What's wrong with Arsenal?

Published : May 06, 2010 00:00 IST

The answer to the Arsenal question could simply be summed up in one word: Injuries.

“History repeats itself, “wrote Karl Marx, “The first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” Not that it was truly a tragedy when way back in 1943, when I myself was a schoolboy and an Arsenal fan, an old London newspaper ran the headline, “What's Wrong with the Arsenal?” It was the middle of the Second World War in which till about then the Gunners had been lucky enough to keep pretty well the whole of the first team in and around London. But then the Army and the Royal Air Force, to which most of them belonged, in the physical training section, began to make their demands and the team was steadily diminished. Denis Compton, for one, a splendid outside left as well as a superb batsman, was sent all the way to India. Cliff Bastin, a wonder kid in his teens, once scorer of 33 goals from the left wing in a single League season, did remain at inside left. But that was because his deafness exempted him from military service.

I remember raising the subject of that headline many decades later, when Bertie Mee, whose Arsenal team had won the Cup and League double in 1971, was the somewhat choleric and touchy manager. He snapped at me that I had my living as a journalist to earn, and did not stay for an answer. The irony being that the following Saturday, Arsenal revived with a fine victory.

And now? The question has been repeatedly and forcefully asked after the Gunners, with a slight outside chance of the Championship, conceded three goals in the last 11 minutes at humble Wigan, and thereby saw a 2-0 lead turned into a humiliating 2-3 defeat. Manager Arsene Wenger, in his fury, untypically kicked at a water bottle and hurled his jacket petulantly into the dug out.

Yet how much of all this was his fault rather than that of a team he now blamed for its defensive ineptitude? Taking a longer view, it is hard to saddle Wenger with blame for anything at all. The answer to the Arsenal question could simply be summed up in one word: Injuries. Just look at the list of them.

Above all, the injuries to the chief stars of the side, Robin Van Persie and Cesc Fabregas. Clobbered by the Italian defender Chiellini, whom he nobly didn't blame, in a friendly international with Holland, the irreplaceable, incisive, prolific Van Persie was denied to the Gunners for all of five months. The supremely over- confident young Dane, Bentdner, has the strong physique of the Dutchman but far fewer talents.

Just how much Van Persie has been missed was shown when he came on as a late substitute in the North London derby at Tottenham, galvanising the Gunners with his skill and fire. So it baffles me that Wenger failed to use him at Wigan till the very last moments of the game. True it might have been thought a trifle risky to deploy him much earlier after so long a spell out of football, but would it not have made some kind of sense to use him from the kick-off than bring him off when he appeared to tire?

Fabregas has been the midfield and even the attacking inspiration of the team, technically outstanding, daring, constructive, yet though he did manage to play for a great deal of the season, he recently went out at The Emirates against Barcelona. Though clearly not fully fit and thus unable to contribute his usual dash and drive to the team, he still managed to win and convert the equalising penalty, hurting himself badly again in the process, retiring alas with a broken leg. Surely all this is a valid excuse for Wenger and for the relative failure of Arsenal?

Not entirely, I would suggest. There is alas the vexed question of goalkeepers. Once upon a time there was David Seaman of England, though he had his odd, chaotic moments, not least when he gave away a ludicrous European goal at Chelsea and the German international, Jens Lehmann. But the Spaniard Manuel Almunia has never wholly convinced, even though he had such a fine first half against Barcelona in London. As for the Polish second choice, Łukasz Fabiañski, picking him is surely like dicing with death. We saw it yet again at Wigan, where he made such a feeble attempt at catching a high ball, merely succeeding in pushing it on to the head of the Wigan centre back, Titus Bramble, from where it flew into the net.

Goodness knows Wenger has had enough warnings about Fabianski, whom, at times, he has defended with euphemistic zeal. He had a fearful game in the FA Cup tie at Stoke and a worse one still in the European Cup at Porto, where he let in what should have been merely a harmless cross from the right. An error he compounded in the second half when he picked up a back pass by Sol Campbell thus conceding another Porto goal, scored from the resultant, quickly taken free kick. To which he should have responded far more swiftly.

That FA Cup tie at Stoke saw Wenger field a patchwork of team, full of untried youngsters, which was an insult to a great competition which the Gunners themselves have frequently won under Wenger's aegis. With a full team they could well have beaten Stoke and I am a little surprised the FA did not fine the club for fielding a weak team.

As against these charges, poor Wenger could hardly be blamed for the catalogue of other injuries. The excellent Belgian international Thomas Vermaelen the latest, the other chief centre back, the French international, William Gallas, has already dropped out. Russian winger Andrei Arshavin, has been unavailable for weeks. The exuberant young Welsh international, Aaron Ramsey has been severely injured by a reckless tackle.

One is reminded of the question always asked by Napoleon when it was a case of promoting a general to marshal: “Is he lucky?” Wenger has arguably had his luck in the past but this season has surely been a nightmare of constant ill fortune. So to the question, what's wrong with the Arsenal? The simple answer should surely be their wretched luck. Compounded, it is true, with the failure to find a decent second choice goalkeeper.

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