It may be time to accept that the 2015/2016 season has effectively ended for Arsenal.
Only the most optimistic among us are clinging onto the hope that we are not out of the title race just yet – Arsene Wenger has certainly not given up the ghost, but his words smack of desperation rather than a rallying cry. The fans certainly deserve a strong finish to the season as a reward for their unbridled support of a team that we felt were more than good enough to capitalise on the deficiencies shown by our main rivals this season and pick up silverware.
There has never been such a thing as an easy game in football, but the most disappointing aspect to the fact that Arsenal are so far behind Leicester at the Premier League summit is that, aside from the trip to Manchester City at the end of this month, our run-in is against teams at the bottom of the table. It could have made all the difference if our complacency and defensive vulnerability did not come back to haunt us yet again, and while Coral may fancy Arsenal to come back stronger in next season’s Premier League title odds, we are left to ponder where it all went wrong and look at what the future may hold for the club.
You will find it difficult to find a group of fans more divided over whether their manager remains the right man for the job or should step aside after twenty years of wonderful service at Arsenal. People will have their own views on this, but we have to accept that Wenger will simply not walk away from the Emirates, nor will Stan Kroenke or any other board members get rid of him; unless there is a remarkable U-turn from either party, Wenger will see out the last year of his contract. Who knows what the future hold for the Frenchman after that, but one thing is for certain – there has to be a major change in transfer policy as our squad is not only crying out for a major reshuffle to let go of players who are too injury-prone or those we can afford to cut our losses on, but also one that needs a significant injection in quality. The rumour mill will undoubtedly throw out a whole host of names that Arsenal could sign during the summer (Zlatan Ibrahimovic being one that stands out), but while Wenger’s eye for a bargain may have deserted him, most people would agree that our chances of success next season would be significant improved by the arrival of a top quality centre-back, holding midfielder and proven goal-scoring striker.
A club of our stature and calibre should be looking to pick up trophies as a realistic target, so to not even come close this season should be valued as a considerable disappointment. Being knocked out of the Capital One Cup by Sheffield Wednesday was a considerable low point, as was being denied another shot at FA Cup glory by Watford on home soil. The latter was arguably our greatest shot at success as our title chances fell by the wayside after consecutive defeats against Manchester United and Swansea, but another below-key performance blew any chance of Arsenal equalling the cup record. Any debate over “who will lift the cup?” will not involve us this year, and while our victors may be amongst the FA Cup tips with Coral to go all the way, the fact that Arsenal will not be returning to Wembley is something that will hopefully spur the team on to do better next season.
It remains to be seen whether we will be dining at Europe’s elite domestic table again following Manchester City’s exploits in the Champions League. There is the perilous realisation that if Manuel Pellegrini’s side go on to win the competition this season and finish above us in third in the league table, then Arsenal will not qualify – a harrowing thought indeed. It would ultimately end Wenger’s fantastic record of qualifying for the Champions League in every season that he has been in charge – something that some fans would argue has kept him in a job at Arsenal in recent years – and while it may be caused by a technicality, it would add more fuel to the fire of suggestion that Wenger’s time at the club is finished. We would not be in this situation if Arsenal allowed their promising position in the table slip through their fingers; nobody could envisage that Leicester would achieve what they have this season, and even the most ardent of Gooners out there will back them to win the league ahead of Tottenham, but for Arsenal to be so far behind can only be viewed with disappointment and regret.
Loosening the purse strings may solve one of our greatest issues, but another is whether Wenger is wise enough to realise that certain games require a different tactical approach. The recent fixture at West Ham was a perfect case in point; the quality of football was superb when we raced into a 2-0 lead, but our intent on attacking to add a third and fourth, plus an element of poor understanding to not realise that West Ham were trying to find Andy Carroll with early crosses into the box from out wide, ultimately led to our downfall. We proved at Everton in the hugely convincing 3-0 victory that we have it in the locker to control a game without taking a gung-ho approach; every Arsenal fan wants to see attacking, fluid football played at the highest level, but most teams, particularly this season with the increase in quality across the Premier League, are more than likely to have something in response if they exploit tactical weaknesses.
Wenger’s stubbornness to play football his way might have been the foundations for success in the past, but the game has changed, whereas Wenger has not. Adding top quality players into key areas may make us much stronger in defence and have a clinical finish that we can hang our hat on to hit over twenty goals a season – factors that would make us stronger contenders to make 2016/2017 a year when Arsenal come back to the fore.