Inquest begins at Arsenal after title collapse

Armed with a benign fixture list, a relatively injury-free squad
and without the burden of European football, this should have been
the year Arsenal finished the season strongly to challenge for a
first Premier League title since 2004.

Instead, the Gunners have stumbled out of the championship race
before the start of May and the inquest has begun over the merits
of their squad and the future strategy of manager Arsene
Wenger.

Arsenal – along with north London rival Tottenham – has again
played the most entertaining football in the league but when the
pressure was cranked up in the final third of the season, the team
has cracked, exposing weaknesses that Wenger has been unable to
deal with over the last six trophyless years.

Wenger is happy to take the blame for Arsenal’s stuttering end
to the season but is not about to change his footballing
philosophy.

”If you can convince me those principles are wrong, I’m ready.
However, I feel we are right to try to play football the proper
way,” Wenger said. ”When you don’t win, your principles are
questioned but I have the distance to know what is right and
wrong.

”If something is wrong, it is not the problem of playing
football. We just have to become more mature in some of the
situations when we look too frail.”

Various criticisms have been aimed at Wenger; among them are a
misplaced belief in some of his young players, a refusal to spend
money on beefing up his squad with Premier League experience in key
positions such as central defense, and the lack of a proven striker
to shoulder the burden of top scorer Robin van Persie.

Those brickbats could be swatted away in the first half of the
season, when Arsenal stayed in the hunt for four trophies with a
freescoring attack as well as one of the best defensive records in
the Premier League.

But as the fixtures began to pile up from January onwards, when
the team was playing games every three or four days, problems
arose.

Injuries to the likes of Van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Theo
Walcott hit hard because their replacements were found wanting,
while the defense started to leak goals thanks to poor
decision-making and general passivity.

A terrible five weeks beginning at the start of February saw
Wenger’s side surrender a four-goal lead to draw 4-4 at Newcastle
in the league, lose the League Cup final at Wembley to Birmingham,
and get knocked out of the Champions League and FA Cup in the space
of five days with defeats to Barcelona and Manchester United
respectively.

Since then, players like Fabregas and Andrey Arshavin have
failed to deliver and Arsenal has won just one of its six league
matches. Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at Bolton left the side nine points
behind leader United with four games left, effectively ruling them
out of the title race.

”The players have had an outstanding attitude this season. They
aren’t to blame. If somebody’s to blame, it’s me,” said Wenger,
Arsenal’s manager since 1996.

As well as keeping the club financially self-sufficient, Wenger
claimed this month that success can be defined by finishing
regularly in the Champions League positions in the Premier League.
But does that mindset – being content with second best –
necessarily push players to their limits?

Wenger is also regularly condemned in the British media for
failing to sign a no-nonsense center back in the mold of former
captains Tony Adams and Sol Campbell, who were the both heartbeats
of title-winning sides.

First-choice center back Thomas Vermaelen has been out injured
for almost the entire season and with offseason signing Sebastien
Squillaci finding the pace of the Premier League too much, Wenger
has had to rely on the fellow recent signing Laurent Koscielny and
the injury-prone Johan Djourou. Both are accomplished ball-players
but their brittleness has too often been exposed.

A similarly proven player in a midfield holding role,
complementing Fabregas and Jack Wilshere, would also not go
amiss.

”We still lack maturity, experience and calm in important
situations,” Wenger said Sunday, having for most of the season
hailed Arsenal’s supposed newfound mental strength and maturity.
”Defensively we’ve been too frail and it is especially frustrating
when you look at the way we have dropped points.

”It’s very unsatisfactory because it’s one of the easiest
run-ins we’ve had for a long time.”

Wenger, who delivered three league titles and four FA Cups in
his first nine years at the club, has one of the safest jobs in
football.

He’s in no danger of being fired because his outlook and
philosophy is so entrenched in the London club, and because the
Arsenal board would be unwilling to threaten the financial security
that the Gunners’ consistent top-four league finishes bring year on
year.

But fans are becoming restless after so many seasons without
silverware. It remains to be seen whether Wenger changes his modus
operandi in the transfer market this summer and brings in players
with experience of winning titles to bolster a promising but
brittle squad.

The recent change of ownership at the club, with American sports
tycoon Stan Kroenke securing a controlling stake, seems unlikely to
signal a new approach to the transfer market.

Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis described Kroenke’s arrival
as the start of a new era, but then added: ”I don’t think we will
see dramatic changes.”

However, with the likes of Manchester City, Tottenham and a
resurgent Liverpool likely to challenge the established Premier
League powers even harder next season, this could be the time for
Wenger and Kroenke to act.