Can Arsenal win the Title?

Filed under Editor's Picks, Premier League

After beating Manchester City 2-1 at the Emirates in a match that was billed as the clash of the ultimate heavyweights, the last few months have been rough for the Gunners. They’ve won four of eleven league matches since playing the Citizens, and currently find themselves six points off of top spot. They go into this weekend’s extra spicy North London Derby on the back off two disappointing defeats to Manchester United and Swansea, and could find themselves nine points adrift by the end of the game week. So can they still win the title?

Simple answer: yes. Regardless of what one may think about Arsenal right now, history has shown that it is possible. Manchester City recovered 8 points from 6 remaining games when they first won the league, while Manchester United were able to catch a seemingly unstoppable Newcastle United team in 1996. That Magpies team had no title chasing experience, just as Leicester and Tottenham don’t today. So mathematically and psychologically speaking, it’s still on.

Man City overhauled an eight point deficit to lift their first title

Man City overturned an eight point deficit to lift their first title

But there is an issue with Arsenal, one that would be a real frustration if I was an Arsenal fan. Since they last won a title, they’ve been nowhere close to a title race. They had fleeting moments in 2008, 2011, and 2014, but no real concrete challenge. And the problem is what’s happened in that time. Chelsea have become a force, and have won three Premier League titles since 2004, while Man City have won two since being taken over in 2008. Perhaps this is understandable, as their financial status simply skyrocketed following multi-million pound takeovers. But teams like Leicester, Tottenham, and even Liverpool a couple of years ago? Why have they been able to launch serious challenges, whilst Arsenal haven’t?  Arsenal in the last 10 years have simply been a top 4 team, and an extremely underwhelming one in the Champions League not getting past the round of 16 in any of the last five seasons (soon to be six following the 2-0 home defeat to Barcelona). Frankly, this football club has been a sleeping giant since the glory days of Henry, Bergkamp and Vieira, and need to be awoken from their alarmingly long slumber. So what needs to change?

Arsenal have struggled since the days of Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira

Arsenal have struggled since the days of Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira

I don’t want to spout cliched rubbish, such as ‘they need to have a title winning mentality,’ because that doesn’t help anyone. First, is the style of play. The teams that have won the title have all had a way of playing, or a clear philosophy. United under Ferguson played swashbuckling attacking football, with wingers swinging crosses in frequently. City under Mancini and Pellegrini also played very attacking football, but preferred a more narrow, intricate system. Mourinho teams at Chelsea on the other hand, were more focussed on defensive solidarity, and keeping clean sheets. If Spurs were to win the league, it would be a success synonymous with high energy, high pressing football. Leicester would be classed as a hardworking and deadly counter-attacking team. But Arsenal? I can’t pinpoint a specific philosophy.

There was a time a few years ago, when you could associate them with really beautiful neat passing, and free flowing attack. They’ve moved away from that total football style however , and their current goal/game ratio currently stands at 1.57, which would result in a mere 60 goals come the end of the season, their lowest since 1999. I look at their system, and it seems very confused. A player like Aaron Ramsey for example, has not only failed to produce his best football, but doesn’t look comfortable in any of the positions he plays. I saw him play wide right on many occasions last season, and he didn’t look convincing, failing to keep the width and get in the positions he likes. This season he’s playing a deeper role, and hasn’t had the same licence to break forward into the box as he did in 13-14. Playing defensively is not his game. The same dilemma faces Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain, who’s played wide and central, and has failed to consistently impress. Despite his great season, Mesut Ozil too has his problems. He’s been influential playing in his favoured roaming role, but is he versatile to adapt to playing different positions? Can he play out wide, or deeper in midfield if the situation requires it? Alexis Sanchez is another who’s struggled this season, and although he looks more comfortable playing in the middle off the central striker, Mesut Ozil’s form makes playing there very difficult.

Aaron Ramsey hasn't been at his best this season

Aaron Ramsey hasn’t been at his best this season

Up front, they have a variety of players, but not a single one who has all the tools in their arsenal, or one who is simply an out and out goalscorer. Olivier Giroud’s hold up play and strength are definitely an asset, but he currently finds himself in his longest goal draught of 10 games without scoring, with his ability to consistently produce always under question. Theo Walcott is another interesting case. Although his searing pace would appear to be a clear asset in a team with numerous creative players, his inability to take up the right positions and make the correct movements have led to some- including Alan Shearer-  suggesting that he is still a winger as opposed to a striker. A new option for Arsene Wenger to explore would be two upfront with the classic big man-little man combination of Walcott and Giroud, but that wouldn’t suit Arsene Wenger’s many midfielders at all. He could go 3-5-2 to try get midfielders and strikers on the pitch, but this late in a season wouldn’t be the best time to try to implement a new defensive system.

What about behind the scenes? Arsenal have always had one of the worst injury records in the Premier League, but looking at their injury list could perhaps shed some light as to why. Four of the six players injured have muscular injuries: Cech, Koscielny, and Wilshere with calf strains, and Rosicky with a thigh muscle strain. These aren’t injuries caused by tough tackles, these are injuries caused by lack of proper warming up, and fitness routines. Fitness is absolutely crucial, especially when you’re a team like Arsenal that at times is competing in four or five competitions at the same time. They only need to look across North London to see how much their neighbours have benefitted this season from high fitness levels. Arsenal always seem to lose steam at the end of seasons, and when they are doing well at the end of the season, it’s usually immediately after being knocked out of their other competitions.

Laurent Koscielny is amongst those who are suffering from muscular injuries

Laurent Koscielny is amongst those who are suffering from muscular injuries

Or most importantly, is it the manager who needs to change? Arsene Wenger will go down as Arsenal’s most successful manager, and some of the football he and his teams brought to the world was simply sublime. I’ve defended him in the last couple of years, but this can’t go on like it has been. In a period where Man City, Chelsea, United, and Liverpool are all struggling, this was the best time for Arsenal to launch a really serious assault on the Premier League title, and it hasn’t happened. In terms of transfer policy, I felt for Arsene Wenger, as he was put under serious constraint following the construction of the Emirates. But it’s hard to feel sympathetic when you see a team like Tottenham, and a manager like Mauricio Pochettino record a net profit after four transfer windows and still lead a Europa League team to second. It’s even harder when you see Leicester, who’s average starting 11 this season has cost less than 30 million pound, be on top. The profile of player that Arsene Wenger has identified in the last 5-10 years has been truly bizarre, and heavy defeats to the likes of City, Liverpool, Chelsea and United are testament to this.

Arsenal will never sack Arsene Wenger, just for what he’s done for the football club: not only have they won numerous trophies, but the way his teams have played football has made the club into a truly global brand. He’ll still feel that he can continue the job, and bring back success to this club, and will still feel that this season is salvageable. But in the long term, there has to be a clear plan in place. We’ve seen what has happened at Old Trafford following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, and it has definitely set them back a few years. The Premier League is at it’s most crazy period in it’s history, and Arsenal have to change if they want to capitalise on it

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About Nikhil Agarwal

I am an avid football fan, and have been following the game for close to 10 years. Although I try to keep track of football around the world, the league that is closest to my heart is definitely the Barclays Premier League. For more pieces check out my blog. http://nikhil111199.blogspot.sg

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