In times of struggle Arsene Wenger retreats into his trenchcoat. The sign of the Frenchman zipping up, slumped in his dugout seat, has almost become a statement of resignation from the Arsenal boss. And at Swansea City, with his side trailing after a late collapse, Wenger’s white flag was on display.
Such despondency was understandable. With defeat in South Wales, Arsenal let slip a lead for a second successive game, following their Champions League capitulation from a 3-0 cakewalk against Anderlecht just days earlier. Such fragility prompted Wenger to concede, not just the match with Swansea, but the Premier League title race.
“At the moment Chelsea are on course for 100 points this season,” explained an exasperated Wenger. “If you look at the number of points they have, if they keep that up nobody will catch them, that’s for sure. There doesn’t look to be anybody capable to challenge them at the moment.
This concession came just a matter of weeks after Wenger vociferously insisted his side had the “spirit and resolve” to win the Premier League this season. So is it time for the Gunners boss to be held accountable for his team’s tediously perennial failure?
If Arsenal are to build momentum ahead of a crowded festive schedule they must claim three points against top four rivals Manchester United on Saturday, although wins against such sides have proven hard to come by in recent years.
Arsenal’s record against their top four rivals over the past five seasons is frankly abysmal. The Gunners have claimed a meager 28 points from a possible 99 against clubs that have finished in the top four since 2009-10 (Chelsea, Man Utd, Man City, Liverpool and Spurs). It’s in these games where Arsenal’s most glaring shortcomings can be found.
Saturday’s clash between Arsenal and Man Utd offers a compelling comparison between two clubs struggling to find their place in the Premier League’s new order. So much so that both teams are already looking ahead to next season.
Letting The Kids Lou-s
But it is Louis Van Gaal, rather than Wenger, who has at least shown some progress in his pained efforts to build a title-challenging side – even if the league table does not reflect so. If both men are to be judged on what they are setting in place for the future, the United boss comes out on top.
Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem are the pick of Arsenal’s next homegrown generation right now, but both players have yet to even make a single appearance between them this season. The Arsenal conveyor belt of young talent is no longer running as steadily as it once was.
Of course, Van Gaal has called on United’s youngsters largely through necessity, but the point still stands that he has placed his faith in the likes of Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair when others in his position wouldn’t have.
That’s not to say that Van Gaal’s track record with Man Utd to this stage should be commended either though. The Dutchman’s induction to the Premier League has been a difficult one. It took United four games to register their first league win under their new manager.
But improved performances against Chelsea and Man City suggest that, despite a crippling injury list, United are finally adapting to Van Gaal’s footballing philosophy. There are signposts pointed to where they are headed, unlike at Arsenal.
The three-year contract extension signed by Wenger in May has given the Frenchman freedom to build one last great team at Arsenal. But just a few months into that new deal and signs of any progress are scant. Wenger’s new contract now hangs heavy around Arsenal’s neck. The simple and unpalatable fact is – Arsenal will not win another Premier League title under Arsene Wenger.
In fact, Arsenal have gone backwards this season, even after the arrival of Alexis Sanchez – arguably the best player, and almost certainly the best signing, in the Premier League this term.
The Chilean has taken on much of the Gunners’ attacking burden, particularly in the absence of the injured Olivier Giroud – scoring 12 goals in just 18 games – and yet Arsenal are no closer to mounting a genuine title challenge this season. Conversely they have regressed as a side, while Saturday’s opponents United have at least improved in some sense.
It’s somewhat jarring to speak of two Premier League superpowers like Arsenal and Man Utd in terms of what they might become, rather than what they are. Saturday’s game provides both Wenger and Van Gaal with the chance to prove they are making the greater strides.