Club Focus – Arsenal – Van is fixed, but Wenger admits title dreams are broken

The current Arsenal side are living in the long shadow of the ‘Invincibles’ side of 2004 – the last time the Gunners lifted the league title. Dubbed the ‘Improbables’ due to the resilience shown in hauling themselves back into the title race on two occasions this term, perhaps a more appropriate moniker now would be the ‘Impossibles.’

Having stated in the build up to the derby that: “To win the championship, anything other than a victory here is not good enough,” Arsene Wenger stayed true to his word and effectively ruled his side out of the running in his post-match interview. It may be slightly premature to write off the Gunners given the twists and turns of this season’s title race, but Wenger’s haggard demeanour in the post-match interview seemed to indicate that he had seen it all before and was already planning for the next campaign. Further than that, the manager admitted that even after years of development his squad were still not ready to compete at the very highest level: “We lost a game we couldn’t afford to lose in the title race and that shows that we are not mature enough. If you want to win the title, this is the kind of game you can’t lose.”

For Wenger to come out and talk of a lack of maturity provided a damning indictment for a team so often praised for their strength of character. For Arsene and Arsenal fans, the manner of the defeat painted a familiar picture. That the Londoners have displayed their character and resilience time and again this season is admirable, yet they have been prompted to do so by their own deficiencies and errors. Once again frail goalkeeping gifted their opponents the lead – although Danny Rose’s strike was hardly routine – and poor defending gave Tottenham what turned out to be the decisive goal. A lack of communication and defensive organisation meant that the offside trap was successfully sprung once again; for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, this time read Gareth Bale.

Similarly, last-gasp winners have shown what attacking pressure and unwavering belief can yield, yet have also been symptomatic of profligacy in front of goal throughout the preceding minutes. Robin van Persie’s return from injury neatly highlighted the cutting edge that was lacking in his absence. The need to fight for 90 minutes plus in order to secure victories may be a factor in the injury curse that is currently plaguing the club – Thomas Vermaelen is the latest to hit the treatment room – as the team has had to go the extra mile so often this term. Whereas Manchester United appear capable of sealing games convincingly by the hour mark, the Gunners have a perceived soft underbelly that drives their opponents on to make every fixture a battle. Perhaps opponents have too much respect for United and concede defeat too easily, yet even if this is the case, respect is earned.

Once again, the Gunners will enter the summer with a string of positives behind them, overshadowed by a nagging sense of what could have been. Whilst welcoming back van Persie, the manager reflected ruefully on his absence: “Would we have been talking about him alongside Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney if he had not been injured? You would have talked about van Persie in that company; of that I am sure.” He looks certain to bring in Marouane Chamakh who has impressed for Bordeaux in the Champions League this season and brings pace and aerial ability to the strike force. Having seen Mikael Silvestre woefully exposed twice in just over a week, and Sol Campbell and William Gallas’ contracts dependent on their fitness, Wenger will also strengthen central defence. Whilst the focus will inevitably be on new faces, keeping hold of the current crop will be key to Arsenal’s true ambitions next season. In response to fresh Catalan overtures for Cesc Fabregas, Wenger drew up memories of recent departures such as Mathieu Flamini, Alexander Hleb and Thierry Henry, alluding to the fact that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side: “Up until now, all of the players that have left wanted to come back so that means they are not as unhappy as they sometimes look.”

Arsenal will battle on to the end of the season and try to secure runners-up spot, but with the title beyond them, the real battle will come in keeping hold of their prize assets as they seek to strengthen for next season. So often the side has been dismantled in the wake of a near miss and this has hamstrung the Gunners’ title challenges as new arrivals are often balanced with departures. Remedying this recent trend will be key to their aspirations.

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