Just a few weeks ago, the Gunners had found themselves in a good position to make a telling impact in four competitions. They had come off an inspiring win against Barcelona; Van Persie and Walcott were firing on all cylinders, and the Carling Cup final date with Birmingham City provided them a great chance to erase the stigma of being branded as ‘trophyless’. While it would be considered as overly optimistic to win all the trophies possible, there was a undercurrent of belief among the Gunner fans that the club was capable of clinching at least two of them, including the ‘Mickey Mouse’ cup. After all, the players need some sort of motivation to ensure they do not go empty handed, and a trophy would be just the right tonic for that.
Fast forward to two weeks. An unbelievable mix-up between Koscielny and Szczesny in the dying minutes of the game resulted in Birmingham clinching their first trophy since 1963 and a tragic heartbreak for the Gunners, who had been looking forward to ending their trophy drought. While Arsenal fans would be unable to endure the stigma of enduring countless daunts from opposition fans, the impact of the loss on the players cannot be expressed in words. Not only did they have to overcome the demoralizing trauma of their missed chance, but they were also expected to pick themselves up, forget the entire episode and move on to the next game in a short span of time.
To exacerbate woes, van Persie limped off in the Carling Cup final, joining Walcott and Cesc on the medical table after their injuries in the Stoke game prior to this fixture. Arsenal managed to cope without these players in the FA Cup replay against Orient, but their absence was largely felt in the stalemate against Sunderland, as the Gunners were denied a win by dubious referee decisions and a complete lack of creativity in the first sixty minutes of the game. Then came the second leg match-up at the Camp Nou, and the furore surrounding Van Persie’s dismissal and the abject performance by the midfield, with the exception of Jack Wilshere, has put Arsenal in a familiar state of helplessness yet again, with their chances of a trophy now cut into half.
From this juncture, there are two paths that lie ahead of the team. One is pretty familiar to the players; it is the path of implosion – the time of the season when the club reaches saturation point and goes into a downward spiral following a morale crushing result, culminating in a situation where the Gooners have to be content with a Champions League spot and the same old adage ‘there’s always next season’. The ghosts of the 2008-09 season will be waiting to return and haunt the players, making them lose faith and forcing them to concede that they are just also-rans instead of genuine title contenders. They would end up being the punching bag of fans of other clubs, be labelled as ‘spineless’ and invite condescending remarks from ‘well-informed’ pundits and opposition players from other big clubs.
The other path is not a path; rather, it is a mountainous road, with huge obstacles in the form of self-doubt dotting it all the way to the top. The constant ridicule by the non-Arsenal fraternity, coupled with the drama of the last two weeks, have the potential to sow seeds of doubts in the minds of the players; however, they need to take a leaf out of Manchester United’s books when it comes to character, belief and fortitude. The Red Devils, despite being extremely poor in the midfield department for most of the season, have still managed to stay at the top of the table. This is because of the tried and tested formula of ‘never giving up till the last minute’ which Sir Alex Ferguson has instilled into his players, and Arsenal would do well do put a similar display in the forthcoming games. Their body language in the Barca game, after Van Persie’s dismissal, portrayed their lack of belief in scoring one more goal, which would have taken them through. Wilshere and Almunia were the only ones who still worked their socks off despite the Catalans completely dominating the proceedings; had it been United in such a situation, you would certainly expect them to nick something from the match even when they are a man down. This is exactly the kind of image that Arsenal need to develop, and it is belief and character alone which can carry them through the tough times and focus on the goal at hand.
Fortunately, this season promises to be very different for the North London outfit. The players appear to be coming of age as compared to last season, and the camaraderie between them on and off the pitch is very evident. The good run of results in the first half of the season, with the exception of the big games against United and Chelsea, have been largely in part due to the presence of Chamakh and the ever-growing Wilshere in the starting eleven. The Moroccon has shouldered the striking burden in the absence of Van Persie and Bendtner in his debut season and has made a telling contribution to Arsenal’s point tally. Wilshere, on the other hand, has proved his versatility in switching between attack and defense in the center of the pitch, coming up with his own outrageous skills on the ball at time. His performances have earned him the admiration of many people, including Fabio Capello, who handed the teenager his first full England start against Denmark in a friendly.
