Arsenal's Diminishing Title Aspirations
Arsenal's recent 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane further diminished the flame of this year's title aspirations. Francis Coquelin, yet to complete a full season of Premier League football, embodied the very definition of stupidity as he was baited into a rash challenge on Harry Kane that left referee Michael Oliver with no choice but to issue his marching orders via a second yellow card. It's too premature to call time on the this year's title challenge, but with nine games to play, and an eight point gap to close, the Gunners will need some serious help from the rest of the league if they are to have any chance of being crowned champions.
It's been a rough two weeks for the North Londoners, losing to Barcelona, Manchester United, Swansea, and drawing with Tottenham Hotspur in a must win match. Some have called it Arsene Wenger's worst period at the Club. The voices of dissent calling for his head have returned, claiming that if he doesn't win the title against this year's watered-down core of opponents, he never will, and that it's time to call an end to his tenure if he fails to pull the rabbit out of his French beret. A season of promise has quickly become victim to the specter of Deja Vu.
Gone Goals: Wenger painted a picture in his summer musings of a confidence in Arsenal's midfield, the strong brushstrokes of his expectations detailed explosive potential and creativity for goals. Mesut Ozil would, and needed to get more, Aaron Ramsey would reach double digits, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would contribute, Santi Cazorla, Joel Campbell, Jack Wilshere, and of course the prolific Alexis Sanchez would bolster the output provided by the likes of Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, and Danny Welbeck. Looking at those names on paper, it's easy to see what Wenger saw on the canvas. There looked be a plentiful harvest on the horizon. Had the Arsenal midfield, and striking trio, been more clinical from the start of the season up to the Spurs game, it's conceivable to think that Arsenal would be the ones with an eight-point cushion at the top of the table, and Ozil could very well be sitting on 25 + assists to his name. The conversation has inevitably shifted back to Arsenal needing a new striker. Giroud has bags of quality, but his conversion rate has not been good enough this season and it may end up costing Arsenal the title. Wenger will undoubtedly be looking to splash the cash this summer on a world-class striker or a goal-scoring winger to play on the right flank.
Injury Bug: Injuries have hit Arsenal hard again this season. Critics have been quick to jump all over this familiar story of Wenger's men being susceptible to injury. Despite having his deepest squad in years, there is no doubt that missing key players through injury for long stretches of this campaign once again has proven to be an issue. It's worth noting, however, that many Clubs throughout Europe (and England, just ask Louis Van Gaal) experienced the same derailment. It's not down to the manager's training or recuperation, the number of fixtures is to blame. These are humans not machines. However, it is worth noting that certain individuals have a tendency for perpetual injury that may wreck their careers. I wrote at the start of the summer, that despite all his immense potential, it was time to jettison Jack Wilshere to Manchester City or another suitor. It's a shame to voice such blasphemy against Dial Square's mercurial maestro, but the fact of the matter is Wenger can't rely on the Englishman. The same might be said for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who finds himself in a Groundhog Day cycle of underachieving and absence due to injury. The one bright spot this season has been Shad Forsythe's rehabilitation programs that have proven to get the walking wounded back on the pitch faster than originally predicted.
Succession Plans: Wenger is still the right man to be in charge of Arsenal. There's no other way to slice it. Europe's longest serving manager has shown a willingness to adapt and evolve over the years, as evident in the North London derby, where sitting in deep and hitting Spurs on the counter was going according to plan before Coquelin's brain freeze. He has proven that he and his staff still have the midas-touch when it comes to identifying and nurturing young players. Mohamed Elneny looks to be a brilliant bargain if he can bulk-up and add a physical edge to his game, and top players the world-over still dream of working with Wenger. If Arsenal can mount a late surge up the table, and perhaps win a third consecutive FA Cup, there are going to be a number of top players looking to transfer in and take the project at the Emirates to the next level. But the truth is Arsene is 66 years old. He only has a few years left. Wenger must carefully help select his successor. The professor must make calculated plans for handing-over his beloved Arsenal Football Club. Few know the inner-workings of the Club, and a detailed roadmap for the next phase of Arsenal sans Wenger has to be drafted with painstaking attention and care. Impulsive moves to change the manager could lead the Club into a period of chaos and despair. It's likely that Wenger won't want say over who becomes the next manager of Arsenal. Alex Ferguson will serve as his reminder of how that can go wrong, and with the utterly ridiculous coaching-carousel where top professionals are fired on a whim, it's hard to know exactly who might be available when Wenger does decide to step down. That's why it's critical that an agreement is reached with a minimum of twelve months of transition time. For the future of Arsenal, a Club that Wenger loves so dearly, it is imperative that the next chapter be proofed, and proofed again, over and over, until the directions for realignment become as seamless as possible. Wenger deserves to manage until he's 70 years young. But when that time comes, or if it comes sooner, like in 2017, best laid plans are mandatory for this storied footballing power.