Seven glaring problems Arsene Wenger has failed to address at Arsenal
Arsenal are being hamstrung by failings which are blindingly obvious to everyone - apart from their manager.
1. There are no leaders in his side
Arsene Wenger had a curious response when asked, just before the Swansea game on Wednesday, to identify the true leaders in his first team squad. "The team," was the reply. "In every position. The players lead and we try to develop that with our work. Our job is to have a leader in every position."
The notion of collective responsibility may be a noble ideal but the grittier reality is that title challenges cannot be sustained by a side devoid of dominant personalities - and Arsenal's falls into that category.
Put bluntly, nobody in this Arsenal squad appears to have the force of will to bend a season to their will; to sense when a game is drifting away from them and wrestle it back under their control. They lack players "with balls", as Paul Scholes so eloquently put it.
John Terry and Roy Keane are habitually cited as the ideal examples of such characters, but the latter are not just the preserve of the moneyed elite: Mark Noble at West Ham, Harry Arter at Bournemouth or Etienne Capoue at Watford have all been all fine leaders this season, the players their sides turn to in times of crisis.
This is hardly an open secret. Alexis Sanchez observed it for himself after the Swansea, game saying: "We lack self-belief, that we can actually be champions. I think we can win the Premier League with the players we have. That said, we lack a certain hunger. We need to step out onto the pitch as if we're already 1-0 up."
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That is alarming enough, and the chorus of criticism continues outside the club. As the former Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour put it on Sky Sports, "I didn't see anyone on that pitch demanding more from the players.
The big players didn't turn up and at the back they were all over the place. The most important thing is the leaders. When the going gets tough you need people like that; when I played we had Tony Adams and guys like that demand more from you when you're up against it."
The meekness of Arsenal's 2016 vintage - which has been noted, and exploited, by their Premier League rivals - is not an indictment on the players so much as the manager.
Wenger knows the value of having strong personalities in a dressing room - he was the man who signed Patrick Vieira, Sol Campbell and Thierry Henry, after all - but it has become one of his most baffling blind spots.
Maybe he feels his should be the strongest voice behind the scenes and does not want to be undermined; maybe he feels men like Per Mertesacker (a World Cup winner) and Petr Cech (a serial champion at Chelsea) should be doing more.
Either way, when the game lurched away from Arsenal on Wednesday against Swansea, there was not a single Arsenal player who looked like they had the gumption to wrench it back again.
2. His team has a soft defensive centre
Linked to the lack of leaders is the glaring deficiency at the heart of Arsenal's back-line.
It was easy to explain the collective shudder that passed around the Emirates on Wednesday when the teams were announced and Per Mertesacker and Gabriel Paulista were revealed as the home side's central defensive combination against Swansea: the two of them had won just 33 per cent of their matches when deployed together and there was a grim inevitability in how Swansea scored their goals - a simple ball played through the middle of a gaping hole between the two centre-halves, and an even simpler free-kick bent into the six-yard box which sparked utter panic.
No Premier League team, let alone a title contender, should be opened up so easily, but Arsenal fans have grown wearily accustomed to such failings in the absence of Laurent Koscielny, who appears to be the only player capable of instilling discipline and defensive rigour.
The full-backs are less culpable - Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal have been two of Arsenal's most consistently impressive performers this season - but, even so, Wenger's insistence on deploying them so high up the field (as per the average position graphic below) does leave them horribly vulnerable to swift counter-attacks and balls launched into the channels from deep.
3. He should have bought attacking reinforcements in January
Wenger's aversion to making signings has become the Premier League's longest-running joke, but the failure to add any attacking cover to his squad in the January transfer window was not simply bad news for transfer gossip merchants.
"I'm not trying to find any excuses because your usual suspects need and have to perform, but what is happening when they are not scoring?" asked Thierry Henry. "Who is going is going to come from the bench and change the game?
"Who was scoring goals when Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole were not scoring [for Manchester United]? Who was scoring goals when [Sergio] Aguero was not scoring? [Carlos] Tevez, Edin Dzeko. Who was scoring goals at Arsenal when I was having a [barren] run? Sylvain Wiltord. And I can go through teams that won the title like that."
He has a point. Arsenal are paying for their lack of forward options in a run of form that is dangerously close to a drought - certainly by their free-scoring standards. This is how their attacking form has disintegrated since Jan 13:
If Olivier Giroud had maintained his mid-season scoring form - and Alexis Sanchez had not been injured - then Arsenal may have got away with it. As it is, they have been forced to either jam extremely square pegs in round holes (Theo Walcott deployed through the middle at Old Trafford, for example) or rely on players who have not kicked a ball in anger all season finding their form instananeously (Danny Welbeck).
