It may seem strange, and outrageously ungrateful, that Arsenal fans are ready to turn on manager Arsène Wenger not four months after he ended the clubs nine year trophy drought by delivering the FA Cup in May followed by the Community Shield after victory over champions Manchester City in August. The club remain unbeaten in the league and have lost just once, last night against Borussia Dortmund, in all competitions this season. Yet there is something more than simple disaffection at the first defeat of the season brewing in N5. It was not the loss nor the 2-0 score line against one of Europe’s better sides that most hurt Arsenal fans but the manner of that performance. On paper a 2-0 away defeat to the 2013 Champions League runners up does not seem enough to justify this level of backlash against the manager, but Gunners fans know the result could have been much worse. For far too long there have been too many players in the squad not contributing enough to justify their place in an Arsenal starting XI, and this poor performance may finally be one too many for Arsenal fans to meekly accept. The embarrassment for most is the realisation that this is the best the club has to offer. Where once they had Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira now there are Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta. There were no mitigating factors in the defeat to Dortmund, Arsenal were simply outclassed by the better team who were themselves missing many first team regulars.
Wenger’s negligence in his failure to address this is what most hurts the North London faithful. Grinning in his post-match interview after fans have witnessed yet another dismal away day humiliation strikes deep at what most riles fans with regards to Wenger: his stubbornness to see what everyone else sees and his outright refusal to accept that sometimes even he can be wrong. His protestations after the game that the score could have been different if Arsenal had taken their chances ring very hollow to Arsenal fans who believe the score line would indeed have been very different had Arsenal spent money in the transfer window to rectify the obvious deficiencies in the team, the lack of a dominant holding midfielder and central defender. This refusal to spend big on desperately needed players frustrates fans who pay the highest ticket prices in the country and are therefore not sated by one FA Cup trophy in 9 years. They demand that Wenger now shows he still shares that same desire.
It is painful to see a manager who has built so many great teams during his time in England seemingly content with the inadequacies in his current squad, weaknesses he would not have tolerated in his early years when he strove for perfection. In similar manner to Sir Alex Ferguson who’s later Manchester United teams were no match for his vintage editions, it appears the hunger for success, the desire to continuously overhaul and improve the squad, is on the wane. As they aged both managers take more chances on mediocre players rather than ensuring a team packed full of quality that has no excuse for failure. Whether he no longer has the same energy to identify and pursue targets or the potential challenge of creating a title winning team now has less appeal than a summer jaunt on Copacabana beach to the Arsenal boss, the players were available this summer, and they did not come to north London.
If Arsène is to regain the confidence of the fans and turn around Arsenal’s already stuttering start to the season he needs to immediately ditch his newly favoured 4-1-4-1 formation for the more successful 4-2-3-1 shape of last season. The thinking behind the switch to 4-1-4-1 this season was likely twofold. Firstly, by playing Aaron Ramsey in the centre of a 4 rather than a deeper 2 he is higher up the pitch, closer to the opposition’s area and therefore more likely to continue his goal scoring exploits of last season as he is in a more offensive position to hurt teams. Initially, this worked well with Ramsey scoring real poachers goals by appearing in the box late in the games against Crystal Palace and Everton to rescue crucial points. However, the Welshman’s form has dipped since the draw at Goodison Park, as he has become increasingly marginalised in games, and therefore it is perhaps time to take the pressure off and revert to the formation that suited him so well last season without trying to force the focus onto him. With 16 goals in all competitions it was a formula that did not need changing.
Secondly, the 4-1-4-1 system was likely intended to provide more much needed protection in the centre of midfield for the ageing and ever less mobile Mikel Arteta (or his equally immobile deputy Mathieu Flamini) as he now has a base of four players in front of him to contract the space that other teams can break from. Moreover, by playing centrally in a single-pivot he would be less exposed than on the left of a double pivot when Ramsey or Wilshere break forward and he thus has less ground to make up when shielding the defence. Yet this is the contradiction of Wenger; whilst he denies the need to sign a true holding midfielder his selection is a blatant admission of the fact that his defensive shield needs to be shielded. Wenger chose this formation to mask the holes in his team that he decided not to fill in the summer. Now he must admit that his lack of transfer activity was unacceptable and instead of hiding this he must play to the team’s strengths rather than hindering the better players to compensate for the weaknesses he failed to address in the transfer window. Clearly, Mesut Özil is not a left sided midfielder and no amount of game time shunted out on the left will make him one, he needs to play in the number 10 role where he was once regarded as the best in the world. Arsenal paid a club record £42.5m for the player who showed the only genuine piece of quality in a blue shirt in Dortmund with a cleverly dinked reverse pass into the path of Danny Welbeck, not for the anonymous unhappy figure who has huffed and puffed on the wings this season without ever influencing a game.
It is a story that Arsenal fans endure season after season. Square pegs and round holes. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The abject failure to adequately prepare for the season has left fans already preparing to abjectly fail. It is now imperative that Wenger shows he has the flexibility and humility to admit his mistakes, as well as the drive and passion to rectify them, before the positivity of the summer is swept away in a tide of animosity.