Arsenal’s season has thus far been characterised by what would appear be a split personality that would leave even Henry Jekyll nodding his head in silent admiration. There have been times this season when they have purred with the same quiet efficiency of his vintage teams of days gone by, but these performances have been punctuated with stuttering, spluttering displays that have made them look like a mid-table Premier League team at best. Many people (almost, it seemed, out of habit) continued to tip them for the Premier League title this season, but it is rapidly becoming apparent that this is no team of title contenders.
Last weekend, they looked the championship contenders of old in beating Manchester United in the Premier League, and during the week their youth team swatted Wigan Athletic aside like a mildly irritating fly in the League Cup. Today, however, at good work of the last seven days was undone with a 2-0 home defeat by Aston Villa (Villa’s first away win against Arsenal in fifteen years, as Ray Stubbs repeatedly told us during “Score” this afternoon) which didn’t merely end their realistic chances of winning the league for another season, but also left them clinging on grimly in fourth place in the table on goal difference from Villa, and with Everton also breathing down their necks. This is a sequence of events that leads one to have to ask a question that few thought that they would ever have to ask: is Arsene Wenger now yesterday’s man?
The hints at their comparative demise lie in the quality of opposition that they have lost to so far this season – Fulham, Hull City, Stoke City and Aston Villa. For all the talk of how open the Premier League has been this season, the Premier League remains lop-sided enough four defeats to probably end their title challenge, and three of the four teams that have beaten them could well be described as “mediocre”. Some might even have predicted that Fulham, Hull and Stoke would have made up the bottom three come next May. Moreover, Arsenal were well beaten in these games.
This afternoon they huffed and puffed against an efficient Aston Villa side, and were beaten by two sucker punches. Unlike previous seasons, they seldom look likely to drag themselves back into a match after they have gone behind (no matter what anyone says, Emmanuel Adebayor pales in comparison with Dennis Bergkamp or Thierry Henry), and they also look defensively frail – consider their inability to be able to deal with Rory Delap’s long throws at Stoke last week or the manner in which they threw away what should have been a match-winning two goal lead against Spurs. Results such as this breed confidence into teams that are playing them, too. The temptation for teams such as Hull or Stoke would ordinarily be to turn up for a match against Arsenal, pack the defence and hope for the best. However, Arsenal’s frailty has breathed confidence into their opponents, and this has been demonstrated by teams taking them on, playing attacking football and beating them at their own game.
Is Wenger, then, past his prime? Well, he has certainly made errors of judgement recently. The decision to not upgrade Manuel Almunia has looked like an expensive one. There has certainly been too much style over substance, with criticisms of the team trying to walk the ball into the goal that haunted them last season returning with bells on this year. However, fourth place in the Premier League in November is hardly a crisis, and one would still back Arsenal to make that fourth place come May. The serious problems could start for them should they fail to do this – the interest payments on their debt are high and, even with the highest ticket prices in the Premier League, Champions League money is arguably a more important issue for Arsenal than it is for Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool at present. As with all questions of this sort, however, the only question that really matters are these: Would Arsenal be able to find a better replacement? And would it be worth all the upheaval? The answer to both of these questions seems to be “almost certainly not”. Arsenal supporters may not be happy with what has been going on in N7 so far this season, the likelihood is that unsteadying the ship would only bring new (and even greater) problems.