4. Alexis Sanchez needs a rest
After Alexis Sanchez damanged his hamstring against Norwich in December - the culmination of a draining run of games that had left the player in the dreaded 'red zone' which signifies an injury is looming - Wenger acknowledged his culpability.
"I'm not an expert to know but if you want to blame me I have no problem with it," he said. "I never force anyone to play. We are in a job where you have to give 100 per cent so I don't like to play players who are not 100 per cent. When I arrived it was me and my two assistants and Gary Lewin, now we have a team. But human beings are still human beings."
The implication is that while Wenger will never force anyone to play with an injury, neither will he deter players who want to soldier on despite being hobbled.
And Alexis Sanchez bears all the hallmarks of being one of those players: fiercely competitive, relentlessly driven to succeed and acutely aware of his status as an A-list talent of whom great things are expected. Yet there are times when players need to be withdrawn for their own protection, and it reflects poorly on Wenger that he felt unable to do so in November.
The legacy of that decision has been devastating: Sanchez missed almost two months of football and even since his return, has looked a shadow of the player that terrorised defences last season.
He has a solitary goal to his name - and that against Burnley in the FA Cup - and while his luck was out against Swansea, where he hit the bar and post with well-struck shots, Wenger now faces another key decision over whether to withdraw the Chilean and give him time to recharge.
5. He still lacks tactical flexibility
Graeme Souness put it best, as he often does. "It was more tippy-tippy football by Arsenal, going nowhere - that’s why they had 60 per cent possession. They bordered on being a joke."
He was talking about Arsenal's performance in their 3-2 defeat at Manchester United but, in truth, he could have been talking about Arsenal at almost any point during Arsene Wenger's reign.
Arsenal's devotion to their short-passing game wins plenty of admirers when it is deployed with swift, clinical efficiency, but when it is not, it hamstrings them, and allows lesser sides to sit back and absorb pressure with the minimum of discomfort.
Swansea's second goal in the 74th minute last night should have sparked Wenger into action, and forced him to at least attempt a different tactic. He had brought on the quicksilver Theo Walcott as a substitute and still had Olivier Giroud on the field, indicating that balls launched into channels or fired into the Frenchman from deep would be the modus operandi.
Instead, Arsenal played just five long passes in the final 16 minutes - and just two successfully.
The frustration is that Wenger has demonstrated he is prepared to compromise on occasion. He did so at Manchester City last season, and at home to the same opponents this term.
There have been some notable European occasions when he has pulled off a similar trick. But it would appear that a combination of principles and pride means he simply cannot abide the notion of adopting a more direct or less sophisticated methodology against a side such as Swansea.
6. He is failing to influence games
It is another indictment of Wenger's performance at the moment that he seems incapable of decisively influencing matches.
When performing at the peak of their powers, managers have a habit of reshaping a game's narrative with their changes - think Jose Mourinho in his first spell at Chelsea, or even Louis van Gaal with the Dutch at the 2014 World Cup.
Wenger, however, has lost the knack. Since Jan 13, the only substitutes to score a goal for Arsenal in a Premer League game were Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck - both in the (admittedly vital) 2-1 win over Leicester. None have provided an assist.
Against Swansea, one of his changes - taking off the lively Joel Campbell for Welbeck - succeeded only in infuriating the crowd, who could not fathom why he had decided to remove one of Arsenal's most threatening attacking players.
7. Luck has nothing to do with it
"I believe we were really unlucky with our finishing and some decisions," Wenger said after the Swansea defeat. "They had two shots on target and two goals.
We stopped playing before the first goal because there was a foul on Mesut Ozil. There were hands around his neck and it should have been a free kick for us. We were really unlucky."
A few points. On the one hand, conceding two goals from two shots is unfortunate; on the other, it appears to underline just how frail Arsenal are when it comes to defending their own box that every opposition chance appears to yield a goal. Arsenal fans should be grateful that Swansea did not have five shots.
Second, it is not unlucky to have "stopped playing...because there was a foul on Mesut Ozil." That is negligence, and incurred a suitably draconian punishment when Wayne Routledge raced clear to score.
Bemoaning injuries, refereeing decisions, opposition dirty tricks or inspired goalkeeping is the psychological crux of the besieged manager. Wenger is more guilty of it than most, but it is time to accept more responsibility for his, and his team's, manifold failings.
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