelight, but yet play defining roles in the title challenges of any team. No team has every won any title with a suspect goalkeeper. All attempts to do so have resulted in failure, and this is a fact Wenger should have recognized by now. Almunia is not good enough. Fabianski is far from being ready.
Premier League: Third Place. They'll be close to second, and well away from fourth. I just hope that Wenger doesn't call it a 'good' season and maintains the status quo, team-wise, in the summer.
Champions League: Depends on the draw. A semi-final would be great though it seems unlikely.