In the second half of the season, the quartet of Van Persie, Nasri, Fabregas and Walcott have been very instrumental in garnering a good run of results in 2011, prior to the Carling Cup final. But the primary reason for Arsenal still remaining in the title race has been surprisingly their defense, which has been touted as their weakness. Djourou showed how much Arsenal missed him in the previous seasons, while Koscielny has proved to be an able replacement for Vermaelen – a testament to Wenger’s business acumen in the transfer market. The duo, along with Squillaci, has proved to be a much better bunch than that of last year’s, where Gallas, Sol and Silvestre were the only options apart from Vermaelen. Almunia has been demoted to the bench by Fabianski and Szczesny, both of whom have proved to be remarkably good goalkeepers and actually possess the capability to be consistent.
Wenger has got his tactics right in most of the games, but luck and lack of a leader on the pitch has prevented Arsenal from winning games; the inexplicable 4-4 draw against Newcastle showed how much an experienced head on the field was sorely missed, as the Gunners were completely clueless in the last twenty minutes of the game. Cesc has a lot of passion and commitment, but lacks the commanding air and a cool head expected of a strong captain, a la Tony Adams. The problem is, there is no other person worthy of being a captain; Vermaelen is a natural choice, but has been missing for a larger part of the season. Van Persie continues to be temperamental, while Rosicky and Squillaci as captain don’t inspire at all. What Arsenal needs is a John Terry or a Vidic, someone who is not afraid to put his head on the line and who leads by his performance on the pitch. Cesc has led by his performances in many games, but goes missing when the going gets tough and the players need some semblance of organization. It remains to be seen if Arsene looks at this issue and finds a suitable captain for next season.
As the team turns its focus on FA Cup and the League, there are growing concerns amongst the Gunner faithful that the recent spate of injuries and the number of referee decisions going against the team could derail their quest for a trophy. However, while the referee situation is out of the manager’s hands, the injury crisis cannot be used as an excuse any more, should Arsenal slip up in the chase for the League title. After all, injuries are a part and parcel of the game, and the rough physical nature of the League will always result in some form of injury; the failure of referees to keep a check on overboard tackles is also a factor, but it needs a separate chapter for detailed discussion. The bottom line is, if key players are injured, their replacements must be able to do the task as well as they can; the bench players are not expected to replicate the feats of the first teamers, but they should show some commitment and passion on the field. Over the course of the season, it is the squad quality and depth that determines who has the best chance of finishing on top.
The players must strive to win a trophy at all costs; else all the hard work they have put in so far will be undone. Anger can drive a man to do anything which he generally refrains from. The players should feel deeply aggrieved by the injustice meted out to them by the referees in the games against Sunderland and Barcelona, and they should channel all this fury into achieving positive results in the upcoming games. After the loss to Birmingham, the Gunners unleashed all their pent up frustration on a hapless Leyton Orient at home, trouncing the lower league club 5-0. This time, they have a chance to vent out their ire from the Barcelona game on long time rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup quarterfinals. The game gives them a chance to settle a score with the Red Devils, a chance to go closer to winning a trophy and a chance to prove their mental fortitude following a loss. If they don’t achieve a result from Saturday’s game, then it will be even more difficult to climb back out of the emotionally-draining hole they have dug themselves into.
As Sir William Osler quotes,
“Without faith a man can do nothing; with it all things are possible.”
The Gunners need to have faith in themselves, and assure themselves they are up for the task. In addition, the fans need to show more patience and back their players instead of shredding them to bits for their performances. The players are also human, and will feel more aggrieved at letting down their fans than the fans being disappointed; by showing them that they have the support and confidence of the Gooners, the fans can instil passion in them and urge them to deliver their best in every game. With the majority of Arsenal players using Twitter to interact with the fans, they could draw inspiration from the support offered through the social networking medium. While twitter can be viewed as a distraction by some, it can be used as a powerful medium to make them aware of the millions of supporters they have and understand the magnitude of the expectations that the manager and players have to shoulder. In the end, if they manage to finish with a trophy, it will be a vindication of Wenger’s investment in the squad and a major breakthrough for the Gunners. The question is, can they silence their critics this season?