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.